New York Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal. Source: Getty Images
New York Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal wasn't happy about being sent back to junior last season, but the decision is looking good now as the offensively brilliant 20-year-old has put up too many points not to be the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy.
Mathew Barzal is going to be honest. He’s not going to tell you he understood the New York Islanders’ decision to send him back to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds last season. And why would he, anyway? He had just finished torching his competition for 32 goals and 114 points across 76 regular season and playoff games. He’s not going to say that he was happy to go back for another year of major junior. How could he, when more than a dozen players from the 2015 draft, six of whom were taken after Barzal heard his name called 16th overall, were getting started on their NHL rookie campaigns? Instead, Barzal’s going to tell it like it is.
“I was frustrated at first,” Barzal said. “But after that I put my work boots on. Wanted to win a championship and did that. Wanted to become a better player and didn’t want to let a year go to waste because I was so bitter about being sent back.”
The request from the Islanders was that Barzal return to the Thunderbirds and become a leader. He took care of that by captaining Seattle and guiding a talented team to WHL glory and a Memorial Cup berth, not to mention earning the alternate captaincy on Team Canada’s 2017 word juniors team. Barzal was also asked to go back and “do all the right things,” which is to say become an even more complete, two-way player. He took care of that by skating important minutes on the penalty kill and in all crucial situations, showing he had dimensions to his game. Oh, and there was one other thing. “They wanted me to be a juggernaut, honestly,” Barzal said. “Offensively, score as much as I can.”
Chuckle at the terminology if you will, as it might conjure up the mental image of a hulking mass that towers over opponents, but size be damned, Barzal stomped all over the competition with his 6-foot, 187-pound frame like he was Godzilla turning Tokyo to dust. He registered 10 goals and 79 points in 41 games, boasted the third-best points per game in the league, and was a game-changer in the post-season. Barzal registered a point in all but the final game of the WHL playoffs to finish with seven goals and 25 points in 16 contests. He was crowned MVP, to the surprise of absolutely no one.
But what of that frustration Barzal felt? Well, that fell by the wayside in short order and gave way to something much more useful: understanding. Barzal realized what another season in major junior could do – and did – for his game, what it could teach him about how to control play and be a dominant performer. “Why not be a player who can have the puck all night, play the most minutes, play on the first line, the power play and the penalty kill? That’s where you get better, being that kind of player,” Barzal said. “Once you get to the next level, you have to figure out a way to play that game at a faster pace or a little bit simpler. In terms of becoming a better hockey player, going back to junior, playing heavy minutes every night, scoring and having the puck on my stick a lot benefitted me immensely.”
And the Islanders are seeing the fruits of Barzal’s labor as he’s turned into the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy. As the NHL regular season entered the stretch run, the 20-year-old was leading the rookie scoring race, averaging more than a point per game and impressing just about everyone who has watched him play. Count linemate Jordan Eberle, a player who took a similar path to the NHL, among those who have been wowed by Barzal. “I remember being his age and the biggest thing was confidence,” Eberle said. “He certainly doesn’t lack that. He’s playing with it right now. And with the way he can skate, create speed and create time using his speed, he’s been a dynamic player.”
You can hear that confidence come through, too, when Barzal speaks about his performance across the early part of the campaign. He struggled to start, held without a point through his first five games, but after he found the scoresheet for the first time, the dam didn’t just break — the darn thing exploded. He has not only taken command of the rookie scoring race, he has steadily climbed the NHL's overall scoring ladder to the cusp of the top 10. “I knew what I was capable of on the offensive side and I’ve also been put in pretty good opportunities, playing on the first power play and playing 15 to 17 minutes a night,” said Barzal, who has posted three five-point games this season. “That’s a lot of time that I get to work with to put up numbers. (The coaches) have been doing a good job of getting me on the ice and putting me in spots where I can excel, and I can’t thank them enough. But I’m not really surprised.”
The issue with a young player having so much success so early in his career, however, can be that a bit of overconfidence can creep in. That’s not always a bad thing, necessarily, as Eberle noted the “swagger” that Barzal has about him is what makes him an offensive threat. He carries with him the belief he can make something happen every time he’s on the ice. But as veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who has opened his home to the youngster this season, said, there has been the odd occasion where Barzal needs to be reined in. “Sometimes we have to tell him to calm down a bit, don’t get too high or too low,” Seidenberg said. “But other than that, he’s been great. Very competitive and very eager to get his points and win hockey games.”
And it does appear that points and wins are the two things that have mattered most to Barzal this season, making it a good thing that he and the Islanders have been able to pile up and abundance of both. When push comes to shove, though, Barzal knows the latter far outweighs the former. “It doesn’t really matter to me if there’s a lot of Calder talk or whatever it is, if (Vancouver's Brock) Boeser or (Arizona's Clayton) Keller or (Chicago's Alex) DeBrincat is having a good night or anything,” Barzal said. “I’m worried about what we’re going to be doing in April and May, and I’m preparing for that. It doesn’t really matter to me as long as we’re playing good hockey as a team and winning games. I’m worried about the post-season. We’ll see where those guys are in April, but I know where I want to be.”