Andy Graziano, SNY.TV Twitter
For whatever reason, former head coach Jack Capuano was leery to pair superstar captain John Tavares with up and coming winger Anders Lee on a consistent basis. They would play together some, then be broken up after a period of ineffective play by any of the four lines that night. If the Islanders won, Capuano would stick to superstitions in almost all cases, keeping everything just as it was.
This year, after Andrew Ladd was given a week or so to work out chemistry with a player he had never played with before, the lines continued to jumble until a light finally went off, seemingly in the entire coaching staff's heads…..at once. I imagine the gist of the conversation going something like this, "We need a true, top line that can stick together for a long stretch."
And so, the 'BLT' line was born with Tavares centering Josh Bailey and Lee. However, when things didn't quite click immediately, the cries on social media got louder and louder for general manager Garth Snow to go out and find the scoring wing that Tavares so desperately 'earned' and 'deserved'. Only serving as the megaphone for those cries was the horrific start to the Islanders' careers of Ladd and Jason Chimera, Snow's two prize acquisitions in the summer free agent frenzy.
While Snow could not procure the top-line wing that everyone assumed was so vital to the Islanders' and Tavares' success, one was blossoming right beneath his feet, down at ice-level. The product of hard work, determination and an old hockey word that so aptly describes the type of game Lee plays - grit.
After starting the season with only a single goal through his first 18 games, one could logically wonder if the Lee who tallied 35 goals in his first 100 NHL games was real. Or was he just a mirage and a carbon copy of the one who plodded through his second full season to the tune of 15 goals in 80 games before breaking a leg at Madison Square Garden and missing the playoffs?
Good thing for the Islanders that Lee never doubted himself and his abilities. He worked extremely hard, as it has clearly shown, on his skating in the summer of 2016, and has found more explosiveness in his stride, along with making himself even that much tougher to handle when he plants himself on the sidewall or in front of the net. That belief and hard work propelled the line to take off, and in doing so, pushed Lee to 24 goals over his next 49 games, a 40-goal pace.
It clearly has the attention of interim head coach Doug Weight, who singled out the top line left wing during his postgame discussion with Shannon Hogan on MSG Network. "He's been great. Really, through the whole year, big goal after big goal. He's a bruiser and he gets to the front of the net. But, it's not just having the willingness to go there, but also having the skill to make the play. He takes a beating."
Make no mistake, goals are not scored in this league by accident. Especially on the wing, where the grind is that much more physical, game in and game out. Lee has tied his career high with his second 25-goal season in only his third full year and is also one point shy of tying his mark there as well. Only four left wings in the entire league have more goals this season and he sits in pretty good company with Max Pacioretty, Brad Marchand, Alex Ovechkin and Filip Forsberg. That's not even to mention Lee has produced his totals with three to four less minutes of ice time than the aforementioned players.
Need a first line wing? The Islanders don't. They already have one.
Need for consistency
With 17 games remaining, the Islanders have no margin for error, leading the Toronto Maple Leafs by one point for the final wild card spot. It's going to be an absolute battle right to the end and the need for consistency is going to be crucial for New York to earn it and plan a trip to Washington, Columbus or Pittsburgh for the first round of the playoffs.
The initial jolt of energy that comes with a mid-season coaching change is now gone, and the Islanders are 9-6-2 over their last 17 games, earning 59% of all possible points. At that pace, they would end the season at 93 points, which might not be enough to get them in.
In their last nine wins, they have allowed 19 goals. In their last nine losses, 39. In three games over the past three weeks, they have completely fallen asleep at the wheel, getting blown out by Toronto, Columbus and Calgary. Those kinds of losses just cannot happen in the final stretch of games or the Islanders will be watching from the outside.