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Travis Zajac on Mathew Barzal's line provides Isles with flexibility, two faceoff men

Travis Zajac #14 of the Islanders skates during

Travis Zajac #14 of the Islanders skates during warmups prior to his game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Nassau Coliseum on April 8, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

The Islanders’ trade with the Devils last week for Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri widely was lauded inside and outside the dressing room, a probably short-term but seemingly smart addition of two useful veterans.

But for hockey nerds, part of the fun was guessing what Barry Trotz might do with his new puzzle pieces, notably on his first line, which was discombobulated on March 11 when Anders Lee went down with a knee injury.

Leo Komarov still was alongside Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle on Friday against the Rangers. But come Sunday, Zajac was on the top line and Komarov did not dress.

Zajac, 35, who is 1½ years older than the grizzled veteran known as "Uncle Leo," would not have been the betting choice, if there were betting on such things. Many thought Palmieri might wind up there.

After practice on Tuesday, Trotz and Barzal discussed the logic behind the move, which included Zajac’s history as a centerman for the Devils, and specifically his experience taking faceoffs.

Trotz first explained the Zajac move simply by saying, "Intelligence. Hockey IQ. That’s No. 1: experience and hockey IQ."

But asked specifically about faceoffs — and the fact that Barzal took none on Sunday — Trotz said that while Barzal’s faceoffs have gotten better, he can learn from veteran faceoff-takers such as Zajac and Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

"It’s all good," the coach said. "We have two centermen who can go in there and win us a draw."

Barzal said it was a bonus having two players with experience at center on the same line, not only for faceoffs but for versatility during the flow of play.

 

Both players assumed centermen’s responsibilities at times on Sunday.

"He’s obviously an adaptable player, and I think I am, too," Barzal said "So if I’m first guy back, I’ll grab the center spot and be low, or vice versa."

Barzal, who leads the Islanders with 37 points, said general manager Lou Lamoriello "did an awesome job" with the Devils deal, creating a lineup in which "from top to bottom, there’s really no holes at all, just real rock solid."

But as much as Barzal praised Komarov for the job he did filling in for Lee, he hopes to have some time to bond with the new guy now.

"Any time you get a chance to spend a few games with the same guys, it’s nice just understanding how each guy plays and where they go, what they want, what kind of pucks they do well with," he said.

"Yeah, I would like something where we stick together for a little while. But I think me and Ebs have done a pretty job since Lee-sy went out of adapting to who we’re playing with. I think we’ve made it work in every situation."

Notes & quotes: Michael Dal Colle and Ross Johnston, both on IR, practiced . . . Trotz on trading with Ottawa for D Braydon Coburn, who is 6-5, 225 pounds: "All the teams in our division are big . . . A guy like Coburn might fit in really well against some of those teams." . . . Trotz on trade rumors involving Kieffer Bellows: "Thank God we’ve still got him. I think he’s a really good player for us."

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