The New York Islanders’ forward group, specifically the middle-six, has been in flux for a lot of this season. Injuries early on made head coach Barry Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello earn their keep, and they did so with a lot of success. Call-ups from the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers did a lot more than provide a stop-gap for injuries – they thrived. Now, with most of the players back in the lineup, questions still remain upfront for the Islanders, specifically, who should be the team’s third-line center?
Free-agent signing Derick Brassard, who was supposed to slot in on the third line, found a home on the second line alongside Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. That move kick-started Brassard’s offense after being ice cold to start the season. He was moved back to center briefly, but a mid-game swap in early November and more mixing of lines from Trotz put Brassard back at the wing.
During the southern California road trip, Josh Bailey took a turn on the third line with Brassard remaining at the wing on the second line. Against Detroit, Bailey returned to the first line on the wing with Anders Lee and Mathew Barzal. That moved Jordan Eberle down the lineup, who hasn’t been himself since returning from an injury, though he’s played better as of late.
The line blender continued to swirl in early December and, once again, Brassard got a shot at center, albeit with a couple of solid wingers this time around against the Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars.
The line of Lee, Brassard, and Eberle played well and could stand to stay together to see if they can find some chemistry together throughout the beginning part of Dec. If Brassard slips again and Trotz moves him back to the wing, who can the Islanders call up as a long-term solution?
Options in Bridgeport
Starting with one of the more recent tryouts at center, Otto Koivula, the Islanders’ 2016 fourth-round pick (120th overall) who was recently returned to the Sound Tigers, still has some growing to do. I’m not talking about his 6-foot-4, 219-pound frame, rather, he still needs to grow and transition to the North American game, specifically in the NHL.
“Otto is a really big guy, he’s really strong on the puck, he’s got a really good hockey IQ,” Trotz said. “I think in the American League or even in junior and in Europe, he can use his hands to get to that space and he can use his hands to keep people away. In this League, guys are stronger and the speed [of the game], you won’t have the strength to just do that. You’ve got to use your feet to leverage your core strength and track from behind. Those types of things that lead to quick transition in our game. Those are things he has to learn. He’s a young man who’s [21-years-old] and he’s a big load. Those guys take a while. Getting some practice time with us and getting to see the NHL, was a good experience for him. He didn’t play large minutes, but he got to see it a little bit and feel it. He got to get it down and it’ll be an important piece there in confidence.”Barry Trotz on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019
Coming into this season, Tanner Fritz was high on the depth chart at center. However, injuries have limited his playing time and he has only suited up for four games with Bridgeport this season. He’s played close to 50 NHL games and, before getting injured heading into last year’s playoffs, he was clearly someone the organization trusted. Fritz’s most recent injury opened the door for veteran AHLer Cole Bardreau to get his first real taste of NHL action and move himself up the depth chart.
During his nine-game stint with the Islanders earlier this season, Bardreau showed he can play the style Trotz wants from his players. He also adds another layer of toughness that can create space for the wingers are on his line, force turnovers, and pin opponents in their zone. What we’ve seen from Stanley Cup contenders and, ultimately, those teams that win the Stanley Cup, is that they have three or four players to grind down other teams and add energy and tenacity to the lineup. Once healthy and back in game shape, adding Bardreau back to the roster could bring that element back to the lineup and give the Islanders an extra push when Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck aren’t on the ice.
Can the Isles Make a Trade?
In a forthcoming piece, I’ll go into more detail on why the Islanders shouldn’t be major players at the trade deadline in February, specifically for Taylor Hall, but the long and short of it is simple – Lou has to think about the long game with this team. They currently have some cap space to play with but have players to re-sign this summer and, along with an impending expansion draft to consider. That space is necessary for the future strength of the organization. However, the only exception may be Ottawa Senators’ Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Pageau, along with a handful of other pending free agents, will demand a nice payday come next July, but he could be a good fit if the Islanders can get him in the fold without selling the farm and begin working on a team-friendly deal right away. He would add scoring depth and another option on the power play. Bringing in Pageau would also mean Brassard could stay at the wing, solidifying the top-six heading into the postseason.
There’s still time for things to shake out on Long Island, but as the trade deadline inches closer and the team continues their up and down play, a decision is going to need to be made if they plan on taking the next step.