Everyone in hockey seems to admire the Islanders’ balance, defensive commitment, coaching and spunk.
Everyone in hockey also seems to agree on their biggest deficiency: the lack of an elite offensive finisher.
That reality hit home Monday night when they played the Rangers and got their first in-person look at a guy who might have provided an answer to that question mark.
Artemi Panarin assisted on the Rangers’ first three goals and scored their next two in a 6-2 rout at Madison Square Garden, making it impossible for Islanders fans not to wonder what might have been.
Remember? The Islanders pursued Panarin as a free agent last summer, even outbidding the Rangers, only to see the talented Russian sign with the Blueshirts anyway for seven years and $81.5 million.
All he has done since is show why both teams were prepared to throw money at him.
Entering Monday, he was tied for fifth in the NHL with 62 points. The first Islander on that list? Mathew Barzal, tied for 50th with 37 points. The next? Brock Nelson, tied for 92nd with 31.
Panarin now has 67 after tying his career high with five points in a game.
Not that he was gloating afterward. He insisted through a translator that it was just another game for him, although he acknowledged that there might have been “some summer thing between the Rangers and Islanders.”
The echoes of that “summer thing” could be felt for a long time.
When one considers that the Islanders’ most skilled player, Barzal, is a playmaker by nature, it is tempting to consider what he would have looked like on a line with Panarin.
But coach Barry Trotz does not allow himself to go there.
“I can’t, because he’s not on our team,” he said before the game. “ . . . There was an opportunity last year that we obviously were looking at him, but he’s not with us. So I don’t really look back. I try to look forward.”
Fair enough. It also is fair to point out that the Islanders are 10 points ahead of the Rangers in the standings.
But in one sense, that makes Panarin’s decision more difficult to swallow: The Islanders would have offered more money and more wins.
Many assumed Panarin was set on playing in Manhattan and the Islanders merely provided negotiating leverage. There certainly is no sign he has regrets. On the contrary, he’s enjoying himself.
“In the beginning of the season, it was not really easy because of a new contract and new team, everything new,” he told Newsday in English before the game. “Right now, it’s so much better.”
Panarin, 28, said his signing decision came down to one thing: “It was in my heart. Usually I do that . . . I look inside.”
Jacob Trouba was asked after the game if anything Panarin does surprises him anymore, and he said, “Yeah, pretty much everything. We just sit on the bench and some of the stuff, guys will look at each other and just be like ‘Wow.’ ”
Ryan Strome, Panarin’s linemate and a former Islander, said before the game, “Having him on the wing is just crazy. Just the way he sees the ice and the plays he makes, it makes the game so easy for me.”
Asked before the game how to best deal with Panarin, Trotz laughed and said, “Keep him on the bench as much as you can, that’d be the best thing. The flu bug, things like that.”
When it was over, Trotz said he tried in vain to find an answer for Panarin’s line. “He had five points,’’ he said, “and probably could’ve had eight points in terms of the chances that occurred.”
Strome did not disagree with the idea that his old team could benefit from a sniper like Panarin. “For sure,” he said. “But at the end of the day, every team needs a guy like him, right?”