Mathew Barzal didn’t have the star-caliber season for the New York Islanders that many expected he would. While he scored 13 goals and had a team-leading 40 assists, the expectation was for the 24-year-old forward to take a big step and continue to establish himself as one of the best skaters in the game.
In a difficult season for the team, who were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, one of the major struggles that affected the offense was their inability to find an optimal line for Barzal. With Jordan Eberle being selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft and Anders Lee playing alongside Brock Nelson this season, Barzal was forced to play on the same line as multiple forwards throughout the season.
While the Islanders might have overestimated Barzal and underestimated the forwards he played alongside in previous seasons, there’s still an opportunity to find the ideal player to help him. In the offseason, general manager Lou Lamoriello and the front office have to think about who can help Barzal and the Islanders’ overall offense rebound next season.
Oliver Wahlstrom played on multiple lines throughout the season, including alongside Barzal, which has given the Islanders varying degrees of success. He has shown promise with good shooting and skating on the wing, resulting in 13 goals and 11 assists, but he has been inconsistent. It’s hard to see the young forward playing a role on the top two lines in the future and might earn limited ice time next season as he continues to develop.
Wahlstrom and Barzal seem like the ideal combination, pairing two of the most talented young forwards on a line. However, they often become dependent on a third forward who can effectively shoot the puck from the wing and in the slot. Barzal is a great puck distributor, but Wahlstrom isn’t the finisher that the team needs on the ice. They may play on the same shift, but they will need another talented skater to help cover up their weaknesses.
Zach Parise turned a corner after a difficult first half of the season and emerged as one of the most productive forwards on the Islanders. Following the All-Star break, Parise scored 12 goals and nine assists, giving him 15 goals and 19 assists on the season. The veteran forward notably started to find open shots in the offensive zone playing alongside Barzal and later line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, helping him find a rhythm midway through the season.
Parise is an ideal optionParise is an ideal option to help Barzal. The problem is that while talented, his game is limited. At 37 years old, he has lost a step, and instead of helping create the offense, he’ll find his spot in the offensive zone and wait for the puck, benefitting from a playmaker like Barzal or Pageau as a result. The Islanders could play the same lines next season, but ideally, the team would hope to find a skater with a higher ceiling to build around the 24-year-old.
Anthony Beauvillier had a season to forget, scoring only 12 goals and 21 assists. Like Barzal, Beauvillier was expected to take a big step forward offensively as one of the team’s best young skaters. Instead, he struggled to find a place in the forward unit and take advantage of his skillset. Playing on the same line as the Islanders’ two best goal scores in Nelson and Lee, he failed to open up the offense and find open shots. As a result, he could be one of the players on the trade block this offseason.
Beauvillier and Barzal might not seem like an ideal combination, but they could help each other’s weaknesses. They are two of the best skating forwards on the roster and could offer a fast shift that creates open shots on the rush and with quick puck movement in the offensive zone. Beauvillier needs to find more open shots, and Barzal is the ideal skater to open up the ice.
Kieffer Bellows has been in and out of the lineup throughout his first three seasons with the Islanders, failing to establish himself as a reliable forward. Playing only 43 games this season, the 23-year-old forward has scored only five goals and 13 assists in a limited role. It may sound wild to have a forward who has yet to make his mark in the NHL playing alongside one of the Islanders’ best skaters, but this move could ultimately benefit both players and the team. Bellows plays the role of a power forward who can crash the net and generate shots from the wing and, in recent games, has proven he can add to the offense in an increased role.
Islanders Outside Options
The Islanders have plenty of skaters who can play alongside Barzal and elevate his game. However, the front office might see the offseason as an opportunity to add a talented player to help Barzal and the Islanders’ offense.
In free agency, the ideal player to pursue will be Johnny Gaudreau, who, with 100 points, is having a Hart Trophy-caliber season for the Calgary Flames. Gaudreau would give the Islanders a star scorer who would boost Barzal’s speed, but he will be pursued by many teams and take up a lot of any team’s salary cap as a result. If the Islanders can’t acquire the Flames’ top forward, they could look to acquire Filip Forsberg, who has proven throughout his career with the Nashville Predators that he can elevate offense.
Likewise, the Islanders could make a trade to acquire a forward to help Barzal. Both Max Pacioretty (Vegas Golden Knights) and Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) are free agents at the end of the 2022-23 season and could be on the move this offseason, but they both come with a risk. Ultimately, the Islanders have internal options to consider that would help Barzal lead the team next season as their most talented skater, but they could look elsewhere as well.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink has written for multiple sports blogs and platforms covering the NHL, NFL, MLB, and college sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.