New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz’s philosophy upon arriving on Long Island has always been to roll out four consistent, dependable forward lines that can wear down an opponent each night.
Despite a largely unchanged roster that went to the Eastern Conference Final last season, Trotz has only three of his four lines secure. In fact, the first, second, and fourth lines are identical from the 2019-20 campaign.
Then there is the third line, which remains very much in the air despite having a fixture established at center in Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
For the first three games of the 2021 season — which the Islanders have started 2-1-0 — Trotz has rolled with the bruising Ross Johnston on the left-wing and rookie 22-year-old right-winger Kieffer Bellows, which hasn’t necessarily generated much on the score sheet.
Neither winger has recorded a point over yet this season, but have exhibited the aggressive, relentless style of play that’s become a trademark under Trotz.
For an Islander team that has scored just one goal over its previous two games — the lone tally coming from Pageau late in the third to lift New York over the Bruins on Monday night — Bellows and Johnston only saw about six-and-a-half minutes of ice time against Boston in the home opener.
“A little bit of limited ice time but I was very comfortable with Kieffer’s game,” Trotz said after the 1-0 victory. “I thought he and Ross Johnston did a good job of establishing a forecheck and a physical game. My comfort level is good with both of those guys.”
Tuesday, however, opened room for further speculation that a tweak or two is on the horizon for the third line. Michael Dal Colle, who is currently on injured reserve, skated alongside Pageau and Bellows at practice ahead of the Islanders’ game on Thursday against the New Jersey Devils.
Dal Colle isn’t ready to return to action, but Trotz did admit that he was “very close” to being available after dealing with injury issues.
Johnston, meanwhile, skated with the extra line that included veteran Leo Komarov and 20-year-old winger, Oliver Wahlstrom, who made a strong push to make the team out of camp thanks to a highly-touted shot that could provide a boost to New York’s offense.
“We’re working on it,” Trotz said. “We’ve got a lot of players, we’re trying to integrate them… It was going to be a process, so we’re doing things in practice — Wahlstrom was in the group today.”
Trotz cited the uncertainty that initially surrounded first-line center Mathew Barzal’s future with the team. He missed the first few days of training camp as a restricted free agent before settling on a three-year deal. That forced Trotz to play Pageau on the first line with Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle while Bellows and Wahlstrom worked together on the wings of a third unit that saw a carousel of centers.
“We have good competition,” Trotz said. “It was the right decision to go with what we started with [this season] based on what we saw and what we needed. Now there’s a little bit of competition for an opportunity to play… show me what you have. We’ll figure that out.”