Islanders center Mathew Barzal

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Graziano: Islanders Need More From Barzal, Eberle, Leddy To Stay In Playoff Hunt

Andy Graziano
November 28, 2018 - 2:01 pm
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The New York Islanders are officially into the second quarter of the 2018-19 season and many fans and pundits alike are probably asking themselves, "Who are they?" At 12-9-2, the Islanders are likely better than some would have thought coming off a tumultuous summer that saw them hire a Hall of Fame GM and future Hall of Fame head coach and lose their top offensive player and captain to free agency.

They did go to market and sign Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Tom Kuhnhackl and Robin Lehner, but if games were played on paper, the Islanders' roster would not have stacked up too favorably prior to Game 1.

The Trotz effect has been dramatic to say the least, with accountability no longer a punchline, but a tool used to motivate and make players realize they need to give more to the cause. In speaking to Newsday on Tuesday, the bench boss, who commands respect wherever he goes, spoke of the new culture and attitude that now represents the franchise.

“We’re headed in the right direction. We’re trending in the right direction from a total hockey standpoint, from the people running it, such as Lou (Lamoriello) and the infrastructure behind that. There’s some good things happening for us, but it’s not going to be easy. Winning is not easy. There’s an investment that has to be made night in and night out. We have a lot of stuff to learn yet, and we’re still in that process.”

What stood out to me the most was when Trotz said this line to beat reporter Andrew Gross: "Sometimes you get blinded by results rather than the process." A process. One that has to be adhered to and followed to Lamoriello’s T. And that is where some trepidation might creep in for the fans. Lamoriello’s tenure running the Toronto Maple Leafs was just OK, and some moves he has made early on have been head-scratchers.

For now, those curious moves are working out (Komarov and Filppula), but I have always considered Lamoriello a better president (boss) than general manager. And one gets the feeling, given his age, that this is all leading to his son, Chris, eventually taking the reins in the next couple of seasons, perhaps by the time Belmont is ready for their new tenants to move in.

For now, it comes down to accepting that the team might not be good, but they certainly are not as bad as some might have thought, given preseason predictions. With 26 points, they are NHL "average" -- right in the middle of the pack, 10th in the Eastern conference, only four points from the bottom (Philadelphia Flyers) and 19th in the league.

With losses in six of their last 10 games, they close out November with a game in Boston before beginning their home schedule at Nassau Coliseum to open December against the Columbus Blue Jackets. And the opponents are not kind heading into the New Year.

New York will face off against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins twice; last year’s darlings, the Vegas Golden Knights, twice; the big and bruising Winnipeg Jets; the speedy Colorado Avalanche; John Tavares and the Maple Leafs; and finally, the league’s best team, the Buffalo Sabres. To still be in the hunt as the calendar flips, the Islanders need much more from certain individuals on the roster.

While Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and the surprising Filppula do their thing, the three players to focus on in December are reigning rookie of the year Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle and Nick Leddy.

Barzal is still a whiz with the puck, with tremendous speed, agility and stick skills. He’s still getting his points (20 in 23 games). Nonetheless, something seems off in his first season as the "go-to" guy, replacing Tavares, as he has faced the toughest the opponent can throw at him and been guilty one too many times this year of over-handling the puck and not taking the opportunity to shoot or at least, throw the puck towards goal. Defensively, he’s a team worst -11, which is not a statistic I like to reference too often, but when you are one of only four forwards to be in that category, it bears mentioning. 45% on faceoffs also needs to improve.

Eberle might be feeling some pressure of unrestricted free agency fast approaching, and the uncertainty that will linger around the trading deadline. I don’t blame him, to be honest, as I think he’s the least likely to return. With a $6-million AAV, he’s not taking a cut, and Lamoriello has to pay Nelson, Lee and Anthony Beauvillier. The Islanders have $13-million coming off the books and plenty of wingers waiting in the wings for their chance. Eberle is a nice player who will give you 25 goals and around 50 points on a consistent basis, but is that worth, let’s say, $7 million? Still, he’s here now, getting paid to produce and the team could sure use that consistency to return. He has scored in only five of 23 games.

Leddy needs to figure out who he is in Trotz’s system. When you’re averaging the second-most minutes on the team (21:51, Pulock 22:55) on the top pair, much more is expected than what Leddy has given the Islanders for the last year and a half. Looking disinterested most the time isn’t a good look and he’s on pace (21 points) for half of his normal offensive production. And that 42.7 Corsi? Yeesh….We all know there is much more to Leddy’s game that we just are not seeing right now.

Strap in, folks. This could get bumpy. Whether this plane ascends or descends.