By Jeff Capellini
As the rest of the NHL already knows, the Islanders’ top line is amazing.
The good word is starting to get out on their second line, too.
Blessed with scoring they haven’t had in decades, the Isles are proving to be a very difficult team to deal with on a nightly basis. Assuming they fix their deficiencies on defense, they should be right there in the final analysis come the beginning of the playoffs.
Currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, three points clear of Carolina and Pittsburgh, the Islanders (19-13-4) sit just five out of first place in the Metropolitan Division. They have been serviceable on the road, and just short of dominant at home (11-3-3), and conclude the regular season with nine of their final 13 games at Barclays Center.
While team play in their own end and goaltending remain a work in progress, the Islanders have had no such problems scoring. They are currently behind only Tampa Bay in goals scored (130) and goals per game (3.53). And as we emerge from the Christmas break — Buffalo visits Barclays Center on Wednesday — the Isles sport one of the highest-scoring lines in the NHL (including the power play). Their top group of John Tavares, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee has 129 points, paced by Lee’s 22 goals and Bailey’s 36 assists. Tavares and Bailey each have 46 points, which place them in a tie for second in the league, five behind Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov.
But the Isles are anything but a one-line team. While many clubs around the league have a tendency to struggle when their superstars go into funks or get shut down, New York boasts a second line that is also dynamic and has a chemistry that screams being acquaintances for years rather than for just a few months.
When general manager Garth Snow traded disappointing youngster Ryan Strome to Edmonton for veteran winger Jordan Eberle during the offseason, the reaction was immediate and positive. The assumption was Tavares had finally been given his wingman, the guy who was going to help the star center put up big numbers, the likes of which Islanders fans had been waiting for years.
Tavares basically had a revolving door of linemates throughout his first eight seasons and often finished with solid-yet-unspectacular stats due to him being forced to use more of his natural ability than being the beneficiary of great set-ups by his linemates. The idea of Eberle, a proven 25-goal guy and player in which the Isles’ captain was already quite familiar due to their playing days together on Canada’s World Junior Championship team, joining the top line seemed to just make sense.
But here we are 36 games into the season and Tavares and Eberle have barely played together. Head coach Doug Weight paired them during the preseason and has juggled a bit here and there during the regular season, but that’s about it. Perhaps Tavares and Eberle would have eventually clicked if they had stayed together, but Weight had his eyes on getting out of the gate quickly so he went in a different direction. He rolled the dice on Tavares with Bailey, a combination that worked extremely well during the second half of last season, and Eberle with flashy rookie Mathew Barzal.
It’s safe to say Weight made the right decision.
The Isles’ top two lines consist of exactly what you are looking for when it comes to style and substance. Each has the true playmaker (Bailey and Barzal), the net-front presence (Anders Lee and Andrew Ladd), and the guy who excels as both a shooter and feeder (Tavares and Eberle).
But the difference between the Islanders and many other teams is they may just have two superstars. A common complaint I had heard over the years was the Isles lacking that complement to Tavares, like Evgeni Malkin is to Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh or Corey Perry to Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim or Nicklas Backstrom to Alex Ovechkin in Washington. Now the Isles have Tavares and Bailey, which still may not look right to some, but is undeniably a tremendous combination.
But thanks to the emergence of Barzal and his talented wingers Weight can afford to keep tinkering with the third and fourth lines. When a team has two lines that are remarkably consistent, it’s a luxury.
Eberle and Barzal have been completing each other’s sentences all season, with no better example than during Saturday’s game against visiting Winnipeg. Eberle assisted on all three of Barzal’s goals in the 5-2 victory, an outcome the Isles sorely needed given a recent slide that featured just a pair of wins in their previous eight games (2-4-2).
“He’s a smart player. I think his biggest attributes are his speed and he’s able to turn on a dime and keep continuous speed. A lot of players can’t do that,” Eberle said of Barzal. “He creates space for himself that way and brings a lot of guys to him, too, and gives Ladd and I space. I think tonight he showed he can finish, and that’s something an all-around player needs.”
Indeed. In the race for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s top rookie, Barzal’s 35 points are one more than Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, his 23 assists set the pace, and his 12 goals are one less than Arizona’s Clayton Keller. His counterpart, Eberle, is a solid goal scorer, but is even better as a facilitator, as evidenced by him having 54 more assists (232) than goals (178) in his career. Eberle has five assists in the last three games, and it’s good to see Barzal doing a bit more shooting than usual of late.
Eberle, who also has 13 goals, is currently on pace for 64 points, which would be his most since putting up 65 back in the 2013-14 season. What’s more likely? Due to Barzal’s presence on that second line and a power play that is currently fifth in the NHL (22.8 percent), Eberle could take a run at his career-high 76-point total set back in 2011-12.
And let’s not dismiss Ladd while we hurl superlatives at the Isles’ second grouping. While 18 points, including nine goals, in 36 games isn’t exactly the type of production one would expect from a guy with a $5.5 million salary cap hit this season, Ladd is off to a much better start than his first with New York. He didn’t score his ninth goal until Jan. 26 of last season, and still finished third on the team with 23.
Assuming Ladd continues to be a solid second-half player, it’s possible his chemistry with Barzal and Eberle could translate into point production similar to his better years with Winnipeg. An underrated passer, Ladd remains one of the Isles’ best shooters when given space and he brings a sandpaper-like edge that every team needs.
So while it’s true that the Islanders have their issues and can be maddening at times, there is no denying the fact that their offense has become appointment television.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN