Now in the twilight of the offseason, the New York Islanders are looking to make the final moves to boost their roster and make them one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. While it’s not confirmed, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello is expected to sign star center Nazem Kadri to a big contract, which would be that big offseason splash the team needs to round out the forward unit.
If the Islanders manage some finishing touches and land Kadri, they will likely need to make a move or a few moves to open up salary cap space. A handful of players are on the trade block, but one, in particular, might attract some interest: Jean-Gabriel Pageau, making him an intriguing player to move ahead of the season. The problem is that his skills and value to the team outweigh the value of trading him, and any deal involving the veteran center would set the team back.
Pageau Opens Up the Offense
The Islanders’ offense struggled last season, scoring only 2.79 goals per game, but in the second half of the season, they turned things around, scoring 3.13 goals per game after the All-Star break. The improved offense can be attributed to a handful of factors, playing Brock Nelson and Anders Lee on the same line among them. Another factor was Pageau and the line he controlled, which often featured Kyle Palmieri and Josh Bailey on his wings.
Pageau was the primary puck handler on his shift and often led the rush and carried the puck into the offensive zone. Moreover, his puck control and ability to draw skaters opened up ice for his wingers, allowing them to find open shots. Bailey and Palmieri both benefitted from their roles as shooters, and with open looks at the net, combined for 29 goals. Furthermore, Pageau stepped up in the second half, trying to find the back of the net himself more often, which was highlighted by a natural hat trick against the New Jersey Devils in a 4-3 win in April.
The Islanders reached the Stanley Cup semifinal in back-to-back seasons with one of the deepest rosters in the league. Granted, Pageau played a middle-six forward role, but the scoring and overall depth from the team’s later lines gave them an edge and allowed them to advance in the playoffs. Pageau added 18 goals and 21 assists last season, and next season, he will be an essential part of the Islanders’ success in all three zones.
Pageau’s Defensive Impact
The unsung aspect of Pageau’s skill set is his defensive play. Last season, he led the forwards with 1.9 defensive point shares while also adding 53 blocked shots and 171 hits. He also has an uncanny ability to control the center of the ice to blunt the opponents on the rush while also limiting passing lanes and open shots in the defensive zone.
If the Islanders sign Kadri, keeping Pageau on the roster would give the roster two reliable defensive centers. The stability up the middle would strengthen an already great defense led by Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock but also have a massive impact against their opposition. Their competition next season will be fast-paced and can gash teams with speed in all three zones. Having two-way skaters, especially at the center position, is the optimal resistance.
Islanders’ Center Depth
Two of the best players on the roster are Nelson and Mathew Barzal, both centers. With Casey Cizikas under a team-friendly six-year contract, which he signed in the 2021 offseason, and top prospect Aatu Raty also playing center as his primary position, the Islanders almost seem overloaded at the position. If they sign another center, Lamoriello will have to move one off the roster, and Pageau seems the most likely candidate.
A trade would be a mistake. Having a surplus of centers is a luxury rather than a liability. For starters, injuries are an inevitable and unfortunate part of the game, and throughout the season, rosters change, and players are moved out of their natural positions. Having extra centers will give the Islanders more firepower, with more skilled players on the team, and much-needed versatility with a handful of the skaters capable of moving to the wing. Yes, Barzal, Nelson, or any of the top skaters might struggle on the wing, but throughout the season, having the most skilled players on the ice will ultimately upgrade the team.
Another important factor is their strength up the middle, as the Islanders could start next season with five viable centers. Other teams don’t have similar depth, which would give the team the edge up front. The team could have four potent lines on a nightly basis to not only improve the offense from last season but bolster the roster altogether.
How Pageau Helps the Coaching Change
With the offseason moves and the possible roster turnover, it’s important to keep in mind the coaching change, even if it was a promotion more than an outside hire. Lamoriello hired Lane Lambert this offseason, who has been an assistant coach with the team for a few seasons; however, unclear what type of system he will implement and how it will differentiate from Barry Trotz’s.
The Islanders might remain a defense-first team, but if they run a faster, more offensive-minded style, having a veteran center like Pageau will help ease the transition. Additionally, a faster team with a greater emphasis on offense makes defensive forwards, especially centers, all the more valuable to the team.
The Islanders are looking to compete for the Stanley Cup next season and have the players to become one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. Among the experienced players that will elevate the roster is Pageau, and if the team is competitive, he will be one of the reasons why.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.