Patrick Roy continues to tinker with Islanders’ lineup — even after win

TAMPA, Fla. — Patrick Roy said on Thursday night that he believes Mat Barzal is more comfortable at center than the wing before saying on Friday afternoon that he feels Brock Nelson is more comfortable at center than the wing.

This is where a source of strength for the Islanders — their depth down the middle — becomes a puzzle for the head coach to solve.

It is not groundbreaking to suggest that Barzal or Nelson are more comfortable playing their natural positions than doing something else, just as it is fairly obvious that the same would apply to Bo Horvat, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Casey Cizikas and Kyle MacLean.

But the Islanders can’t play six lines, and therein lies the problem.

New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal (13) moves the puck against the Florida Panthers during the second period at Amerant Bank Arena. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

The preferred solution since Horvat was acquired last January has mostly been to pair him with Barzal.

That paid dividends for much of this season, but Roy started tinkering with that combination a couple of weeks ago before deciding Barzal was better off centering Anders Lee and Hudson Fasching, as he has for the last four games.

“I think he feels more free,” Roy said.

“That’s how I feel. He skates with the puck, he makes plays. I feel like he could be more himself. I know it was his first year as a right-winger, the experience went well. I think he’s more comfortable as a centerman.”

Brock Nelson #29 of the New York Islanders. NHLI via Getty Images

After the latest set of changes to the forward lines during Friday’s practice, it is Horvat’s turn to play the wing, as Horvat lined up to the right side of Pageau, with Pierre Engvall to the left.

Nelson centered Cizikas and Kyle Palmieri, while Barzal’s line stayed the same, as did Kyle MacLean’s with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck.

Saturday’s match against the Lightning, then, will mark just the fourth time this season that Nelson, Barzal and Horvat have all started a game on separate lines, with the Islanders having lost the first three — all while Cizikas was out in the lead-up to Lane Lambert’s firing.

“Maybe a different challenge for other teams, determining who is gonna go against who,” Nelson told The Post.

“We pride ourselves on our depth, for sure. Up front and through the middle, we have a number of guys who can play the middle. Having played with [Barzal and Horvat] for a bit, I thought we were pretty solid. Changing up now is a different look and if we can get all three going, I think we can be dangerous.”

New York Islanders center Bo Horvat. Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The utility here — creating a matchup issue for the opposing team, even without the advantage of last change — also leads into the drawbacks.

Someone’s ice time is going to be limited, and there is not an obvious top line among the three.

That the Islanders are only now starting to experiment with how to best deal with this balancing act so late in the season is an indictment of the lack of creativity shown by Lambert, who was content to stick with what he knew, whether it was working or not.

The idea of changing things after a win would have been anathema even if, as was the case on Thursday against the Panthers, the Islanders accounted for just three high-danger chances over 43:33 at five-on-five. 

Roy has been mixing and matching for about a month, putting the team through a necessary process that should have happened in October or November as opposed to now, when every single game carries outsize weight in the playoff chase.

“I love these things. I love to try things,” the head coach said. “You don’t want to just sit on a win. We want to continue to win.”

The good news is that everyone involved is game to try anything.

“It felt pretty comfortable on the wing, to be honest with you, especially with Bo just getting me the puck and doing a lot of good things there for me as a winger,” Barzal said. “Either position I’m happy to play. Maybe center is a touch more natural. I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on wing. If I need to go back there at some point, I’d be more than comfortable.”

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