By Jeff Capellini
Due to the no-margin-for-error style the Islanders play, their 103-point regular season never felt as enjoyable as it should have. And because of that, there were often discussions that probably shouldn’t have taken place.
For example, I don’t know about your Twitter feed, but on mine the early season debate revolved around which of Jordan Eberle or Brock Nelson the Isles should part ways with this offseason.
Of course, not a single soul alive was aware of what was to come.
At the time, in this case we’ll say late November or early December, both guys were just trying to find their footing with a new coach and system that demanded more than they had ever been asked before. They had to balance serious defensive responsibilities with trying to make up for the 37 goals and 47 assists that left with John Tavares when he departed in free agency and that new general manager Lou Lamoriello chose not to replace in what has turned out to be an evaluation season that has defied all expectations.
Eberle was in the early stages of what would end up being a disappointing regular season by his relatively consistent standards. The veteran winger would finish with just 19 goals, his fewest in a campaign in which he played at least 69 games since he potted 18 as a rookie with the Edmonton Oilers in 2010-11.
Nelson, on the other hand, was the early clubhouse leader as the fans’ choice to be retained because he started strong and never really let up, emerging as arguably the team’s regular season MVP not named Robin Lehner or Thomas Greiss, or any other combination of their names. Nelson would finish with 25 goals, one short of his personal best set in 2015-16, and post 28 assists and 53 points, both career highs.
Eberle started to find himself in late March, producing five goals and an assist in six games as the Islanders battled through some scoring woes to become the second team in the tightly contested Metropolitan Division to clinch a playoff berth.
Nelson ended up not only having his best overall statistical season, he became a player head coach Barry Trotz trusted implicitly, regardless of the situation. Say what you want about the 27-year-old’s high-end skill set, Nelson became more of a complete player. His playmaking ability improved in leaps and bounds, his tenacity was more on display than ever before and he averaged roughly 18 minutes of ice time per night, a little more than 2 minutes more than in any of his previous five NHL seasons.
Then the playoffs started and the Islanders, despite finishing with three more points during the regular season, were labeled as the underdogs against the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of the Stanley Cup in two of the previous three seasons.
So much for that.
The Isles’ stunning sweep, which featured timely goal after timely goal, put the league on notice as to just how serious Trotz and his players are about not just winning a single series but also making a run at the whole damn thing. It also showcased the skills of Eberle and Nelson, players that ripped the very soul out of an opponent that was traditionally used to doing just that, itself.
They scored a combined seven goals, one more than the mighty Penguins managed in four largely one-sided games.
Eberle scored in every game — the opening goal in the 4-3 overtime win in Game 1; the eventual game-winning goal early in the third period of the 3-1 victory in Game 2; the tying goal 28 seconds after the Isles fell behind in their 4-1 triumph in Game 3, and the tying goal 1:34 after New York fell behind early in what ended up the 3-1 series-clinching victory in Game 4.
That is the epitome of what a clutch playoff performance is supposed to look like. Eberle has taken his game to a level not seen before. Normally a 25-goal, 50-plus point player during the regular season, the former first-round pick by Edmonton did not score a single postseason goal in 13 games with the Oilers, which likely hastened the trade that sent him to Long Island for Ryan Strome prior to the 2017-18 season.
Nelson’s efforts in the first round were equally timely and further proof that he’s a player that has become so much more, one Isles’ fans always had high hopes for but that they actually needed to see take that next step to believe it could happen. Of the 27-year-old center’s three goals in the opening round, one was a go-ahead marker in Game 1 and the others were the eventual game winners of Games 3 and 4.
Again, as clutch as they come.
Though they aren’t thinking about them right now, Lamoriello and Trotz have some serious decisions to make this offseason. Eberle, Nelson, captain Anders Lee (goal, two assists in opening round) and goalie Lehner (1.47 goals-against average, .956 save percentage) will all be unrestricted free agents on July 1. While it seems obvious that the Isles will do whatever’s necessary to bring back Lee and Lehner, the same cannot be said at this time for Eberle and Nelson.
But it’s looking more and more like it should.
There will be impact forwards available in free agency — Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Jeff Skinner lead a long and deep list — but it’s clear the Isles want players that fit into Trotz’s system, not just the best scorers on paper. Who’s to say one of the above three won’t be a great fit? While that ultimately remains to be seen, the Isles must certainly know now what they have in Eberle and Nelson.
According to spotrac.com, the Islanders are currently projected to have around $48 million in salary cap space in 2019-20. Is that enough to re-sign all four and address some other needs? Or is a better idea to let an Eberle or Nelson walk and go for a bigger fish?
Nelson will be due a substantial increase over the $4.25 million he is making this season. If he keeps this up and the Isles keep making a believer out of everyone this spring, Eberle will have plenty of justification to ask for at least the $6 million he has made in each of the last two seasons.
It will be fascinating to see how Lamoriello handles all of it.
In the interim, just sit back and enjoy what Eberle and Nelson are doing. Like the Islanders of 2018-19, every day for them has been a new adventure, filled with one surprise after another.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ