ELMONT, N.Y. — One of the things that makes third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau invaluable to the New York Islanders is that he’s able to adapt and play with the carousel of wingers that have rotated in and out of the lineup alongside him — and that’s paying dividends for Simon Holmstrom.
Now in his 12th season, the 31-year-old has spent at least 10 minutes of ice time with six different linemates, but he’s lately been finding a groove with Holmstrom. The 22-year-old left-winger, who is in just his second full season in the pros, has hit a different level in his game this season, scoring seven goals in his first 22 games after scoring just six in 50 games last year.
“The confidence level has played a huge part, of course,” Holmstrom said of his start. “I’m also playing more minutes and that might be why I’m playing more confident. I think it’s all a big circle.”
If it is a big circle, Pageau is the steady hand holding the compass.
Not only have the two worked together on the third line in recent games but they’ve worked well together on the penalty kill. Three of Holmstrom’s seven goals this season have come shorthanded and all have been assisted by Pageau. In fact, the veteran center has provided an assist on five of the youngster’s seven goals.
“He’s such a smart hockey player,” Holmstrom said of Pageau. “He always knows what decision to make and what’s the right thing. He’s a good distributor and I think we’ve been playing really, really well.”
But Pageau, who disclosed that the two “chat a lot” about experiences that helped the former Senator mold his game over the last decade, is quick to deflect the credit back toward his junior linemate.
“He’s got a better skillset than I have,” Pageau said of Holmstrom. “It’s not a surprise to anyone but we’re all just happy that he’s made that step. He’s a big part of this organization and now we’re starting to get a taste of it. It’s fun to see him play with confidence. I love playing with him on the PK or having him on my wing. He’s easy to play with and he makes me better.”
The right linemate usually always facilitates more production, but Holmstrom has shown a different dimension of his game that wasn’t necessarily there last season to make this partnership work that much more. His game isn’t overly physical, but an active stick, a high hockey IQ to get his body in the right positions defensively, and another special facet has opened things up.
“He’s pretty quiet as a guy but he’s got that ‘f—k you’ in him that he wants to win that battle,” Pageau said. “So I think that’s a big difference [in his game from last year]. We all knew how smart he was on the ice, his skillset, how good of a shooter he was. So that’s probably the thing that I’ve noticed the most.”