Jean-Gabriel Pageau started his Islanders career just as the team went into a 0-3-4 slide that led smack into the NHL’s COVID-19 shutdown.
No one seriously tied the slump directly to the player – although teammates did good-naturedly rib him about the coincidence as the team prepared to resume play.
But still, there was some pressure on Pageau to produce given that the cost of securing him included high draft picks in a trade and $30 million over six years on a contract.
Now that the Islanders are seven games into their first playoff run with Pageau aboard, the logic behind his acquisition and generous contract is taking shape.
Sure, he is a mere third-line center on paper, but the versatile 27-year-old seems like the right fit for coach Barry Trotz’s style.
“We identified Pager early on in the process and had many discussions with Lou [Lamoriello] and he did with our scouting staff,” Trotz said on Monday in advance of Game 4 of a first-round playoff series against the Capitals.
“And when it came down to the trade deadline, Lou said this is the type of player we want in our organization. We get an opportunity to get him and he went and got him and he’s been a really good fit for us and gives us that strength down the middle for the next few years, for sure.”
Pageau and defenseman Andy Greene both arrived in February and are playing important roles against the Capitals, whom the Islanders lead 3-0. But Greene is 37 and a short-term helper.
Given his age and contract, Pageau is not going anywhere. If he continues to play as he has recently, he will give the Islanders enviable depth at center and further solidify their four-line approach.
His arrival immediately solved a season-long mystery over whom to use as the third center.
Pageau did make a memorable first impression in February, scoring a goal and getting into a fight with the Rangers’ extra-large defenseman, Jacob Trouba, in his debut. Teammates loved that.
But what he has done this month is more important: Three goals and two assists, plus key roles on special teams and faceoffs. He made perhaps his loudest statement late in Game 2.
The Islanders won, 5-2, but they only had a one-goal lead in the third when their forecheck kept the Capitals pinned in their own end for minutes on end, with Pageau in the middle of it.
“They were getting frustrated,” he said on Monday. “That’s just the way we want to play.”
Pageau partners with Derick Brassard and Leo Komarov on the third line, making for an eclectic trio.
“They do complement each other in terms of style,” Trotz said. “They can chip in and they can defend and they have the element of sandpaper, element of skill and element of speed in there.”
Said defenseman Ryan Pulock, “That line just kind of brings the energy. They kind of create a little bit of a buzz with their work ethic.”
Pageau grew up in the Ottawa area and played with the Senators for all eight of his NHL seasons before joining the Islanders.
It was with the Sens that he reached a conference final in 2017, scoring 10 goals in 19 playoff games.
“He’s had pretty good playoff stats; he’s scored important goals at timely times,” Trotz said. “I don’t think we really had to look at that.
“We knew what we were getting. You saw the year that he had and the way he plays it was an easy decision to identify the player. It was probably a harder decision to go out and get that player.”
When the Islanders obtained Pageau, The Hockey News wrote, “They’re getting a modern-day Butch Goring, and we all know how that turned out when the Islanders got Goring at the trade deadline in 1980.”