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How Anders Lee's injury has affected Islanders' top line

Mathew Barzal of the Islanders shoots against Carter

Mathew Barzal of the Islanders shoots against Carter Hart of the Flyers during their game at Nassau Coliseum on March 20. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

Barry Trotz dislikes putting definitive designations on his forward combinations as the Islanders coach emphasizes four-line balance. Still, there’s no debate Mathew Barzal is counted upon to be the No. 1 center and, therefore, Jordan Eberle is the top-line right wing.

But the trio has been in flux since captain Anders Lee suffered a season-ending, torn right anterior cruciate ligament on March 11. Rookie sharpshooter Kieffer Bellows played four games on Barzal’s left wing before grinder Leo Komarov was given an audition.

"It’s been good," Barzal said. "I really feel like there’s chances to be had out there. There’s pucks in the slot. We’ve had the puck a lot. We haven’t been playing much defense, so that’s always a plus."

The Islanders continued a four-game road trip in Boston on Thursday night as the Bruins resumed their season after Saturday’s game in Buffalo and Tuesday’s game against the Islanders were postponed because of COVID-19 issues.

Barzal entered Thursday’s match with just two assists in his first six games without Lee — Bellows had three goals in his first two games on the line — and had gone nine games without a goal.

Eberle had a goal and three assists in his first six games since Lee’s injury but that was his lone goal in a 10-game span.

Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello has acknowledged Lee’s injury has shifted the team’s priority heading toward the April 12 trade deadline. Lee was placed on long-term injured reserve, allowing the Islanders to use his $7 million salary-cap hit to spend above the $81.5 million cap ceiling.

While Lamoriello scours the trade market for scoring help, rookie Oliver Wahlstrom brought a four-game point streak (three goals, two assists) into Thursday’s game as he plays on third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s right wing.

On the surface, a seemingly simple solution would be elevating the right-shooting Wahlstrom to Barzal’s line.

However, that would likely force Trotz into a major overhaul of his top three lines.

Eberle is also right-handed shot, as is Barzal. And while Trotz values versatility — Josh Bailey, for instance, has played both wings and, occasionally, in the middle — he is not ready to move Wahlstrom to his off-side.

"You try to put guys in position," Trotz said. "Like Ollie, this year, I probably wouldn’t move him over. But, in the future, maybe. Ebs would be a guy that you’d want to give him a heads-up. You just wouldn’t do it. You’d probably say, ‘For next year, think about playing a little bit on the other side.' But, sometimes, you may have to do something like that based on injuries and we’re dealing with the COVID era.

"But I try to keep guys that are most comfortable in that position, a heads-up."

Left wing Anthony Beauvillier, who brought a modest, two-game goal streak into Thursday’s game, has past experience playing with Barzal. But his game has improved since he was switched onto Pageau’s line with Wahlstrom.

So, while Trotz may still have some short-term juggling to do with his lineup to set his combinations, Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, seems to be a long-term answer to help the Islanders’ production.

"He’s playing good hockey right now," Barzal said. "He’s doing the right things out there, which is nice to see. He’s getting the puck low and he’s not trying to make fancy plays. He’s just doing his thing. And he’s got those goal-scoring instincts that make him lethal. That’s going to be good for his whole career. He’s going to be a lethal goal scorer in this league for however long he’s playing."

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