How going back to junior helped Mathew Barzal become a dominant player

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Every hockey player wants to get to the NHL as fast as possible, but sometimes spending an extra year in junior or in the minors can make a huge difference.

Mathew Barzal played two games with the New York Islanders at the beginning of last season before being sent back to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. There’s no doubt that Barzal would’ve wanted to spend the year in the NHL like fellow rookie Anthony Beauvillier did, but it didn’t end up happening.

Barzal went back to Seattle with the right attitude. He ended up working on his game and having a huge year for the Thunderbirds, his country and himself. He finished his junior campaign with 10 goals and 79 points in only 41 games. Barzal was an influential part of his team’s first ever WHL Championship, as he accumulated seven goals and 25 points in 16 playoff games. He also added two assists in three games at the 2017 Memorial Cup (Seattle went 0-3 in the tournament).

The Isles forward also served as an assistant captain for Team Canada at last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. It was his second straight season on Canada’s roster. In his first year, he had three points in five games. Last year, he had an impressive eight points in seven tournament games. Unfortunately for Canada, they lost in the gold medal game to Team USA.

“I think (going back to junior) helped,” Barzal told PHT earlier this week. “I think it just let me play my game. I got to play lots of minutes, make a deep playoff run and win a championship. I had a good coach there in Seattle (Steve Konowalchuk) that kept me honest as a 19-year-old. I went to the World Juniors, I got a lot of good experience playing in big games. I think it was just a good development year.”

Through 46 games this season, the rookie has already amassed 16 goals and an impressive 47 points. We’ll never know if he would’ve been able to accomplish that had he not gone back to the WHL last season, but it certainly didn’t hinder his development.

“(Barzal’s) game has skyrocketed since late in October last year when he went back to junior,” head coach Doug Weight said. “He worked on the things he needed to work on. It’s refreshing to see when you have that tough meeting and you challenge him in those things and the things you’re supposed to say as a coach and a friend. He went back and he worked on it and it showed in his game in Seattle.

“He’s had a lot thrown at him and he’s just been terrific.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Isles have Beauvillier, who was developed in a different way. Barzal (15th overall) and Beauvillier (28th overall) were both selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft. Instead of going back to junior, Beauvillier stuck around in the NHL. He finished last season with a modest nine goals and 24 points in 66 games. This year, he seems to have hit a wall while Barzal has been flat-out dominant.

During the Islanders’ bye week earlier this month, they assigned Beauvillier to the minors where he played three games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (he scored two goals). The 20-year-old has eight goals and four assists in 35 games this season.

Unlike Barzal, Beauvillier just seems to be holding on for dear life in the NHL right now. That doesn’t mean he won’t develop into a solid player, but going back to junior and dominating for a year might have been better for his development (yes, hindsight is 20/20).

Most of the talk around the Islanders organization has been about John Tavares potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. Losing their captain would be devastating, but the fact that they’ve helped develop Barzal into a dominant player would lessen the blow if Tavares decides to leave.

Of course if he sticks around, the Islanders would have a formidable one-two punch down the middle for years to come.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.