All the hype this offseason around the New York Islanders has been around the fact that they were “in” on elite wingers to play alongside the talented Mathew Barzal. The concern is that if the Islanders do not bring in a weapon, then the roster for this upcoming season is worse than it was a year ago.
But many have forgotten that Anders Lee, the Islanders top-line left winger and captain, will be back in the lineup. His return will not just impact Barzal for the better, but it will improve the lineup as a whole.
Last season, the Islanders saw Lee go down midway through the year with a torn ACL, forcing him to miss the remainder of the regular season as well as postseason play. At the time of his injury, his 12 goals in 27 games led the team and in his absence, the Islanders struggled to create offense. It put pressure on Barzal, who at 24-years old had to do more than ever for the Islanders to succeed, with far less by his side.
While there were a handful of reasons the Islanders saw their playoff run end just shy of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the absence of Lee may have been the biggest factor. What he brought to New York, through his leadership and offensive skill, was irreplaceable. Head coach Barry Trotz opted to use bottom-six veteran Leo Komarov in Lee’s spot more often than not.
Although that top line did not allow many goals, scoring became a challenge.
Barzal is a playmaker, and in Lee’s absence, he found ways to make plays in the offensive zone, yet he rarely saw his wingers finish those plays off. More often than not, Barzal was double-teamed by opposing defensemen in an effort to shut him down.
Was it a coincidence that Barzal posted a career-high 48 penalty minutes in a career-low 55 games played in the shortened season? It very well could have been a combination of frustration and trying to do too much.
Having Anders Lee back on the ice should help settle Barzal down, as there is chemistry between the two that has been building for a few years. The way Lee plays, a big-body presence in front of the opposing netminder, who wins puck battles in corners is great for a player of Barzal’s skillset. The missing piece is the pure goal scorer, who has not been brought in yet to play along with these two players.
One would think that Kyle Palmieri, who has been rumored to be signed, will slot into the right of Barzal now that Jordan Eberle is a member of the Seattle Kraken.
Barzal needs weapons around him to succeed and Lee’s return will only allow Barzal to play to his strengths.
Anders Lee returning does not just affect that top line for the Islanders. It affects the power play as well. The Islanders’ power play was subpar this past season, finishing 20th during the regular season, coming through 18.8% of the time. That number climbed a few ticks in the postseason, just north of 20%, in a much smaller sample size. Once Lee went down, the Islanders struggled to find a suitable replacement in front of the net. Adding him back in the mix should help the power play become more of a threat this upcoming season.
As for the lineup, five on five, Lee returning makes the club deeper, offensively.
It goes without saying how important it is for a captain to be on the ice with his team game in and game out. The presence that Anders Lee has on and off the ice has been crucial over the years and it was evident this year while he was hurt.
While he tried to play a role during the injury, it’s not quite the same as having him out there on a nightly basis.
Actions speak louder than words, and Lee back on the ice, leading by example, is an immeasurable asset for any team, especially for an Islanders team that is very much in a win-now mode.
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