A week into training camp is too early to use any language more declarative than “trend,” but here is what might be the most intriguing trend out of East Meadow so far: Anders Lee has played alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau in every scrimmage, as well as in the first preseason game.
Now, that does not mean Lee will be on the third line on opening night or even that he will be on the third line when the Islanders scrimmage again.
But it would be at least a little bit odd for the Islanders to put these two together for a week’s worth of practices if they had zero intention of playing them together during the season. And it would not take long for the two of them to surpass their combined playing time from last season.
Lee and Pageau started on the same line just three times last season, totaling 66:10 together at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick.
The results were pretty good — they had a 67.43 expected goals percentage and out-chanced opponents, 33-28, with an 18-7 margin in high-danger chances. But they were outscored, 2-0. In any case, that is not enough minutes for the sample to be meaningful.
The Islanders do not quite have the same kind of checking/matchup third line that other contenders — most notably Carolina with Jordan Staal — boast. But to the extent that they do, it is through Pageau. The trio of Hudson Fasching, Pageau and Zach Parise took some time to form last season, but once it did, it filled that role, with a heavy dose of defensive zone faceoffs, straight-line play and strong advanced numbers.
“I love to compete against the top players,” Pageau told Sports+ Wednesday. “I think that we all do. We love competing. That’s why we’re playing in the NHL. I definitely love that matchup. It motivates me. It’s a big challenge. Every game you come into the game, you have butterflies playing against the top guys.”
With Parise gone (for now), it is notable that Lee has been given the first crack at his role. Lee is a responsible defensive player, but his strength always has been — and despite some decline, still is — creating offense in front of the net.
It is, at first glance, a strange fit — especially when the Islanders are still trying to figure out who should play on the left side of the first line, where Lee lined up during the playoffs last season.
“I don’t think it’s any different,” Lee said. “Take care of both ends as much as you can, regardless of where you’re playing.”
True enough. But Pageau’s line is asked to match up in different ways that require it to emphasize different things, even if the end goal is still the same. That is something Lee would have to get used to, though Pageau raved about how easy it’s been to build chemistry together.
“It’s been easy for me,” Pageau said. “He’s wearing the ‘C’ not only because of his compete level off the ice, but on the ice, he’s really easy to read off of. You know where he’s gonna be. If you’re in trouble, you know he’s around the net or he’s there to support you behind the net. He’s so good at winning those battles, protecting behind the puck, that I think it makes it easy for a player like me. If I’m in trouble, I know where he’s gonna be, what are my outs, if I can get it to someone, some other guys that are open. I know where he’s gonna be.
“We communicate a lot, too, on the bench, just to get to know our tendencies. We haven’t played much together in the past few years, but I think our chemistry today on the ice [in an intrasquad scrimmage] was really good. We’re starting to know where we are on the ice. When you get a guy that competes hard in the battles, he’s always on the right side of the puck, makes it easy on me.”
Whether or not this lasts will come down in large part to those battles around and behind the net Pageau mentioned. But unlike where Lee usually excels, a lot of those will be in the defensive zone, where Pageau’s on-ice impact is most profound.
It cannot be stressed enough that these are the earliest days of the season — so early that it’s not yet clear who would be on the right side of a Lee-Pageau pairing.
Matt Maggio has played that role so far in camp, but is unlikely to make the roster. Fasching would seem to be an obvious option, but then where is Oliver Wahlstrom?
This is not so much a puzzle as a game of chess.
But if Lee and Pageau is the first move, it is a compelling one.
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Skarek steps into Schneider’s role
Jakub Skarek’s first preseason action was nondescript in the way it was supposed to be. He stopped all six shots he faced in the third period of the Islanders’ 4-2 loss at Madison Square Garden after relieving Semyon Varlamov, who had a rough 40 minutes and allowed four goals.
Skarek has yet to make his NHL debut, but with Corey Schneider having retired, the Czech Republic native is one injury away from being forced into action for the Islanders.
He’ll start the year as the No. 1 goalie in AHL Bridgeport, and thus the No. 3 goalie on the organizational depth chart.
“Corey was a great teammate, he was a great friend of mine, it was a great pleasure for me to play with him and learn from him,” Skarek told Sports+. “But to be honest, the mindset for me doesn’t change that much. Obviously, I was trying to learn as much as possible from him, but I was always focusing more on myself and work — what I have to do on the rink and off-ice. In this case, nothing changes.”
Skarek had an .892 save percentage over 38 games last season, his second full year in Bridgeport. The 2018 third-round pick said he needs to work on defending odd-man rushes — something on which he took cues from Schneider.
“He’s so patient when there are three-on-twos, two-on-ones, so I was trying to learn it from him and implement it to my game,” he said. “Especially when I came here, I was skating everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I had to calm down this area. … Sometimes you have to be more aggressive, come a little bit more out of the net, and sometimes you have to be more patient and let the game come to you. So this was the biggest thing I was working on with [Bridgeport goaltending coach Chris Terreri] during the season. And towards the end of the season, second half, it was working quite well.”
Roster projection 1.0
After a week of camp, we’ll make a run at projecting the opening night roster. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that Kyle Palmieri is ready to go as of then.
Forwards (14): Anders Lee, Bo Horvat, Mathew Barzal, Pierre Engvall, Brock Nelson, Kyle Palmieri, Oliver Wahlstrom, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Hudson Fasching, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Julien Gauthier, Simon Holmstrom
Defense (7): Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Alexander Romanov, Noah Dobson, Sebastian Aho, Scott Mayfield, Sam Bolduc
Goalies (2): Ilya Sorokin, Semyon Varlamov
First call-up: William Dufour
For now, we’re playing it relatively safe.
But Dufour is making a real run at a spot, and had a strong showing against the Rangers in the preseason opener.
As for Ross Johnston, it’s just hard to justify having him on the roster at $1.1 million if he’s going to play as little as he did last season.