Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The New York Islanders have a star center on their top line. This star center is playing well, but because he’s carrying around some dead-weight on his line, his true potential is limited.
Sounds familiar, right?
Islanders fans have done this dance for years now. And to be fair, this isn’t a problem when the team is healthy. With Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle flanking Mathew Barzal, the team found two capable wingers to surround their star center. Everything was good.
But with Anders Lee out, the Islanders top line has struggled. And that’s largely due to the players around Barzal, specifically on his left side.
New York Islanders need to change top line
Since Lee was forced out for the season Mathew Barzal has primarily played with Leo Komarov (and to an extent Travis Zajac) on his left-wing. And it just hasn’t worked in the slightest. The “bull-in-china-shop” winger on Barzal’s left just doesn’t work if it isn’t Anders Lee.
Lee is the best at it in the league I’d argue. Finding another Anders Lee was going to be impossible for the Islanders. Instead of adapting, they tried to replace, and…well it’s not working.
The underlying numbers look alright for the Barzal-Leo pair. Barzal has better numbers (CF%, HDCF%, SCF%, and xGF%) with Komarov than without him. But when it gets down to an individual level, you can see just how poor of an idea it is to try and replace Lee with Leo Komarov.
*Stats from March 12 till now (ie: After Lee came out of the lineup).
**Stats since trade to the Islanders (ie: 8 games of data).
We all knew that replacing Anders Lee was never going to end well for the Islanders. But for some reason, the Isles have tried to push a round peg in a squad whole.
So now what? Well. Perhaps they should try something else out? Here are a few options that, while stylistically different from Lee, yield similar individual results:
*Stats are for the entire 2021 season with Islanders
I left Lee in this table so there was a frame of reference right there instead of having to scroll up and look at the other table above. Again, no one can replace what Lee brings to the team. His 1.01 ixG/60 is the highest on the team this year. But these are some good options to try something different.
I don’t expect that Barry Trotz will put Oliver Wahlstrom on the same line as Barzal and Eberle, but based on the underlying numbers I don’t see why not. Wahlstrom generates a ton of pucks to the net and creates a ton of scoring chances.
He’s been a healthy scratch of late, but taking a player off the scratchpad and putting him on the top line isn’t something uncharacteristic for Barry Trotz. He did it early this year with fellow rookie Kieffer Bellows. Why not with Wahlstrom?
Assuming that’s not something Barry can stomach, he could go with a veteran option like Brock Nelson or Kyle Palmieri. Both have good underlying numbers that suggest they could replicate what Lee does in terms of being a goal threat, something that Leo Komarov and Travis Zajac just flat out aren’t.
I know two of my options are right-handed and both Barzal and Eberle are righties. That could complicate things. It gives Nelson a boost as the only lefty in the mix. Based on his numbers, it’s not a bad idea to try him there first.
Again. Something needs to change for the New York Islanders and it needs to start on the top line. It’s clear that Mathew Barzal needs more than Leo Komarov or Travis Zajac next to him.
(All data was taken from NaturalStatTrick and at 5on5)