Most interesting Islanders to watch post-Tavares

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In the wake of John Tavares‘ departure, various New York Islanders players are saying all the right things.

“We wish him the best, but things go on and we’ve got to pick ourselves back up,” Brock Nelson said, via NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce.

Nelson added that Tavares leaving means opportunities for others to step up, and for some, this could be a true “sink or swim” moment. Here’s a rundown of some of the most interesting Islanders to watch in 2018-19, the beginning of the post-Tavares era.

No longer attached at that hip

While he spent some time with Jordan Eberle on his wing, there’s no denying that Tavares’ even-strength linemates were almost always Josh Bailey and Anders Lee. The gap between those two and everyone else is pretty resounding, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s listings.

The stakes are very, very different for the two heading into next season, at least from a financial standpoint.

Sure, there’s no denying that Bailey will have pride on the line. The 28-year-old signed a six-year, $30 million extension in February, when the Islanders organization was probably picturing (or at least hoping) that he’d be Tavares’ co-pilot for the remainder of their prime years. It would be awfully frustrating for Bailey, the ninth pick of the 2008 NHL Draft, to see criticisms flare up again after he seemingly got his career on track.

At least he already got paid, though.

Few players head into 2018-19 with as much money on the line as Lee from a sheer performance perspective.

Lee, also 28, will see a bargain $3.75 million cap hit expire, and it’s extremely difficult to forecast what his next contract will look like.

You won’t come across many quieter 40-goal seasons than the one Lee enjoyed in 2017-18, and he’s been remarkably productive since cementing a role with Tavares. His 74 goals during the past two seasons ties him with Auston Matthews for the fifth-highest total during that time, and he also scored 25 goals during his first full season in 2014-15.

The obvious question is: what kind of production can we expect sans Tavares?

Much like other prodigious playmakers such as Joe Thornton, you can often see snipers stagnate without Tavares. Matt Moulson, P.A. Parenteau, and others have floundered since they left Tavares’ side. Will Lee be the next to do so, and cost himself a ton of cash in the process?

Now, it’s not fair to say that a tough season would outright-condemn Lee as a sniper. For one thing, he probably set the bar too high with 40 goals last campaign, either way. Lee’s shooting percentage was a whopping 19.2, and that was following a 17.8 mark in 2016-17. Maybe there’s superlative shooting talent there, or maybe that’s the simplest sign of Tavares’ influence. Either way, Lee could play quite well next season yet merely suffer from poor shooting luck.

As a fairly big body, Lee’s also a big target for hits, especially when he goes to “the dirty areas” to try to score goals. Injuries could be a concern, too, then.

Either way, it should be especially fascinating to see how Tavares’ main wingers fare without him. For Lee, it could be more terrifying than fascinating.

Barzal’s “the guy,” and more

As the reigning Calder winner following a sensational season, the spotlight was going to shine brighter on Mathew Barzal even if Tavares returned.

Barzal told Newsday’s Andrew Gross that he’s “excited” about the challenge of being the go-to guy with Tavares gone, while Matt Martin added some interesting insight.

“I don’t want to say he’s happy about John leaving, I’m sure he’s not that type of guy. But he does have a chip on his shoulder,” Martin said shortly after being traded back to the Islanders. “I think he believes he can be one of the best players in the league. And you’re going to have to have a bigger role to do something like that.”

A bigger role means better opportunities in some cases. Of course, it also means that he’ll be the primary focus of opponents as a mere sophomore in the NHL. That could be a challenge.

Much like Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle will also enter this Tavares-less season with a lot of money on the line, as his $6M cap hit evaporates after 2018-19. With 25 goals last year, Eberle’s hit 20+ goals five seasons in a row, and he was close to doing so even during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, when he collected 16 goals in just 48 games.

There’s enough of a track record that someone should be very interested in Eberle even if he struggles in 2018-19, but he could really drive up his value by replicating last season’s chemistry with Tavares and then particularly with Barzal. Then again, considering the circumstances, he might also find himself getting traded again.

Trotz, goalies, style changes?

Considering how the wheels fell off defensively and the hiring of Barry Trotz, it’s likely that the Islanders would play a more clamped-down style in 2018-19 regardless of roster makeup. Still, Tavares leaving should only embolden such plans.

Plenty of brows furrowed as the Islanders doubled down on grit in signing Leo Komarov to a big deal, trading for Martin, and sent people rushing to Google the name Ross Johnston.

[Islanders continue trend of signing depth players long-term]

While optimism is rooted in Trotz’s presence rather than Tavares’ absence, it should be interesting to see how New York’s goaltenders perform.

For one thing, it’s easy to forget that Thomas Greiss once stood as a very promising goalie, peaking in 2015-16 when he generated a sparkling .925 save percentage in 41 games. His 2016-17 campaign was respectable enough with a .913 save percentage, while this past season was a full-fledged disaster.

It’s plausible that Greiss might revitalize his career if 2017-18 didn’t totally shatter his confidence.

Naturally, he’s going to need to prove himself, as the Islanders brought in Robin Lehner on a one-year “prove it” contract. One would expect Lehner to boast an early leg up as the starter (or as the 1a goalie if this ends up being a platoon). There’s also probably a scenario where Greiss is passed by someone else in the Islanders’ system, as his leash could be very short after a lousy season.

If the pairing ends up being Lehner – Greiss, it’s possible that both goalies will enjoy more nurturing situations than they endured last season.

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No doubt, things could be dour at times for the Islanders next season, as plans clearly seemed geared toward Tavares staying.

On the other hand, there’s money to be earned and reputation’s to uphold, so we’ll see who will flourish or struggle now that Tavares is in Toronto.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.