Islanders Star Mat Barzal Has Shown Growth In His Game

Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

In his first three National Hockey League seasons, Mat Barzal was the Islanders’ leading scorer each year.  In 2017-18, Barzal was “the kid who won the Calder” as NHL Rookie of the Year when he totaled 85 points just edging out former Isles Captain John Tavares by one point.  Then in 2018-19, Barzal’s numbers dipped a bit but his 62-point output was still good enough to lead the Islanders.  And then last season, Barzal topped the Islanders with 60 points in the pandemic-shortened regular season.

Barzal, the Islanders’ best player and the face of the franchise, was rewarded, following a brief absence at the start of training camp this season, with a new three-year contract worth $21 million.   And he’s showing the Islanders that they made a good investment as he is off to a great start to the 2020-21 season leading the Isles in goals in goals (4), assists (6) and points (10).

“I’ve just found myself to be pretty locked in at the start of the season,” said Barzal, the Islanders’ first round pick (16th overall) in 2015.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – JANUARY 31: New York Islanders Center Mathew Barzal (13) celebrates a goal with the bench in the third period during the game between the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers on January 31, 2021 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

There’s no denying that Barzal is a gifted offensive player and his 200-foot game has certainly improved since Barry Trotz took over as Head Coach prior to the 2018-19 season, but Barzal is not just collecting the bigger paycheck that comes with his new contract and being content with his game.  He has shown growth in a very important area this season and it is starting to take his game to a new level.

After The Islanders Rewarded Him With A New Deal, Mat Barzal’s Overall Game Has Improved:

Barzal has shown improvement in his play without the puck.

“He always wants the puck,” said Trotz.  “The good players do.  They want to make plays.  What I’ve noticed with Barzy or what we’ve gotten him to do is that he still has the puck a lot but he’s willing to give it up more and willing to get it back.  He’s had the puck in smaller segments at times. Because of his speed, he becomes extremely dangerous without it.”

A perfect example of that was Barzal’s game-tying goal in the third period on Sunday night against the Flyers.   Barzal saw that Captain Anders Lee was going to track down a puck in the corner so he darted to open space in front of the net, took the pass from Lee, and fired the puck into the back of the net.   Barzal used great instinct and speed to capitalize on the opportunity and it’s that speed, which helped him win last season’s fastest skater competition at the NHL All-Star Game, that has really caught the attention of Trotz.

“Mathew is one of those guys that’s really high skilled guys that have tremendous speed like a (Colorado’s Nathan) MacKinnon, (Edmonton’s Connor) McDavid, and those guys.  They have the puck but when they do give it up and jump through and get it back, they’re almost unstoppable.  That’s where Mathew’s game has grown the most.”

NEWARK, NJ – JANUARY 24: New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal (13) skates during the National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders on January 24, 2021 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

In addition to his play without the puck, Barzal has been committed to getting better in other areas as well.  He’s won over 58 percent of the face-offs that he’s taken and he continues to improvement in his defensive zone play.  Sometimes it’s the little things can help a great player take his or her game to another level.  In Barzy’s case, he’s seeing his efforts pay off in a big way.

“Just bearing down on face-offs and trying to backcheck hard,” said Barzal who will turn 24 on May 26th.  “If you’re engaged in the face-off right away, that just starts your shift and now you’re engaged for the whole shift.  I credit that a little bit to my early success but otherwise just trying to play my game, just moving my feet and trying to shoot the puck a little more.”

For The Islanders’ Star, There’s Still Room For More Improvement: 

If there’s one area of concern in Barzal’s game this season, it’s that he’s taken seven penalties in the first nine games of the season.  While he did notch the game-tying goal on Sunday night in Philadelphia, it was his high-sticking penalty in overtime that led to Kevin Hayes’ game-winning goal.

“The one in overtime I thought was pretty circumstantial,” said Barzal.  “I was just competing on a puck and my stick gets caught up in his visor and he goes down.  It’s unfortunate.  A bad penalty I would say is your hooking up guys on a backcheck or tripping or what not.”

Barzal had 44 penalty minutes last season, 46 the season before and just 30 in his rookie season.  But this season, he’s already at 14 and that would equate to just over 87 minutes over a 56-game regular season.  Barzal loves to compete for the puck and there are times when he pays the price for his aggressiveness.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – JANUARY 30: New York Islanders Center Mathew Barzal (13) and Philadelphia Flyers Right Wing Nicolas Aube-Kubel (62) battle for the puck during the second period of the National Hockey League game between the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers on January 30, 2021, at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

In trying to explain the number of penalties early in the season, Barzal puts it all into perspective but also takes responsibility his actions.

“I’d say I probably (should) be aware of my stick a little more,” said Barzal.  “I think sometimes I’m just competing in the battle or in the moment so much that I kind of get lost in my stick a little bit.  I don’t think my game is really penalty-driven.  I’m kind of just competing on pucks and otherwise I’ve been drawing a lot of penalties too but that’s no excuse to take penalties. It’s definitely something I need to be more aware of.”

The penalties aside, Mat Barzal has been terrific this season as he continues to show growth as an all-around great hockey player.   He’s still young and perhaps his play thus far in his career is just the tip of the iceberg towards where his game is going.  To steal a line from the fans at Nassau Coliseum when John Tavares made his return as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019…

“Barzy’s Better!”

Well, I mean Mat Barzal is a better player because of the growth he has shown.

About the Author

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is a contributor covering the Islanders for NY Sports Day while also writing about general sports in the New York/New Jersey area. In addition to his column, Peter also hosts his “Schwartz On Sports” podcast as he interviews players, coaches, and other sports personalities. He is also currently a sports anchor for WFAN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, and WCBS 880 radio while also serving as the public address announcer for the New York Cosmos soccer club.

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