The New York Islanders have always had pretty good balance throughout their lines. During their Stanley Cup years, they had a Conn Smyth Trophy winner in Butch Goring as well as Brent Sutter manning the middle two lines. More recently, the Islanders had Frans Nielsen in a similar role with the emergence of Mat Barzal in this 2017-18 season and Valtteri Filppula last year in that spot. However, this season, New York is at a point where their third line cannot be counted on.
In their latest game against the Vancouver Canucks, the trio of Michael Dal Colle, Derick Brassard and Tom Kuhnhackl were on the ice for all three regulation goals and all saw limited ice-time in the third period. In fact, Kuhnhackl played a season-low 6:47 and played less than seven minutes for the second straight game. He did not receive a shift in the third period while his head coach Barry Trotz was not pleased with his game.
“I just thought he could be better in a couple of areas and I expect his game to be right up there,” Trotz said. “We don’t have room for not having a good game. We don’t have any margin of error and this is playoff time. We are going to go with guys that are going. If you’re not going that night, sorry, we have to move forward.”
Dal Colle scored the opening goal of the game but hasn’t produced much offense this season. Brassard has struggled since November and has played his best this season on the wing. With the Islanders missing Cal Clutterbuck, their fourth line with Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and now Leo Komarov will never be able to replicate what their fourth line did the past few seasons.
Come playoff time, it is much easier to roll out just your top lines in crucial spots, but that is not the Islanders’ identity. They’ll be starting a stretch of 15 games in the next 26 days and can’t push Barzal and Brock Nelson to 20-plus minutes a night if they want to be ready for the playoffs.
Currently on the roster, the one forwards the Islanders have scratched is Ross Johnston. However, despite him playing well at times this season, he is at most a fourth-line player and plays a similar game to Matt Martin. They are both physical players, but aren’t going to produce much offense.
In the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders have options but don’t seem very tempted to be making any moves. Kieffer Bellows is the obvious name, though New York continues to let him develop in Bridgeport. Oliver Wahlstrom had a brief stay with the Islanders before competing in the World Juniors, but only has five goals in 29 games. However, he did score Saturday night in their win.
Josh Ho-Sang is one of the more intriguing options. While he sat out the beginning of the season after requesting a trade, he has been a winning hockey player. In his 53 career NHL games, the Islanders are 32-17-4 including 9-1 last season. He has only played in seven games with Bridgeport, but scored his first goal of the season late in the third period in their last game. He has also shown success in the NHL scoring seven goals and registering 24 points. Ho-Sang will be a big help on the power play to replace Brassard and can also participate in overtime and the shootout.
Both Otto Koivula and Cole Bardreau both impressed in their time following the rush of injuries the Islanders had, but won’t fix the offensive struggles that New York has had in 2020.
The easiest answer to how the Islanders third line will get better would be to acquire a legitimate goal scorer. With a superstar, the Islanders will obviously need to part ways with some young talent and draft picks which the Islanders have not shown they are willing to do in recent years.
While Chris Kreider would be one of the best moves they could make, there is nearly no way the New York Rangers make a trade to help their crosstown rivals. He also suffered an injury against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night. Kyle Palmieri and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are names the Islanders need to keep an eye on.
Palmieri has consistently scored 20-30 goals a season and Pageau could fill that third-line role, shifting Brassard to the wing. Pageau is having a career year with 20 goals already and could be the perfect fit for the Islanders. He can play on both the power play and penalty kill and has generally been above 50 percent in the face-off category through his career.
The Islanders will really be tested these upcoming weeks before the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline starting matchup with the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. They then face the Los Angeles Kings, who they lost to already this season and then hit the road to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers and could find themselves out of a playoff spot with any extended losing streak in the very talented Metropolitan Division.