It's getting close to decision time for New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert on how he wants the forward lines to look when the Isles open up against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 14. It's hockey, so things can change game-to-game, if not shift-to-shift, but the way he configures the lineup on day one will be the culmination of months of thinking and weeks of competition.
In the early days of training camp and first pre-season games, we saw Lambert play first the speedy Arnaud Durandeau and Simon Holmstrom with Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat while captain Anders Lee displayed chemistry playing alongside JG Pageau.
While he acknowledged the chemistry between himself and Pageau, Lee downplayed what it meant, chalking it up to experimentation during camp. Lambert had Lee back on the first line for Monday's 6-5 loss in New Jersey and the head coach praised his effort after the game, making it seem more likely that it is where he starts the regular season.
Where Lee may not be with Barzal, and Horvat is on the power-play.
Although assistant coach John MacLean remains in charge of the special team unit, a shakeup was overdue and necessary after finishing with the 30th-ranked power play last season. That appears to include removing the left-handed shooting Lee from the top unit where he had normally occupied the front of the net last season.
Throughout training camp, the Islanders have rotated a list of right-handed shooters on the top power play including Oliver Wahlstrom, Hudson Fasching, Simon Holmstrom, and the returning Kyle Palmieri.
The thinking is having a right-handed shooter, one that can spend time behind and on the side of the net will allow the Islanders to set up a triangle formation, having Barzal operate from the left circle as Horvat sets up in his "bumper position."
“I think they have a bit more freedom to not stand in front of the net the whole time,” Horvat said in the New York Post about right-hand shooters on the top unit. “I think they have a bit more opportunity to stand off to the side of the net and make plays down there. It’s good. It makes everybody, especially the lefties, a threat down there.”
The power play has been emphasized like we all knew it would be throughout camp, and this subtle but impactful change is something to watch as the season gets started. If it helps turn the power play from bad to average, it could be the difference in making the Stanley Cup Playoffs or not.