Anders Lee was missed terribly on Mathew Barzal’s left side. But do you know who the Islanders missed just about as much? Jordan Eberle, that’s who. And unlike Lee, who went down with a season-ending knee injury in March, Eberele was actually in the lineup on Barzal’s right. You could be excused for not noticing that against the Lightning other than for a shift or two in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals.
The Islanders deserve a heap of credit not only for making it to the final four again, but also for pushing the Lightning to the limit in a riveting semifinal series. The franchise has put the Shipwreck label in dry dock. The overachiever tag is past its expiration date, as well.
Now, it is Lou Lamoriello’s responsibility to engineer the next step with little room in which to maneuver under the cap before the Islanders become just another of those teams that comes close but can never quite make it to the mountaintop.
And though the general manager confronts the expected loss of Casey Cizikas to free agency and the task of somehow finding someone who can replicate his attributes well enough that Identity Line II is a game-changing force, Lamoriello is going to need to get Barzal much more help on his unit.
Lee’s return to his office on the left porch will be of aid, but the GM is going to need to find someone who is more dynamic and reliable than Eberle, who has two more years remaining on his contract with an annual cap hit of $5 million. The Islanders could leave Eberle exposed in the expansion draft, but it’s unclear whether the Kraken would select the 31-year-old winger.
The intent is not to make Eberle the scapegoat for this painful defeat, but to suggest that the team needs to bulk up at the top in order to maximize Barzal’s talent to the fullest degree. The Islanders’ heart, structure, stout young defense and goaltending make up the organization’s core essence, but that’s not enough when it comes to beating the league’s best, which, until further notice, is Tampa Bay.
I was talking to Denis Potvin a while ago about Barzal. I asked No. 5 whether he thought Barzal would have fit on the Dynasty teams.
“In my mind there is no question,” Potvin said of the 24-year-old center. “There’s got to be an element that surpasses talent, and he has it. I’m talking about courage, which I think is the most important word in hockey. He has that.
“Earlier this year I was watching a game, I think it was this year, and Barzal had a cut over his right eye, he was bleeding from the nose, a series of things happened within the game and he never missed a shift, you know what I’m saying? He went to the bench, he got patched up and went back out and played.
“I think he is that kind of player. I think that Mat Barzal is going to be that star,” said the Dynasty captain. “He is incredibly talented, it floors me how he can handle that puck and have that skating stride. He just seems to have it all. And he has that courage.”
Barry Trotz is a great coach. His Cup victory with Washington elevated him to elite status. But he is not infallible. His decision to stay with a willing, but overmatched, Leo Komarov in Lee’s place on the first line paid diminishing returns.
Similarly, the coach’s decision not to reinsert rookie sniper Oliver Wahlstrom into the lineup when he recovered from the knee injury he sustained in Game 5 of the first round was questionable at best, especially since the power play on which he was a regular-season trigger went 1-for-17 against the Lightning. There was less and less from Travis Zajac, who had replaced Wahlstrom.
The Islanders are set up on the back end and in goal. They’re young in those key spots. But the mandate for Lamoriello is to find an upper-echelon talent to fit with Barzal, despite cap restraints. Perhaps this is the summer the Islanders will move Nick Leddy, whose skating is no longer of the type of world-class ability that allows the 30-year-old to negate mistakes. Losing Leddy would open $5.5 million of cap space.
Or maybe Wahlstrom, a right-handed shot, will move onto the top unit, though that would create third-line vacancies on either side of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who must have been physically compromised against Tampa Bay.
Still, the Islanders must diversify, not only for the playoffs, but also for the regular season. Their relentless grinding style wore them down through the stretch of each of the last two seasons. And those were both truncated years of 68 and 56 games, respectively. The full 82 awaits this team, which will have fewer than three months to recover before training camp.
The Islanders need more weapons up front. But regardless of whether Lamoriello succeeds in reeling them in, the mandate for Trotz is not to try and win every game 1-0.
Because sometimes those 1-0 games can go against you.