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Graziano: With Decisions Looming, Islanders Need Strong Start To New Year

Andy Graziano
December 27, 2018 - 11:37 am

The New York Islanders are still six games away from being at the halfway point of the 2018-19 season and much is still to be written on whether they are a playoff contender or pretender.

You see, I don’t place much value in making the playoffs for the sake of making the playoffs. As if looking at it through fan-colored glasses, you either win the Stanley Cup or you don’t. If you qualify for the postseason, but don’t win a round, for example, all you have gained is a couple of extra games over the teams that failed to qualify in the first place. At the end of the day, 30 teams will enter the summer on the same, level ground in terms of production on the ice.

Once they do surpass the midpoint, it will be time for some tough decisions for team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello. Are they buyers or sellers? The February 25 trade deadline will approach quickly, and New York must figure out the future of their unrestricted free agents, or they risk losing more assets while getting zero in return.

Anders Lee, I would believe, is a foregone conclusion to continue his career in blue and orange. He was named captain this year and is doing just fine without John Tavares as his centerman as he is on pace for 31 goals and 61 points. Many around the team think Lee will end up in the William Nylander contract range, roughly $7 million AAV on a seven-year term.

Brock Nelson has been a reliable and dependable two-way center for head coach Barry Trotz this season. He is thriving under the new system that has been put in place. No, he will likely never be a 30-goal, 80-point guy, but give me a second-line center who is responsible defensively and puts up 20-25 goals (Nelson on pace for 23) and that suits just fine. Heck, if Lamoriello can somehow pull a better second-line pivot out of his magic hat, then imagine how much better Nelson looks as your #3 center? Even with his inconsistency issues, he’ll likely be back.

Jordan Eberle has always been my candidate to be moved prior to, or at, the deadline, since the beginning of the year and our pre-season Secondary Assist Podcast. Eberle has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, first with the Edmonton Oilers, then with the Islanders. He had a terrific first season playing with Calder trophy winner Mathew Barzal. However, this season has been a different story. He has struggled with Nelson as his center and with the new defensive scheme implemented by Trotz.

His current pace of 16 goals would be his lowest mark of his career. In fact, he hasn’t failed to score 20 since his rookie year in 2010-11, and even that season he scored 18 in only 69 games. The problem with Eberle, more than his insufficient production this season, is his contract. With an AAV of $6 million, you can’t expect him to take a discount to play anywhere. Other teams will likely pony-up based on his aforementioned pedigree. However, with Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows, Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle in the system at wing, there comes a point when you need to make room for these kids to actually, you know, play on a scoring line.

As they come off a tremendous pre-Christmas road trip that included wins over the Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars in which they only allowed three goals (they lost in Vegas, 4-2), the Islanders find themselves two points out of third-place in the Metropolitan division with a game in hand on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Behind them are the rebuilding New York Rangers, the up and down Carolina Hurricanes, the goaltending starved Philadelphia Flyers and the even more crease challenged New Jersey Devils.

There is a real opportunity to take it to the Ottawa Senators, who are banged up and tied for second to last in the conference, coming out of the break tomorrow in Brooklyn. That’s followed by a quick trip up north to see an old friend, in what should be an emotionally charged game on Saturday evening. These are the contests, in the past, under Jack Capuano and Doug Weight, where the team would come out skating in mud and have the game taken to them by an inferior opponent.

I’m betting the house on a different reaction and result this time under new leadership. Leadership that only needs to show one thing to a hungry locker room in order to get them to follow: a Stanley Cup ring.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN