New York Islanders star center Mathew Barzal has encountered a bit of a revolving door when it comes to finding a left-winger on his first line alongside Jordan Eberle since captain Anders Lee went down with a season-ending torn ACL.
After spending games with Leo Komarov and Kieffer Bellows on his wing, Barzal saw the Islanders pulled off a major deal last week to acquire a left-side accomplice for the 23-year-old, acquiring Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils.
“We were really excited right away,” Barzal said of the trade. “I think it was a great trade for our team. Lou [Lamoriello] did an awesome job getting those guys… Top to bottom, there are no holes at all, just real rock solid.”
Sunday night’s overtime victory over the New York Rangers allowed head coach Barry Trotz to put Zajac on the first line in hopes of addressing a stable fit for the rest of the 2021 season. So far, the results have been promising.
“I thought things went pretty well,” Barzal said. “Me and [Eberle] have been playing pretty good hockey… [Zajac] stepped in and we kept the ball rolling as we had been the last couple games. Chemistry was solid right away.”
For Trotz, it wasn’t too difficult a decision to get Zajac on the first line while Palmieri was flexed down to the third alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Josh Bailey while getting some power-play time.
“Intelligence,” Trotz simply said when explaining why Zajac, a 15-year veteran, is on the first line. “Hockey IQ. That’s No. 1: Experience and hockey IQ.”
Being flanked by Zajac is an entirely new encounter for Barzal, seeing as the 35-year-old has long been a centerman in New Jersey but has the versatility to drift out to the wings.
“I don’t think I’ve played with a guy who’s been a true centerman his whole career,” Barzal said. “It’s nice having two guys out there who have played the middle. He’s an adaptable player and I am too.”
The most important thing that is expected to come out of this is some stability on the first line — allowing Barzal and Eberle to focus their entire efforts on building a rapport with the same player instead of contending with constant changes.
“Any time you get a chance to spend a few games with the same guys, it’s nice,” Barzal said. “Just understanding how each guy plays, where they go, what they want, what pucks they do well with. I would like something where we stick together for a little while.”