Maybe it’s the expectations or sheer skill that enables recent NHL rookies to perform better than advertised in recent years. In Arizona, Clayton Keller ranks fifth in the league with 11 goals while last season’s Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher leads Devils’ defenseman with 13 assists. Also amongst those names is Islanders’ forward Mathew Barzal, whose steady play solidifies a vastly improved offensive unit with an injection of energy and determination.
“I expected him to make our hockey club in hindsight,” Islanders’ head coach Doug Weight said of Barzal. “We’ve seen him enough at this level as well as the other level (the WHL) and the changes he’s made in the last twelve months. It says a lot about him, and he’s continued that. We are going to need 24, 25, 26 guys to contribute and we need Barzee to bring it, and he’s been pretty consistent to this point, and it’s been a good first 18 games for him.”
The Islanders’ the combination of good fortune and sound scouting enabled them to select Barzal 16th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft after the Edmonton Oilers had designs on acquiring the promising defenseman prospect, Griffin Reinhart. To obtain Reinhart’s services, the Oilers dealt the 16th and 33rd overall picks to the Isles, who swapped the latter pick and ended up with Anthony Beauvillier. Barzal returned to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds and averaged 84 points in his final two seasons of amateur play.
“I played in junior for four years and had a good coach down in Seattle playing junior hockey that really helped prepare me for the next level,” Barzal said.
“These kids come into the NHL in great shape and play at a high level at a young age,” Weight added. They eat right and understand their bodies and work with the training staffs. The game has exploded from 16, 17, 18 years old. The players come into camp, and these teams probably think you can’t take this kid at 18, but they make the lineup, and they continue to play a role on the team. It’s a younger league, but there is room for everybody.”
Barzal found room to make the Islanders’ roster out of training camp and began showing signs of his advanced billing, centering the team’s second line alongside accomplished veterans Andrew Ladd, and newcomer Jordan Eberle. The trio meshed quickly, and Barzal hit his stride by his seventh NHL game with his first career goal occurring at Madison Square Garden. Barzal’s puck handling and elusiveness would come to the forefront on November 5 against the Colorado Avalanche, when he set the rookie franchise-record with five assists, one shy of Mike Bossy’s overall benchmark set in 1981.
“I think I attribute my success to the coaching staff from the top on down to management and players,” Barzal said. “Everybody has been very open and made me feel comfortable. I think that has a lot to do with it. Mentally, this game can be a tough grind sometimes being a younger guy in the NHL, so they have done a great job letting me play my game, and it’s been awesome.”
With his third multi-point performance of his career in Thursday’s 6-4 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, Barzal sits second behind Keller for the rookie scoring lead, amassing 17 points in 18 games, the most by an Isles’ rookie since Pat LaFontaine in 1984-85. Barzal’s first-period goal came after skating up the wing past three defenders and opened the scoring for the Islanders. With the Isles on the power play trailing by a goal in the third, Barzal fed Josh Bailey for the equalizer and later added a second assist on Jordan Eberle’s empty net goal. Matching the mentality of his team, Barzal proves that he can avoid panic and come through when trailing.
“I think we have some real good veterans in this locker room,” Barzal said. “We can tone down tough situations, and our older players remind us that we are a better team. Right from the first shift in the third period, we came out hard and raised our compete level. Our leaders made sure we were ready to go, and there’s pretty good leadership on this team.
Thanks to his impressive start, Barzal played himself into the conversation as an early candidate for the Calder Trophy alongside the likes of Keller, Butcher, and Colorado’s Alex Kerfoot. Most importantly for the Isles, Barzal provides a healthy balance between distributing the puck and scoring, while continuing to improve other elements of his play including his defense. Surrounded by a capable group of veterans, Barzal can make a smooth transition to the NHL game and provide hope for the both the present and future of the franchise.
“It’s nice (to have my name in the discussion for the Calder). There are some really good players in this rookie class,” Barzal said. “At the end of the day I’m just trying to help this team and make an impact every night. I think we’ve had some really good moments (as a team) and when we are playing our game, there aren’t too many teams that can play with us and we just have to play a complete 60 minutes.”