SAN JOSE, Calif. — There’s still a learning curve for Barry Trotz as he gets to know his new team.
But after trying to separate the puck-handling skills of Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle in the hopes of bettering two lines, the Islanders coach has reunited them in an effort to coax more production out of his top-six forwards.
Barzal had Eberle on his right wing for the second straight game as the Islanders concluded a four-game road trip against the Sharks on Saturday night at SAP Center. The two were a potent pair last season on a line completed either by Anthony Beauvillier or Andrew Ladd as Barzal won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year with 22 goals and 63 assists in 82 games.
But Trotz, who won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals last season, had Eberle on center Brock Nelson’s line until flip-flopping him with Josh Bailey in Thursday night’s 7-2 win at Los Angeles.
“Production, just more production,” Trotz said when asked what spurred the switch. “We’ve got to get a little more out of our top six than we have. I don’t know the group as well as I probably should even though we’ve been together about a month. We’re still in the learning process.”
Barzal entered Saturday’s game with a goal and six assists in six games while Eberle had two assists in six games. But four of Barzal’s assists and one of Eberle’s helpers came on the power play.
“We play well together,” said Eberle, 28, in the last season of a six-year, $36-million deal. “We both like to have the puck but when we play with each other, we have to share. When I play with Nelson, I have the puck a lot more and I’m trying to carry the play whereas with Barzal, I’m trying to get open because he likes to carry it.”
“I trust him with the puck, that’s the big thing,” Barzal added. “I like getting it into his hands and then get open. He’s just super-smart with it and it makes it easy on me trying to get open.”
In general, the top-six forwards have lagged behind their bottom-six teammates in terms of five-on-five production. For instance, both of Bailey’s goals in the first six games and two of his three assists came on the power play and both of Anders Lee’s goals came on the man advantage.
Trotz said the difference is that his bottom-six forwards have been getting to the net and creating more traffic and havoc than the top six.
“Just a little finish, getting a little greasy a little more and take it to the interior a little more,” Trotz said of his top-six forwards. “I think we got pushed out to the perimeter, that top group, therefore we’re not getting as much production. The goals from the third and fourth lines, they’ve been keeping it pretty simple. They’ve gotten people to the net.”
Barzal is dealing with tougher defensive matchups with former No. 1 center John Tavares gone to the Maple Leafs.
“Last year, I think Barzy had a little bit to hide behind Tavares and get second matchups,” Eberle said. “This year, we’re often going to get that strong matchup. But we’re up to the challenge.”