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Building off a breakthrough: Mathew Barzal

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

Frankly, the Islanders’ brass would be pretty brash to ask more of Mathew Barzal following his sensational Calder-winning campaign.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Barzal scored 22 goals and 85 points during his rookie year, lighting up highlight reel after highlight reel with his blinding mixture of high-end skill and remarkable confidence. Few players of any experience level would think to attempt the moves Barzal would throw out there, let alone pull them off as often as Barzal did in 2017-18.

You don’t really need to use the “for a rookie” caveat with what Barzal accomplished this past season, although such comments really cement how special his year was. His 85 points rank as the best for a Calder-winner since Evgeni Malkin scored exactly that many back in 2006-07.

Only 12 players scored more points than Barzal, whose 85 tied him with Brad Marchand and Jakub Voracek for 13th overall last season. So, yeah, Barzal set, well, the bar very high.

Expectations will be steep for Barzal, and not just because of his eye-opening breakthrough. With John Tavares gone, people will expect – or the Islanders will simply need – Barzal to be “the guy.” It’s not outrageous to picture Barzal becoming captain very soon, but even if he doesn’t wear the “C,” he’ll be expected to carry the scoring burden. Not the easiest draw for a guy who’s about to enter his sophomore year.

Not that Barzal seems to shrink from the spotlight.

Beyond his dazzling skills, Barzal seems to boast that swagger you look for in a star, and what the Isles might need after losing Tavares.

“I don’t want to say he’s happy about John leaving, I’m sure he’s not that type of guy,” Matt Martin said of Barzal, via NHL.com. “But he does have a chip on his shoulder. 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.”

Granted, this doesn’t hinge on Barzal alone.

With Doug Weight gone for Barry Trotz, will Barzal receive the same free range to grow and learn from his mistakes? There’s always that concern that a more defensive-minded coach might hinder a scorer such as Barzal, especially considering that he’s still so wet-behind-the-ears.

(Speaking of behind the ears, Barzal will need to deal with old-schooler Lou Lamoriello, too. The National Post’s Michael Traikos captured the follicle follies that are already taking place with the Islanders. Fun and dumb stuff.)

Will there be excessive punishments in lost ice time or press conference criticisms if Barzal’s chance-taking backfires, as it almost always does for players who take chances? Might Trotz dial Barzal’s ice time back, in general, because of his defensive proclivities?

For all that went wrong with the Islanders last season, Barzal’s deployment went quite well. He averaged identical power-play ice time as John Tavares, as both logged 3:10 of man-advantage time per night. It didn’t take long for Weight to lean on Barzal overall, either; after averaging 15:28 TOI in October, Barzal’s ice time average never slipped below 16:58 in any other month.

With Tavares out, the Islanders could experiment with giving Barzal even more opportunities. There’s no better time than now to find out if 20-minute-type-work suits Barzal.

(That might seem like a no-brainer, but you also don’t want to hurt his confidence, especially if this Isles team ends up being rough next season.)

It should be fascinating to see how Barzal handles being the focal point of this Islanders team. He’ll receive the big-time offensive opportunities, yet he’ll also be the top focus of the opposition. Even if everything goes well, topping 85 points won’t be easy.

If anyone can do it, Barzal can pull it off. He’s simply that good, and he presents an Islanders an opportunity to show that they can put a star center in the perfect situation after failing to do so with Tavares.

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.

The Buzzer: Namestnikov’s revenge game; Crosby keeps dominating

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Three Stars

1. Vladislav Namestnikov, Ottawa Senators. Two years ago Namestnikov was skating on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line alongside Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. After boosting his value, he was then used as a trade chip for the team to land defender Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before the 2017-18 trade deadline. After a mostly disappointing stay on Broadway, he was traded to Ottawa this past week for another fresh start. So far, so good, and it came at the Lightning’s expense. Namestnikov scored two goals — including the game-winner — for the Senators on Saturday to help his new team get its first win of the season. On paper, this game should have been a mismatch, but the Senators drastically outplayed the Lightning in what was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. After scoring 50 goals and 100 points a year ago and finishing in the top-four of the league in both categories, Draisaitl is picking up where he left and is once again looking like a superstar. He finished with three points on Saturday afternoon — including two goals — to help the Oilers improve to 5-0 on the season. He and Connor McDavid (two more points on Saturday) are carrying the offense again.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Penguins’ forward lineup dealing with a ton of injuries they are going to need their captain and his line to dominate for them to have a chance to win. Right now, they are dominating. Crosby was great once again on Saturday night, picking up two more points in a 7-4 win over the Minnesota Wild, including a highlight reel backhand goal off the rush. He has recorded at least one point in every game this season and already has eight in the Penguins’ first five games. The Penguins also received some surprising production from their recent call-ups with Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty both recording their first NHL goals.

Other notable performances on Saturday

  • Brendan Gallagher finished with three points for the Montreal Canadiens as they handed the St. Louis Blues their first regulation loss of the season.
  • Rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov was amazing again for the Washington Capitals as they defeated the Dallas Stars. In his first two NHL starts Samsonov has allowed a total of two goals. He is the future of the position in The District.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his strong start with another goal in the Kings’ 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • The Winnipeg Jets overcame an early 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks to win in overtime on Mark Scheifele‘s second goal of the season. The Blackhawks remain winless.
  • Mark Stone, Will Carrier, and Max Pacioretty all had two points for the Vegas Golden Knights in their big 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Semyon Varlamov picked up his first win as a member of the New York Islanders by stopping all three shootout shots against the Florida Panthers. He also made 35 saves through regulation and overtime.
  • Tanner Pearson scored a goal in regulation and then added the game-winning goal in the shootout for the Vancouver Canucks in their win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • The Boston Bruins’ top line was once again dominant as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron both scored goals in a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils to keep them winless. Tuukka Rask was also brilliant again and has stopped 90 of the first 94 shots he has faced this season.

Highlights of the Night

It may have come in a losing effort but Kaapo Kakko‘s first NHL goal for the New York Rangers was a beautiful play.

Jacob De La Rose had one of the few highlights of the night for the Detroit Red Wings with this nice looking goal.

The Columbus Blue Jackets handed the Carolina Hurricanes their first loss of the season thanks to this great effort from Pierre-Luc Dubois.

The Colorado Avalanche improved to 4-0-0 on the season and it was new addition Andre Burakovsky scoring the game-winning goal for the second game in a row.

Blooper of the Night

There is really no other choice here, it has to be Jimmy Howard‘s gamble in Detroit that turned into a rather easy goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Rest in Peace

Factoids

  • The Capitals’ win against the Stars was their first regulation win in Dallas since the 1995 season. [NHL PR]
  • Phil Kessel played in his 1,000th NHL game on Saturday night, making him the third youngest active player to play in 1,000 games. [NHL PR]
  • Penguins goalie Matt Murray recorded his 100th career win on Saturday night, making him just the eight goalie since the 1966-67 season record 100 wins in 166 games or less. [NHL PR]
  • The Los Angeles Kings set a franchise record for fasted three goals, scoring three goals in 30 seconds during their win over the Nashville Predators. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers are the first team in NHL history to come-from-behind to win each of their first five games of the season. [NHL PR]

Scores
Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Rangers 1
Ottawa Senators 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Los Angeles Kings 7, Nashville Predators 4
Winnipeg Jets 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Boston Bruins 3, New Jersey Devils 0
Montreal Canadiens 6, St. Louis Blues 3
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Detroit Red Wings 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 2 (SO)
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Washington Capitals 4, Dallas Stars 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Minnesota Wild 4
Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (OT)
Vegas Golden Knights 6, Calgary Flames 2
Vancouver Canucks 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (SO)

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jimmy Howard’s gamble goes poorly, results in easy Maple Leafs goal (Video)

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Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard had a great start to Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He was giving his team a chance to hang around against one of the best offensive teams in the league and keeping them in it when they were not at their best. But with 30 seconds to play in the second period of what was a tie game, he decided to gamble and charged out of his net to try and win a race to a loose puck so he could knock it away from Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev.

His gamble did not work.

That is unfortunate.

It was all downhill for Howard and the Red Wings from there as they surrendered three more goals to the Maple Leafs in the third period to drop a 5-2 decision.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Devils lose again, remain winless: 3 takeaways on slow start

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The New Jersey Devils were one of the biggest stories of the offseason thanks to some aggressive roster moves by general manager Ray Shero.

Along with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall, the Devils won the NHL’s draft lottery and selected Jack Hughes No. 1 overall to add to a young core that already included the No. 1 overall pick from the 2017 class (Nico Hischier). They surrounded their newly formed core with the big summer acquisitions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds.

Expectations immediately skyrocketed and there was a ton of optimism around the team.

That optimism might be starting to quickly disappear.

Following Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Devils remain winless (0-3-2) through the first five games of the season and you have to wonder how much longer it is going to be until head coach John Hynes’ seat starts to get a little warmer.

What has gone wrong for the Devils so far? Here are three key factors.

1. It has been a slow start for the new faces

Out of all the big offseason acquisitions, Gusev is the only that has found the back of the net through the first five games (he has two goals). Other than that, it has been a giant goose egg for everyone else that was expected to make a difference.  Simmonds and Subban have combined for just two assists, while Hughes is going through some early growing pains with zero points and only 10 shots on goal through the first five games.

When it comes to Hughes you had to expect some struggles at times. He is 18 years old and making a massive jump to the NHL. Not everyone is going to step in and immediately be Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Connor McDavid. And while Subban is off to a slow start and might be starting to slow down a little, he has enough of a track record and is still good enough that you have to think he is going to shake off this slow start.

Adding to the problems offensively is that Hall, Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri have combined for just two goals so far (both belonging to Palmieri). If you wanted to put a positive spin on this for the Devils it’s that their best players haven’t yet played anything close to their best hockey. They are not going to struggle this much forever.

But as long as they do, goals — and wins — are going to be few and far between.

2. The power play has been awful

Calling it awful might actually be an understatement. After their 0-for-4 performance against Boston on Saturday night the Devils are now 0-for-15 on the season. That is zero goals in 30 minutes of power play time, and it is not like they have been unlucky. Entering play on Sunday their power play unit was one of the worst in the league when it comes to generating shot attempts and getting shots on goal.

3. Goaltending is still an issue 

It is not the biggest issue, but it is still an issue and it was the single biggest question mark the team had entering the season. Through five games the Devils have allowed at least three goals in every game, with Saturday’s game in Boston being the first one where they did not allow at least four. While the team in front of them has not been particularly good on any given night, the duo of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood has an .863 save percentage after Saturday. No matter what is happening around them, your team has no chance with that sort of production from your goalies.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kakko scores first goal, but Rangers fall to still unbeaten Oilers

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It was a pretty significant afternoon at Madison Square Garden on Saturday as the Edmonton Oilers won their fifth consecutive game to open the 2019-20 season with a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers.

This is the Oilers’ first 5-0 start since the 1985-86 season, while they also set an NHL record with their fifth straight come-from-behind victory to open a season.

This particular comeback wasn’t too daunting as they only needed to overcome a one-goal deficit after falling behind late in the first period. That Rangers goal was scored by prized rookie Kaapo Kakko, his first of what the team hopes will be many goals in his career. It was also a pretty spectacular way to get on the board as the 2019 No. 2 overall pick took a perfect pass from Ryan Strome and finished a slick play to beat Oilers goalie Mike Smith.

Have a look.

That would be the lone highlight of the day for the Rangers.

From there the Oilers’ stars took over with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl each tallying multiple points in the win. McDavid finished with a goal and an assist, while Draisaitl scored two goals and added a helper on McDavid’s goal.

The big day continues what have been incredible starts for the Oilers’ top two players. McDavid is now up to 12 points through the first five games, while Draisaitl has 11.

In a lot of ways this season is still very similar to what we have seen from the Oilers in recent years. When McDavid and Draisaitl are at their best they can carry the team on their own, just as they have done through the first five games this season (with a lot of help from offseason acquisition James Neal).

The real test for the Oilers this season will be what happens when their two superstars cool down, because they simply will not keep scoring at a pace like this all season.

Still, these early games count just as much as any other game and it is always important to stack wins and bank points whenever you can, and a 5-0-0 start to a season is always something big to build on.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.