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.
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.
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.