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Who Skates With Barzal And Horvat? Evaluting The Islanders’ Choices



Photos courtesy of The AP/Frank Franklin II

One of the biggest questions the New York Islanders faced this preseason was whether or not Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat could re-discover their strong connection.

After Horvat arrived in a trade last year, he and Barzal were a force for the Islanders. They combined for 12 points with five goals in their first six games until Barzal suffered a lower-body injury that put him on the shelf for the remainder of the regular season.

Barzal did return for the Islanders in time for the playoffs but clearly wasn’t back at full strength.

Five months later, there’s no doubt that Barzal and Horvat’s chemistry is alive and well after both overcame obstacles this offseason.

Now, the question is who will join them on the Islanders’ top line.

Ideally, it’s someone with the speed and skating ability to keep up with Barzal, who’s also a strong forechecker and can battle for pucks in the corners, allowing Horvat to set up in front of the net.

The Islanders have plenty of options to choose from, but none fit that mold completely.

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So far this preseason, Simon Holmstrom has spent the most time skating on Horvat’s left wing opposite Barzal. The 21-year-old forward appeared in 50 games for the Islanders last year but only managed nine points with six goals in his first experience at the NHL level.

Coming into training camp, Holmstrom was simply looking to earn a roster spot as the Islanders’ 13th forward. He certainly got an opportunity to do so by playing with two of the team’s best players. However, while Holmstrom has shown improvement in his game, it’s been inconsistent.

Holmstrom isn’t weighing down Barzal and Horvat, but he’s not elevating their game either. Arnaud Durandeau has also gotten some looks in that spot, but Barzal and Horvat would be better served by a player with proven ability in the NHL.

Throughout last year’s playoffs, Islanders captain Anders Lee spent the most time playing with Barzal and Horvat, but the combination didn’t produce many results.

In six games against the Carolina Hurricanes, the line of Lee, Horvat and Barzal registered only one goal in 44 minutes and 22 seconds of ice time at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The trio was put back together for the first time this preseason on Oct. 2 against the New Jersey Devils when they generated two goals in a 6-5 loss. However, it seems Islanders head coach Lane Lambert could have a different role in mind for Lee, as he’s spent more time working on the third line with Jean-Gabriel Pageau in training camp.

While Lee and Holmstrom have seen the most time next to Barzal and Horvat of anyone on the team, they’re not the only options.

Oliver Wahlstrom could be a fit as a power forward who has no problem laying the body, but he hasn’t shown he’s ready for top-line minutes while working back up to speed after recovering from a lower-body injury that prematurely ended his season last year.

Julien Gauthier certainly has the speed and size that could pair well with Barzal and Horvat. He’s looked solid in his first training camp with the Islanders, but he’s also struggled with inconsistency during his NHL career and might not be adept at playing his off-wing.

Pierre Engvall is an intriguing option. Like Gauthier, Engvall’s size, speed and ability to battle for pucks in the corners makes him a great fit. The only problem is he’s already shown chemistry with Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri, and Lambert would be hard-pressed to break them up.

Over the summer, Islanders president of hockey operations and general manager Lou Lamoriello tried to add a proven goal scorer to play with Barzal and Horvat by trading for Alex DeBrincat. That deal never came to fruition, leaving the Islanders in their current state.

Fortunately, Barzal and Horvat have shown they’re capable regardless of who their linemate is. However, if no one emerges from the current pack, expect a top-line left wing to be first on the Islanders’ shopping list come the trade deadline.

Follow Andrew Fantucchio on Twitter: @A_Fantucchio

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