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Islanders coach Barry Trotz keeps trying to plug a hole at center

Head coach Barry Trotz of the Islanders looks

Head coach Barry Trotz of the Islanders looks on during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Barclays Center on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

For all of the Islanders’ success to start this season — and an 0-2-1 California trip should not detract from that — an inability to find the four-line balance that marked last season’s playoff-bound team is starting to sorely stand out.

The root cause stems from a positive development: Derick Brassard has been much more productive as a top-six right wing than as a third-line center, which was the Islanders’ original intention when they signed him.

That has left coach Barry Trotz searching to find a fourth center after Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas. Wingers Josh Bailey and Leo Komarov and AHL call-ups Otto Koivula and Cole Bardreau all have been tried.

Trotz also has tried to find a productive role for Bailey away from the top two lines. Bailey has played up and down the lines and been used in all three positions. “I really don’t mind,” he said.

Still, Trotz has found himself searching for effective trios, mixing-and-matching as games progress. He’s done that more often as of late, particularly during the California trip, when the Islanders managed only two goals in three games. Trotz wants to roll four lines consistently and keep ice times fairly even, but many times he has been forced into shortening his rotation.

Until the California trip, Nelson’s line with left wing Anthony Beauvillier and Brassard had been the most consistent. Despite Barzal’s playmaking ability, Anders Lee and right wing Jordan Eberle are in deep scoring droughts.

Cizikas’ identity line with grinders Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck still offers Trotz the grit he wants, but it has been used more as a third line than as the fourth line, a role in which the trio’s unique combination is better served.

Trotz shook up his line combinations at Friday’s practice in East Meadow, placing Bailey on Barzal’s right wing with Lee and putting Nelson between Beauvillier and Eberle.

But that still does not solve the third-line conundrum. Trotz’s latest stab was putting Koivula between Komarov and Brassard, now moved to left wing.

“Just because we signed Brass to play center ice and now he’s playing wing, we’re trying to fit the right pieces and looking at all the different things,” Trotz said. “Is it Otto in the middle? Is it Bails in the middle? Do we move Brass back? We’ve got some options. We’re trying to find it on the fly, and I give Bails a lot of credit. He’s been a real good pro. He understands what we’re trying to do, trying to get certain guys going.

“We’ve still got a lot of pavement to cover before the end of the season,” Trotz added. “So we’ve been trying to do that.”

Because it’s an issue that definitely has to be solved.

Picked from the pod

Steve Mears grew up in the Pittsburgh area and is fulfilling his childhood dream of being the Penguins’ television play-by-play announcer. Mears broke into NHL broadcasting as the radio voice of the Islanders from 2006-09.

He was the guest on Episode 9 of Island Ice, Newsday’s Islanders podcast, and among the topics covered was when Hall of Famer Al Arbour accepted then-coach Ted Nolan’s invitation to go back behind the bench for his 1,500th game with the franchise on Nov. 3, 2007. Mears called it one of the special moments of his Islanders tenure.

“To have this legendary coach come back, I got to sit down and do a one-on-one interview with him and just be around him,” Mears said. “The way Ted Nolan responded and the way the team embraced Al coming back, that was an unbelievably special night. It didn’t even matter that they had the dramatic win at the end. Miro Satan scored and it was a dramatic win, ironically against Pittsburgh. But just to have Al there and just to hear his philosophies of the game and then to see some of the current players chat with him about hockey and for him to share the stories about the dynasty, that was really special. So I’m honored I got to be a part of that.”

Satan scored twice in the final 5:30 of the third period as the Islanders rallied from a two-goal deficit for a 3-2 victory. 

Dobson's status

Rookie defenseman Noah Dobson, 19, has played sparingly and is not eligible to be assigned to the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, meaning he either stays on the NHL roster or is sent back to his junior hockey team.

He is eligible to be loaned to Team Canada for the 2020 World Junior Championships from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in the Czech Republic. But Dobson, who participated in the 2019 World Juniors in Vancouver, said that topic has not been broached with president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.

“I haven’t really thought about that too much,” Dobson said. “I’ve not ever had a conversation with Lou about it yet. That’s more of a Lou question than a me question. It’s a weird situation. You’d be gone basically for a whole month. I’m not sure what his plan is, but we haven’t had any talks about it.” 

Sharp-dressed man

Dobson is on a three-year, $4.4 million entry-level contract and has invested some of his new wealth in his wardrobe.

“He’s another happy kid in the room, he’s always got a smile on his face,” Martin said. “He enjoys shopping. He enjoys getting clothes and showing everybody what he got the next day.”

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