It’s one thing for the New York Islanders to acquire Nazem Kadri, but it’s another thing as to where he will play in the lineup. The New York Islanders already have four centermen, in Brock Nelson, Mathew Barzal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Casey Cizikas.
So Nazem Kadri coming to Long Island means that either a centerman needs to be moved out or that someone is being moved to the wing.
In my article Monday morning regarding the New York Islanders moving contracts to create space for Nazem Kadri, I briefly mentioned moving Jean-Gabriel Pageau as an option, but not one that makes the Islanders better. And one would think, that neither Kadri, Nelson, or Barzal are playing third-line center minutes anyway.
Before we jump into the two likely options, I think it’s worth mentioning that Nazem Kadri, despite a tough year in the face-off dot in 2021-22 (49.7), has won 52.9% of his face-offs since 2017. Moving him off the center seems to be a move that would ultimately hurt the Islanders.
Now Kadri could take draws and still play the wing position, but given his strong play in all zones, the middle of the ice is where he is at his best.
That being said, let’s dive into Lane Lambert’s other options for the 2022-23 season:
Mathew Barzal to the Wing?
New York Islanders forward Mathew Barzal is entering the final year of his contract as he will be a restricted free agent following the 2022-23 season.
Barzal, over his six years at the NHL level, has never had a strong offensive force on his wing. And when paired with players that should have created consistent offensive production, it did not come to fruition, as we saw with Kyle Palmieri and Oliver Wahlstrom.
Maybe moving Mathew Barzal to the wing, rather than lining him up in the middle, could be the right move to get the most out of him, especially if he is alongside Nazem Kadri.
Now, it’s easy to say a player can just move to the wing. But it’s a different game, with different responsibilities as well as different angles, which does make a difference. Not every player can do it.
Mathew Barzal’s strength is puck possession and playmaking and the idea that he has to be a goal-scoring winger is a flawed belief. By playing the wing, Barzal can still be his creative self while not having as much responsibility on the defensive side of the puck.
I’m not saying he could play to the level that Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner plays, but Barzal could certainly play a similar role given his skillset.
Not to mention, Barzal is usually along the boards in the offensive zone anyway.
Barzal also is not too strong of a face-off guy, winning just 43% of his draws. Barry Trotz often had Barzal’s linemates, guys like Anders Lee and Zach Parise, take draws.
Although Barzal does not have to be a sniper on the wing, he will need to elevate his shooting percentage in 2022-23, regardless of where he is playing.
In 2021-22, Barzal shot the puck at a 9.3% clip, a career-low, and scored just 15 goals, also a career-low. He took 161 registered shots in 75 games, the second-lowest total for his career–missing seven games impacted his totals.
Per Hockey Reference, Barzal threw 252 shots towards goal, but missed the net 47 times and had 44 shots blocked. With a player like Nazem Kadri, who has a knack for crashing the net, it becomes even more important for Barzal to hit the net at a higher rate, as that creates more rebounds and in-tight opportunities for Kadri to bury.
Kadri shot at an 11.3% clip in 2021-22, and the Islanders could surely use that kind of shooting percentage.
In the NHL, centers are more valuable than wingers given their roles, which is one thing that may stand in the way of Mathew Barzal’s move to the wing.
As mentioned, Barzal is entering a contract year and he and his agent J.P. Barry want to make as much money as possible. If Barzal doesn’t feel comfortable on the wing, and rather be a center, it’s kind of hard to sell him on that long-term.
At the end of the day, Lane Lambert needs to do what’s best for the New York Islanders but keeping his franchise player happy is also definitely a priority if he is part of their future plans.
Brock Nelson to the Wing?
Unlike Matthew Barzal, Brock Nelson has played wing in the past. And given his ability and willingness to shoot the puck, Nelson could be more effective on the wing.
But Brock Nelson is coming off a career season, at center.
Despite missing 10 games with an injury, Nelson notched a career-high 37 goals, with 22 assists, for a career-high 59 points.
In 2021-22, Nelson’s 37 goals were tied for seventh-most in the NHL amongst centerman. Also with 37 goals was Carolina Hurricanes Sebastian Aho ($8.46 M AAV) and Dallas Stars Roope Hintz ($3.15 M AAV).
Brock Nelson is making $6 million annually over the next three seasons.
This past season, Nelson shot the puck 171 times, a little over 2.3 shots per game. He missed the net 40 times, the second-lowest mark of his nine-year career.
Nelson had 68 shots blocked, which ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of career numbers.
Like Barzal, Nelson is not too strong in the face-off dot, posting a 49.4 winning percentage in back-to-back seasons.
Nelson is strong defensively, but so is Nazem Kadri.
Although Brock Nelson is left-handed, which makes him a perfect fit on the left wing, his success with Anders Lee last season cannot be overlooked.
Would Lane Lambert be willing to break up that duo? Also, Anthony Beauvillier, who is coming off a tough 2021-22 campaign, did have success with Lee and Nelson as well and Beauvillier will need to rediscover his scoring touch if the Islanders want to be able to rebound.
If Lambert does decide to split up Lee and Nelson:
And of course there are other options, like pairing Mathew Barzal on the wing with Brock Nelson and having Anders Lee play with Nazem Kadri, with maybe Zach Parise on the right side. Just spitballing here and I would think that we will see a variety of lines during training camp, as Lambert figures out the best fit–if Kadri joins the roster.