The New York Islanders lost veteran forward Jordan Eberle to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. The loss will force head coach Barry Trotz to find a replacement for Eberle, who scored 16 goals and 17 assists last season but, more importantly, find a forward who can play on the top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee.
The early indication is that Kyle Palmieri or Oliver Wahlstrom will start the season on the top line, but the Islanders have to consider the skill set of the forwards throughout their roster to find which line combinations will be the most successful this season.
The 21-year-old Wahlstrom showed his potential in the middle of last season when he scored five goals in seven games and finished the season with 12 goals and nine assists. He often used his accurate shooting ability to find the back of the net, and his speed on the wing allowed his shifts to transition into the offensive zone, both of which would give the Islanders a boost if the young forward plays alongside playmakers like Barzal and Lee.
The question is if Wahlstrom is ready. Granted, the 21-year-old is still growing into one of the Islanders’ top scorers, but he struggled at times last season, going 10 games without recording a point. As a result, he will likely play limited minutes early on alongside Barzal and Lee and depending on his impact, he might force Trotz’s hand to adjust his lines.
Palmieri is one of the best forwards on the Islanders, and he is going to be an integral part of the team’s future after signing a four-year $5 million deal this offseason. Despite that he scored only two goals and two assists after being acquired at last season’s trade deadline from the New Jersey Devils, the veteran forward proved his worth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring seven goals and two assists en route to the semifinals.
Palmieri’s talent is unquestionable, and playing him alongside Barzal and Lee could be the best option for the Islanders, especially after a Cup run where the 30-year-old often played alongside Barzal and complimented his style, particularly around the net. The question will be whether Palmieri is a more optimal fit on the line led by Jean-Gabriel Pageau, where he scored most of his goals in the playoffs, and he has proven chemistry with the 28-year-old center.
Moreover, playing with Pageau gave the Islanders more forward depth in the playoffs and allowed the offense to overwhelm the opposition’s defense and goaltenders. Palmieri will likely split time between the top two lines throughout the season, but it will be important to find the line combination that puts the team over the top in the regular season and ahead of the playoffs.
Anthony Beauvillier has established himself as one of the Islanders’ leading scorers, with 15 goals or more in each of the last four seasons, and his 15 goals last season ranked fourth on the team. In addition, the 24-year-old added five goals and eight assists in the Stanely Cup Playoffs, including the game-winner in Game 6 of the semifinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning to force Game 7. He has emerged as one of the best young players on the team, and he could easily turn the top line into one of the best in the Metropolitan Division.
Beauvillier is one of the best playmakers in the neutral and offensive zones on the team, but the problems of playing him on the top line are two-fold. First, he’s a left-winger, which Barzal and Lee often play when the other is not playing center. The 24-year-old could transition to the right side, but it would be a risky decision that results in a drastic drop-off offensively. The second issue is that the Islanders have a strong second line with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey, who complement Beauvillier’s style of play and give the team offensive depth. It’s unlikely the coaching staff would want to break up that formidable trio and should only be considered under unique circumstances, like a pile-up of injuries or in power-play situations.
Other Forward Options on Islanders’ Top Line
In the second half of last season, the Islanders often had Bailey play on the same line as Eberle and Barzal in hopes of finding some offense following the season-ending injury to Anders Lee. Bailey could again see some time on the top line once, but considering his contribution to the Nelson-led line, it’s unlikely the team will break up the forward line unless necessary.
Otherwise, it’s possible that 37-year-old forward Zach Parise, who adds versatility to the offensive group, can contribute to the top line, but now in the twilight of his career, he will likely see more time in the bottom six. Ultimately, the forward group has plenty of options to replace Eberle on the top line and form a potent offense throughout the season and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November but has been a journalist for multiple blogs since the end of the 2019-2020 NHL season. While not following any specific team, Mike covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers, a team that has turned themselves into legitimate cup contenders with Barry Trotz as the head coach.