NHL coaches experimenting throughout training camp and pre-season games is nothing new.
It's considered the norm, and usually, there's no guarantee that anything on display now will be the same come the start of the regular season. However, Lane Lambert's pairing of New York Islanders captain Anders Lee and JG Pageau increasingly feels like a move that has a chance of sticking when the Islanders open up against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 14.
Lee has been a top-six forward for most of his career, and the 33-year-old is coming off a season where he scored 28 goals and 22 assists. He played the bulk of last season with either Mathew Barzal or Bo Horvat as his center, and when Barzal was healthy, occupied the third spot alongside two of the Islanders' best offensive players.
But while Barzal and Horvat have remained intact this pre-season, head coach Lane Lambert has been giving opportunities to Simon Holmstrom and even Arnaud Durandeau to flash on that top line. In doing so, that has sent Lee to the third line alongside Pageau. Does this mean that the Islanders will have a new look third-line? Lee was skeptical earlier in the week.
"Things change every week, every time, noted the Islanders captain. "So this early camp stuff is great. It’s fun to fun to play with new guys. It’s fun to get out there with Pager and get a repertoire together. Whether we start the year together, I see him in a month, we have this space.”
Fair enough, but on Saturday night against the Rangers, in a game that saw Lee record a "Gordie Howe Hat Trick," momentum built towards keeping the pair together as they skated with newcomer Julien Gauthier. Pageau opened the scoring at 7:07 of the first period, darting to the net and deflecting a crisp, hard pass from Lee past Jonathan Quick from the side boards.
“We’re working hard and we've had a lot of good communication and we’re playing the right way,” Lee said. “Those little touches will start to come even more and more and we’ll be more familiar, but through two games I think we've got a really solid base and looking forward to just building on that.”
Whether or not they can keep building on that may depend on whether Lambert finds the right fit to play alongside Barzal and Horvat. Another factor is the health of Kyle Palmieri and what his absence could do to the makeup of the expected second line with Pierre Engvall and Brock Nelson. Nevertheless, there is a void left by Zach Parise on the Pageau line and Lee is showing that he may be an unlikely candidate to take it.
“He's a hard player to play against,” Pageau said of Lee after Saturday's 5-3 win . “He’s hard to beat in one-on-one battles and he's going to do all those little details all the time and that's why he's a leader and you want to follow his lead."