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New York Islanders: First Unit Leads But Second Line Deserves Credit

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 16: Jordan Eberle #7 of the New York Islanders is congratulated by teammae Mathew Barzal #13 after Eberle scored the game winning goal in overtime against the Los Angeles Kings on December 16, 2017 at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.The New York Islanders defeated the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 16: Jordan Eberle #7 of the New York Islanders is congratulated by teammae Mathew Barzal #13 after Eberle scored the game winning goal in overtime against the Los Angeles Kings on December 16, 2017 at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.The New York Islanders defeated the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The New York Islanders conclude their calendar year with a matchup in Denver against the Avalanche tonight. As we close out 2017, the Isles have multiple representatives in a variety of league-wide statistical categories. But the lion’s share of credit for the Isles success doesn’t belong to who you think it would.

If you peruse the most current offensive leaderboards on NHL.com, you’ll see New York Islanders players scattered throughout multiple categories. As I write this, Islanders players hold two out of the top three spots in points scored, two out of the top five in goals, and then there’s Josh Bailey leading the NHL in assists.

In points scored, John Tavares and Josh Bailey are tied for 2nd in the league with 49 points. They trail only the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, who has 54. The Bolts’ Steven Stamkos sits behind them with 48 points, with Claude Giroux rounding out the top five with 46 points.

Why the New York Islanders are where they are…

The answer to that is simple at first glance. We know the New York Islanders offense has carried them this season, and that goaltending has been their lark. The defense has been up and down all season. Considering the litany of injuries the Isles defensive corps have sustained, it really could be worse.

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The New York Islanders first line is what’s kept this team from free-falling down the Eastern Conference standings. This much is crystal clear as Josh Bailey sits atop the NHL’s assists leaderboard with 38, giving the New York Islanders the current league leaders in both assists and goals.

After scoring his 24th goal, the New York Islanders Anders Lee is currently tied for the NHL lead in goals with the aforementioned Nikita Kucherov. Lee is followed by Islanders captain John Tavares who is tied with Vancouver rookie Brock Boeser for 4th in the league with 21 goals apiece.

Our real heroes

Every team in the NHL expects their first line to lead them, in scoring as well as on and off the ice. While that’s most certainly the case here, the New York Islanders only have to look one place if they want to find their real heroes of the season so far. That designation would have to go to the Islanders second line of Mathew Barzal, Andrew Ladd, and Jordan Eberle.

The group’s leadership undoubtedly comes from Andrew Ladd. Ladd was a strong voice in NHL locker rooms well before his New York Islanders tenure began, and he’s continued to be one here. He’s been both dependable and durable, not missing any significant time since coming to the Isles.

Ladd has been a half-a-point-per-game player for most of his career (.58 ppg lifetime). With 18 points through 38 games so far this season, he’s in that ballpark at .47 ppg. Ladd notched a career-high +26 plus/minus rating in 2008-09 for Chicago. He’s currently at +12 so it’s not inconceivable to think he could possibly approach a new personal best this year.

Jordan Eberle is really fun to watch

The New York Islanders have an interesting player in winger Jordan Eberle. Eberle, who came to the Isles in a trade this year after seven seasons in Edmonton, has proven to be one of the best acquisitions made during the last NHL offseason.

During his time with the Oilers, Jordan Eberle scored at a .75 point per game clip. In 507 games there Eberle scored 382 points on 163 goals and 219 assists. Since joining the Islanders Eberle has produced at a similar level, putting up .74 ppg (13 goals, 15 assists in 38 games).

The litmus test for Eberle’s effectiveness comes in the form of his plus/minus rating. Granted, he’s only at +1 on the season, his career rating before coming to New York was an ugly -48. His improved plus/minus shows just how comfortable he is with his new linemates.

It’s a Barzy party

That brings us to Mat Barzal. Barzal currently trails Brock Boeser for the NHL rookie points lead by just two points (36 to Boeser’s 38). His performance so far this year has been mesmerizing. At just 20 years old, Barzal has a ton of potential that has yet to be tapped.

Take the last three years he spent with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL from 2013-2017 as an example. As a 17-year-old in 2014-15 Barzal had 57 points in 44 games played (12 goals, 45 assists). He improved on that mark the next season with 88 points in 58 games (27 goals, 61 assists).

Then, at the ripe old age of 19, Mathew Barzal shattered his previous WHL high for assists by notching 69 in just 41 games played. If Barzal’s performance this season is him “getting used to” the NHL, just imagine what’s to come.

Communication & Cohesion

The most intriguing part of the New York Islanders second line is their great potential for improving on an already impressive first two months. Ladd, Eberle, and Barzal provide the Islanders’ opponents with another frustrating wrinkle to gameplan against.

This group has gone from a patchwork quilt to what looks like a tailor-made suit. Andrew Ladd plays a big role for this squad. He’s a mentor to a young Barzal. And now that he’s moved past the get-to-know-you phase with Eberle they’re quickly moving into the “OK, let’s have some fun” realm.

Eberle had a career year in 2011-12 with Edmonton with 76 points on 34 goals and 42 assists. If he can continue to develop chemistry and go on a couple of hot streaks, he’s got an outside chance to reach a couple of his career highs. To use my favorite oxymoron, it’s a definite possibility.

Next: Three Islanders Trade Options to Land a Defenseman

Considering Eberle’s ability to feed off of his linemates, Barzal’s constant improvement, and Ladd’s presence benefitting everyone, this second line deserves a ton of credit for keeping the New York Islanders’ season alive. Happy New Year!!

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