Evaluating the NY Islanders' lineup changes

The Islanders are 3-0-0 since Patrick Roy shuffled the lineup last Tuesday.

Boston Bruins v New York Islanders
Boston Bruins v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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The NY Islanders came into the 2023-24 season with a judicious view of their starting forward and defensive lineup. Having kept a similar roster since 2020, fans could predict which players would be on each line on a nightly basis. The only question surrounded the left-wing position next to Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal and the right-wing next to J.G. Pageau. Suffice it to say, that nobody stepped up and made a quality impact.

Through the first 56 games, the only changes made by either Lane Lambert or Patrick Roy was to flip Simon Holmstrom and Anders Lee between the first and third lines. Role players like Julien Gauthier and Oliver Wahlstrom were in and out of the lineup with neither taking the right-wing mantle. However, this all changed in the third period against the Tampa Bay Lightning as Roy 'put his balls on the table' and flipped all four forward lines around. In the games to proceed against the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, and Boston Bruins, Roy also changed the defensive pairings after Scott Mayfield was sidelined with a lower-body injury. The Islanders have responded well by winning all three of their games since Roy made these changes. However, the newly revamped lines have performed even better than expected.

The first line has found its left-winger.

In an odd turn of events on Tuesday, Brock Nelson did not take a faceoff for the first time since November 18th, 2017. In the 480 games since, Nelson has always been a centerman until Roy moved him from the second to the first line. In an attempt to create more offense, Roy decided to pair his three best goal scorers Nelson, Horvat, and Barzal all on the Isles' top line. In retrospect, fans have been clamoring for this move to be made since opening night against the Buffalo Sabres.

Nelson looked understandably uncomfortable playing with Barzal and Horvat on Tuesday against the Stars, only recording two shots on goal. The only time this trio has played together prior is on the powerplay unit, where a game plan is already put in place.

However, the star forwards have found their niche together in the games to proceed. Barzal and Nelson have combined for four goals in the last two games. Having three forwards that drive towards the net and are not limited in their shot ability has changed the complexity of the Isles' top line, a quality fans have been in an uproar about since Lou Lamoriello became general manager in 2018. The heroics of this new first-line were on full display in Barzal's game-winning goal against the Red Wings.

The second line came to life against the Bruins.

The Isles' second line has been one of the most productive all season. Though inconsistent in terms of offensive streakiness, Nelson and Kyle Palmieri combined for 39 goals. The only issue with this line pairing was Pierre Engvall, who never seemed to find a role-playing next to the two premier goal scorers. With Nelson moving to the top line to help Barzal and Horvat, Roy has paired Palmieri with Pageau and Lee.

This lineup change makes sense for several reasons. First, fans can make the argument Pageau was at his best in 2021 and 2022 when he played on the third line next to Palmieri and Zach Parise. This pairing gave Pageau two goal scorers to work with when he drives toward the net. Secondly, all three veteran forwards are among the team leaders in hits the past few seasons, giving this line a similar identity across the board.

In their first two games together, this trio was the Isles' least productive. They combined for a -2 rating with only nine shots on goal, none of them coming from Pageau. Considering their eminence time on ice, this line should have plenty of more offensive opportunities. However, this all turned around against the Bruins as Palmieri netted a natural hat trick as well the captain scoring his 16th goal of the season. Pageau and Palmieri also had ample opportunities at a shorthanded goal, showcasing the duo's chemistry on the penalty kill.

The third line is finally whole.

The Isles' top line eventually found an imperfect fit at left wing that could work well with Barzal and Horvat in Lee. However, the third line never found a left-wing solution with the new chemistry built between Holmstrom and Pageau. Since Gauthier was waived and Wahlstrom was placed in the press box, Roy finally moved Pierre Engvall down to the bottom six in search of a solution. In terms of characteristics, Engvall is similar to Holmstrom in terms of their passing, speed, and ability to create turnovers.

The interesting pairing for this line was Roy's decision to have Casey Cizikas center the new trio. Playing on the Identity Line for nearly a decade does not require much offensive output as Cizikas was asked to be an agitator. However, the new third line has oddly been the most unexpectedly productive. Each of them has had great scoring opportunities with Cizikas and Engvall netting a goal a piece.

Furthermore, they mirror each other in terms of speed and passing ability, which has made their offensive zone entrees and ability to clear the defensive zone more precise. While Cizikas' hits have been nonexistent since changing roles, his untapped offensive potential has finally been given a long-deserving opportunity.

The Identity Line has found another Casey Cizikas.

As stated before, the Identity Line has stayed constant for nearly a decade on Long Island. However, the offensive production has been anemic as Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin are declining in the ladder years of their careers. With Cizikas under contract for three more seasons, his role was going to change come the 2024-25 season. Roy decided to expedite this process on Tuesday by moving Cizikas to the third line, leaving the antagonizing duo without a centerman.

However, the Isles had a Cizikas clone waiting in Bridgeport. A 24-year-old, Kyle MacLean has been exceptional in his offensive and defensive ability since joining the Identity Line. Not only has he provided the same strong forecheck along the blue line, but MacLean nearly had another breakaway goal against the Red Wings on Thursday. Furthermore, the veteran presence of Clutterbuck and Martin has helped stabilize MacLean as an NHL regular.

"It's nice for him to have vets around. They can certainly talk to him over the course of a play and help him to feel more comfortable on the ice" said Roy.

MacLean's faceoff percentage has also improved in the last three games, winning 15 of his last 27 decisions.