Islanders notes: Anders Lee back on 1st line, Mathew Barzal breaks down moving back to RW

Anders Lee Islanders
Arizona Coyotes goaltender Karel Vejmelka, left, stops a shot on goal by New York Islanders’ Anders Lee during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Anders Lee is champing at the bit to get back on the Islanders’ first line, which all signs point to after he practiced on the left wing with Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal on Monday ahead of the Islanders’ clash with the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night.

“We’ve played a lot of hockey together. We know what we’re capable of so we gotta go out and do it,” Lee told amNewYork. “It’s exciting. Let’s go, let’s make something happen.”

The 33-year-old captain and left-winger was in the conversation for first-line time throughout the preseason after spending the Islanders’ first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes on that top unit alongside Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal — the trio accounting for just one goal in the six-game series loss.

“We didn’t produce in the playoffs like any of us wanted to,” Lee said. “But there were things that were positive and we can build off that. That’s long in the past. So this is a fresh start here to prove that it’s worth sticking.”

Starting on the third line flanking Jean-Gabriel Pageau this season, Lee posted just one assist in the Islanders’ first four games this season while Simon Holmstrom got the first crack at first-line minutes. Both Barzal (one goal, two assists) and Horvat (two goals, one assist) are flirting with an early point-per-game pace, but there is more to be unlocked.

Head coach Lane Lambert, who is looking for more of a “net-front presence” on that first line, turns to Lee in what is the obvious move for two playmakers looking to get a little bit more space on the ice.

“I don’t even know if it’s about getting him going, but it’s getting me and Bo going, too. Just mixing it up,” Barzal said. “There haven’t been a lot of pucks out there. So hopefully Lee can bring some simplification just getting on the forecheck and slowing the game down a little bit. That’s what I need from him. He’s one of the best at that.”

Mathew Barzal Islanders
New Jersey Devils’ Jack Hughes (86) fights for control of the puck with New York Islanders’ Mathew Barzal (13) and Noah Dobson (8) during the overtime period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Oct. 20, 2023, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

But getting Lee going on the offensive stat sheet — he’s posted an average of 31 goals per 82 games since the start of the 2016-17 season — would be quite the added bonus to create a bona fide, well-rounded line. It’s certainly possible considering he has spent  an abundance of time in the past alongside Barzal on New York’s top line.

“There are pucks in there, there are rebounds, there’s little things, little spots where I can go and take a body away,” Lee said. “Dragging a guy to the net with me. Let these guys have an extra step or two. Getting them pucks, just bumping it over. It’s little stuff that allows them to do their thing and I can be there when they need me. 

“We’ve played a lot of hockey together, Barzy and I, going back to Ebs. We know each other very well and each other’s brains and where we like our pucks. A lot of familiarity there.”

His re-introduction to the first line, though, means Barzal would have to move from left wing, a position he admitted he was more comfortable with after moving away from his natural center position upon Horvat’s arrival, to right wing. However, the 26-year-old star playmaker wants to make his position more of a loose guideline, stressing the need for more fluidity in his game.

“I think I just have to play all over the ice,” Barzal told amNewYork. “I don’t think me being slotted in on the right wing is me playing right wing. I have to play on my instincts. When I start playing too much in the position, I never touch the puck. So I just have to make my reads and kind of play all over.”

For more on the Islanders, visit AMNY.com