Barry Trotz’s plan for Jean-Gabriel Pageau heading into the 2021 season was always going to feature the sizable ask of constantly adapting on the New York Islanders’ third line.
The veteran center, who was acquired one year ago at the trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators, arrived at training camp not knowing who his linemates are — a rare concept for an Islanders team that kept its other three lines completely intact from last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
While he’s appeared in all 14 of the Islanders’ games this season, he’s played alongside Ross Johnston, Michael Dal Colle, Leo Komarov, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Kieffer Bellows on the third line.
He’s been an invaluable penalty killer, a go-to option to double shift on any of the other three lines, and is a commodity for the power play, too.
Yes, the 28-year-old has had to wear many hats in New York, but it has always been the ultimate sign of trust from the head coach, Trotz.
“He’s very competitive, a highly-intelligent two-way player, and his skill set is underrated,” Trotz said of Pageau just before training camp began last month. “One of the things, and it’s unfortunate, sometimes I keep putting him in a situation where he has new linemates a lot. It’s probably the same kind of trust I have in [veteran forward] Josh Bailey in terms of a highly intelligent player who can play multiple positions.
“You can go to those guys, lean on those guys, and they’re a huge part of what you do.”
The reliance on Pageau, however, didn’t necessarily result in success on the stat sheet. Through the first 11 games of the season, Pageau posted just one goal — the game-winner in Game No. 3 against the Boston Bruins — and three assists while cycling through the litany of linemates.
For the last five games, though, as Trotz shuffled his lines to make up for the loss of second-line winger Anthony Beauvillier — which included moving Jordan Eberle and Michael Dal Colle to the second line along with Josh Bailey to the first — Pageau has been flanked with Wahlstrom and Komarov. And the continuity has been paying dividends.
Pageau has four goals in his last three games entering Tuesday night’s quick rematch with the Sabres following Monday’s 3-1 triumph, including two (one shorthanded) against the East-leading Bruins on Saturday night.
With Beauvillier returning on Tuesday night, though, more tweaks will be set around Pageau.
Still, it’s just what the doctor ordered — and what Trotz needed — for the Islanders’ offense, which has shaken off a horrendous start to average three goals per game during a seven-game point streak.
“I think he’s playing with a little bit of edge to him. He has that edge back… He has that game rolling,” Trotz said of Pageau’s recent success. “He’s a very important player for any coach in this league, I’m just telling you… You can slot him anywhere… he finds a way to get it done for you so he’s very important with our bench.
“Pager is a guy you win with. He gets it done when it matters most.”