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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: What happens if Preds don’t turn season around?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s no secret that Predators general manager David Poile felt like his team needed a signficant change or two heading into this season. During the summer, he went out and unloaded some big money and he spent some on the free-agent market, too. But now that we’re four months into the season, we can say that those changes haven’t really worked.

The first significant move the Preds made was unloading P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils. The trade didn’t net Nashville a big return, but it was clear that they were just looking to offload his $9 million cap charge and that’s exactly what they did.

Poile then turned around and used that money to sign free-agent center Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million deal. Duchene was one of the top players to hit the open market and the Predators clearly needed an upgrade up front and down the middle. No one questioned the fit because it filled a need.

Trading Subban proved to be a wise decision. His play in New Jersey has left a lot to be desired and you have to wonder whether or not a previous injury has slowed him down for good. But giving Duchene $8 million per year hasn’t exactly paid off yet either. Through 45 games, the 29-year-old has 10 goals and 32 points.

It’s not just on Duchene though.

Poile has already fired head coach Peter Laviolette and his replacement, John Hynes, is 3-4-0 with his new team through seven games. Sure, that’s a small sample size, but coaching changes are supposed to give teams new life. Sometimes that burst lasts a short while, sometimes it goes on longer, but the Preds haven’t really seen a change in their results.

“Every year and every team you go through different challenges, and there’s different things that present teams positively and negatively,” Hynes said, per the Nashville Post. “Right now our biggest task from the coaches to the players is finding a way [to] put multiple games together, [to] put full games together.

“So, it’s on everybody — the coaches and the players. The good thing is we know what the challenge is. It’s not like you’re at a dartboard. I think we know exactly what we have to take care of, and that’s part of what our challenge is as a group and that’s what we have to overcome.”

Heading into tonight’s non-conference game, they find themselves six points back of Vegas for the final Wild Card spot. The good news is that they have four games in hand on the Golden Knights. The bad news is that they have to leap over four teams to get into a playoff spot.

So, what happens if they don’t turn the season around?

On a somewhat positive note, the Predators have most of their own picks in the upcoming NHL Draft. Unlike San Jose, they didn’t sacrifice their first-round pick in any trade. On the contrary, they added a second-round draft pick from New Jersey in the Subban deal.

Still, this is a team that had long playoff aspirations this season.

Would Poile get the boot? It’s possible, but unlikely. This is the first time the Preds would miss the playoffs in a while and you’d have to think that the long-time GM would get the benefit of the doubt.

Whether they keep him or not, they’ll have some interesting roster decisions to make.

Is Ryan Johansen working out? How can they unload Kyle Turris? How much do they pay free-agent to be Mikael Granlund? Can they address their bottom pairing on defense? Is the Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros duo good enough?

These are all legitimate questions that will need answering this summer if these players don’t get things turned around.

Johansen is arguably the most intriguing case.

He has five years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $8 million. He’s still just 27 years old and if they wanted to move him, they could probably do that. But that still leaves them lacking a productive centerman.

What they really need to determine is whether or not their Stanley Cup window is closed. That will impact how they answer all the other questions on our list. With the way the roster is built and the age of some their players, it’s hard to envision the Predators thinking they don’t have a chance to turn things around quickly. Blowing this up after this year is a little premature. But if they don’t make the playoffs, something has to give. They’re going to have to fix the blemishes on the roster and that won’t be easy.

Liam McHugh will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Anson Carter and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Mike Tirico will handle play-by-play duties for Caps-Preds on Wednesday Night Hockey alongside analyst Mike Milbury and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher from Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: All-Star reactions, handicapping the Pacific Divison

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Liam McHugh, Anson Carter, and Keith Jones give their impressions of All-Star Weekend, including rave reviews on St. Louis as a host city. Pierre McGuire interviews Dallas GM Jim Nill, and Anson tells you what Rodney Dangerfield and Ben Bishop have in common. Plus, the guys handicap the uber-tight Pacific Division entering the stretch run.

Start-1:50 Intros
1:50-8:00 Reaction to All-Star Weekend
8:00-14:45 Battle of Alberta heats up again
14:45-26:30 Pierre interviews Jim Nill
26:30-32:35 How far can Stars go?
32:35-end Handicapping the Pacific Division

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Weber’s comeback year; Where should Bolts upgrade?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• If the Predators continue struggling, they’ll have to ask themselves some tough questions. (The Hockey News)

• There’s several reasons why there should be concern in Winnipeg, according to Travis Yost. (TSN.ca)

• The Jets have an issue on defense and there’s no easy way to address it. (Arctic Hockey)

Chris Tanev has helped Quinn Hughes settle into the NHL. (Sportsnet)

Shea Weber is having a great comeback season and people around the NHL are noticing. (The Score)

• Dave Andreychuk answered five questions from NHL.com. (NHL)

Boone Jenner is playing big defensive minutes for Columbus, but is that working out? (The Cannon)

• How have the Bruins done in their own end this season? (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• It’s officially time to call the Canadiens sellers. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Which position should Lightning GM Julien BriseBois consider upgrading before the trade deadline? (Raw Charge)

• The Coyotes added Taylor Hall via trade in December. Is it time for them to keep buying? (Five For Howling)

• On the Forecheck breaks down the untouchables and the tradable players on the Preds roster. (On the Forecheck)

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.

The Buzzer: Blues edge Flames in shootout; Eichel sets new career high

The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames
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Three Stars

1) David Perron, St. Louis Blues

After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.

2) Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.

3) Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators

It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.

Highlights of the Night

Blues forward Robert Thomas feathered a beautiful cross-ice pass between a couple of Calgary Flames to set up Alexander Steen to open the scoring.

In his 500th NHL game, Jaden Schwartz recorded his 17th of the season when he redirected a pretty pass from Brayden Schenn.

[RELATED: Predators facing difficult road in playoff push | How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division]

Blooper of the Night

Who should get credit for this empty-net goal?

Stat of the Night

Scores

Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

St. Louis Blues 5, Calgary Flames 4 (SO)

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.