Patience, poise of Islanders’ Barzal leaves opponents guessing

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Anders Lee shook his head in disbelief after being asked whether he had the patience of Mathew Barzal with the puck at age 21. Barry Trotz described himself as an “idiot” at that age. “God, to think what I was doing at 21,” said the New York Islanders head coach on Thursday.

To watch Barzal control the puck in high-pressure situations, you would think he was an experienced veteran with years under his belt. Instead, he’s a 21-year-old forward in his second full NHL season in the league who just experienced his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game.

And boy did he leave a mark.

It was Barzal’s play in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net in Game 1 Wednesday night that led to Josh Bailey’s overtime winner.

As Bailey’s chip out of the Islanders’ zone landed along the boards, Barzal and Jordan Eberle entered the Penguins’ zone on a 2-on-1 against Brian Dumoulin, with Zach Aston-Reese rushing to get back. Barzal had a good angle to take a shot from the circle to Matt Murray’s right. Instead, he cut to the slot, which ended with a diving Dumoulin sliding backward in a failed poke-check attempt. Aston-Reese was trying to pick up Eberle and reached him at the side of the net.

Time almost stood still as Barzal stopped on a dime in the slot. He had what opposing teams try to avoid giving up when defending him: time and space.

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A deke and a backhand later, Barzal’s shot rang off the post and fell right to a trailing Bailey, who (after a brief review) sent the Nassau Coliseum crowd home happy.

“I kind over overstayed my stay in front there,” Barzal said of the game-winning goal. “I was just waiting for the right play.”

Scour the scouting reports on Barzal during his draft year and the words “poise” and “patience” appear frequently. Those aren’t traits he’s developed in his two seasons in the NHL, they were with him before he even reached the Islanders.

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Thomas Hickey remembers Barzal’s first NHL training and the impression that was left. The off-the-charts skating ability wowed the Islanders veterans.

“You don’t have total respect for a guy coming out of junior yet, but I think we all learned pretty quick you don’t want to look silly,” he said.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Making opposing defensemen look silly has been a regular thing for Barzal, who has 40 goals and 107 assists in 166 NHL games. His patience and speed controlling the puck helps create scoring chances. So is there a strategic way to shut him down?

“With him, it’s more what you leave him than anything else because he’s got so many tools,” Hickey said. “Certainly a tough player to defend. You can see that with his cut backs, change of speed, agility. It’s special.”

Barzal’s edge work and ability to go east-to-west on the ice forces opponents to pay attention, and sometimes draws them in to create passing lanes and scoring opportunities for his Islanders teammates. As with all talented players, he thinks the game on a different level than his peers and his vision with the puck is one of his biggest assets.

Now battling against his childhood idol, Sidney Crosby, in a playoff series, it was during NHL All-Star Weekend in January that Barzal got to play with the Penguins captain during the 3-on-3 tournament while representing the Metropolitan Division. After the trio helped the division win the $1M prize, the Islanders forward received plenty of praise from one of the world’s best.

“The way he holds onto the puck, the way he skates, 3-on-3, I don’t know if there is anyone better when it comes to holding onto it,” Crosby said. “The way that he can just beat you 1-on-1, beat you with his speed, hold onto it. You watch him out there against the best, I don’t see anyone that really beats him in that category.

Outside of an All-Star Game environment, Eberle and Lee have meshed well on a line with Barzal, after the pair spent part of the season with Brock Nelson in the middle. Trotz reunited the line last month, and Eberle or Lee have become accustomed to playing with the dynamic Barzal.

“There’s definitely a difference between playing with him than there is playing with Brock [Nelson],” Eberle said. “But I played with Barzy all last season, we had a ton of success, and I know how to play with him. I think we play similar games and we think the game similar, that it makes it easy for us. A lot of times he’s doing things that I would be doing and thinking about doing and he’s feeling the same way about my game. It’s just easy to read off each other when you’re on the same wavelength.”

“Thankfully, I think our chemistry’s kind of hit pretty quickly,” Lee said. “Ever since we got put together, Ebs and I and Barzy have done pretty well. The adjustment wasn’t really much at all. He’s so dynamic in the way he creates space for not only himself, but for others, the way he carries the puck up the ice, and sees the ice. It’s really important to feed off each other and make quick plays because he can make those. … He knows when I’m down low, I know when he’s up top, using each other’s strengths has been good for us.”

The scary thing for the other 30 NHL teams and an encouraging sign for the Islanders is that Barzal is still improving. In his first season working day to day with him, Trotz has noticed how responsive his young forward is to being taught, and he possesses the desire to reach the elite level that Crosby achieved years ago.

“He’s maturing all the time, and you want players to mature as players, but as importantly you want them to mature as good pros,” Trotz said. “He’s surrounded by some great people, and he’s learning from great people. There’s some things you want to get out of his ‘junior game’ so he can be more effective at the NHL level.

“He listens and is very coachable. He’s just like all good players, there’s a stubbornness to their game because they’ve had success and sometimes it’s hard to get away from. He wants to be one of the top players in the National Hockey League and hopefully if he stays on the right path as he has he’ll continue to grow and you’ll see him be a player that [he’s capable of being].”

Two years into his professional career, nothing has surprised Barzal’s teammates about their young star. They know he’s going to create scoring chances. They know his speed will turn a mundane situation into a quick attack transition. They know when the moment is big, there will be no nerves getting in his way, as we saw Wednesday night. They know that irrational decisions with the puck is not part of his hockey makeup.

“It’s what made him good at every level he’s played at,” said Hickey. “If you lose that poise, that ability to really show no fear with it, then you take away his biggest asset. That’s what’s got him here. A lot of guys lose a bit of that their first couple of years pro. Thankfully he didn’t lose that because he wouldn’t be the same player.”

MORE: Isles’ Josh Bailey finds redemption in Game 1 vs. Penguins

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Previewing the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Better or Worse: After failing to make the playoffs again, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had to shake up his roster. He didn’t really add a core player, but that’s fine considering he already had Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat on his roster. Instead, he decided to surround those players with some more quality depth. He was able to bring Andrew Shaw back into the fold in a trade with Montreal and he also improved his defense by acquiring Calvin de Haan from Carolina and Olli Maatta from Pittsburgh. With all the uncertainty surrounding the health of goaltender Corey Crawford, the ‘Hawks also signed Vezina-Trophy nominee Robin Lehner to a one-year deal. It’s hard to argue that Chicago isn’t better on paper heading into this season.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Blackhawks have a lot of high-end talent up front. Kane posted a 110-point season last year, while Toews added 81 points in 82 contests during a bounce-back season. They also have DeBrincat, who found the back of the net 41 times last year and Brandon Saad, who can do more than he did a year ago (23 goals and 47 points). It’ll also be interesting to see if Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini continue to improve at a rapid rate. The Blackhawks shouldn’t have much trouble generating offense this year.

Weaknesses: Even though they’ve added Maatta and de Haan this summer, their defense still has to be considered a question mark. How much will they be able to get from veterans like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith? Both players are in their mid-30s and you have to wonder how many minutes they’ll be able to log on a Chicago blue line that has to be better this year than it was in 2018-19. The goaltending situation, which was weak once Crawford went down last year, has been shored up by the addition of Lehner.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 2. It’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks getting rid of Jeremy Colliton during or after his first full year behind an NHL bench. Of course, if things get really ugly for them this season, anything is possible, but it’s tough to envision them dropping deeper into the standings than they have been over the last couple of seasons. Colliton had success with Chicago’s AHL affiliate and although that doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll do well in the NHL, it should buy him some time when it comes to putting his team together.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Strome, Lehner and Shaw are the players to keep an eye on this year. Strome is a former third overall pick that couldn’t seen to put it all together with Arizona. After he got traded to Chicago, all he did was score 51 points in 58 games. Can he continue producing at that rate? Can the 22-year-old actually improve his scoring clip? He could develop into a real difference-maker for this Blackhawks team.

As for Lehner, it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on the strong season he had with the Islanders in 2018-19. Can he produce similar results to last year now that he’s away from Barry Trotz’s smothering defense-first system? Will he play well enough to earn himself a long-term extension with a team that was only willing to give him a one-year deal? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered in this situation.

Shaw is back where it all began. He had a solid season with Montreal last year, as he scored 19 goals and 47 points in just 63 games. Those are significant numbers for a player that plays with an edge. The only question surrounding Shaw is whether or not he can stay healthy. He’s a small player that plays a physical style. The 28-year-old also has a long history with concussions.

Playoffs or Lottery: As much as the Blackhawks have added to their roster, it won’t be easy for them to sneak into a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They’ll likely be battling with St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado for the final Wild Card spots and that’s a battle they might not win. In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish in ninth spot in the West. They’ll be in the race until the end though.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Laine off to Switzerland; Who will play with Crosby?

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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.

• Jets restricted free agent Patrik Laine will practice with SC Bern of the Swiss League. (Swiss Hockey News)

• With Laine and Kyle Connor still not signed, the Jets are relying on Mason Appleton and Gabriel Bourque. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The re-signing of Mitch Marner is a clear message from Maple Leafs management. (Leafs Nation)

• Pension Plan Puppets argues that Marner’s contract is set up for him to fail. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• The Flyers are incredibly disappointed that Travis Konecny isn’t in training camp. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Matthew Tkachuk situation in Calgary could make things ugly for the Flames cap situation. (Flames Nation)

David Backes is hoping to have a great camp so that he can make an impact on the Bruins roster. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Is the Provorov extension a good deal for the Philadelphia Flyers? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Adam Fox is looking to carve out an important role on the Rangers this year. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Canucks need more than just two lines to score if they’re going to make the playoffs. (Vancourier)

• Ever wonder what happy to Robby Fabbri‘s tooth? (NHL.com/Blues)

• Who will play with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel this year? (Pensburgh)

• What’s new on the latest NHL 20 video game? (Game Spot)

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.

Maple Leafs expect Hyman, Dermott to miss significant time

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Once you get beyond the sticker shock of the $10.89M cap hit, the Mitch Marner contract is a reason for the Toronto Maple Leafs to rejoice. Rather than the saga drag on deep into the season like the William Nylander fiasco, Marner is gearing up in training camp.

Apparently the Maple Leafs will still be without a noteworthy player or two anyway, even though their losses aren’t nearly as significant as the prospect of being without Marner.

Head coach Mike Babcock estimates that forward Zach Hyman could miss approximately 14-15 games, while defenseman Travis Dermott may be sidelined for a similar span (12-14 games), according to TSN’s Karen Shilton.

If that forecast is correct, then the Maple Leafs could anticipate Hyman and Dermott back sometimes during this range:

Game 12 – Oct. 25: home vs. Sharks
Game 13 – Oct. 26: at Canadiens
Game 14 – Oct. 29: home vs. Capitals
Game 15 – Nov. 2: at Flyers

Naturally, when it comes to injuries, things can change. Ailments can worsen, or players can heal up faster than expected.

All due respect to two useful players in Dermott and Hyman, but the cap management aspect — particularly use of LTIR, and juggling once they’re ready to come back — is likely the most interesting part of this situation.

We already know that Nathan Horton ($5.3M AAV) and David Clarkson ($5.25M) will be on LTIR through the final season of their tragic contracts, providing $10.55M. Hyman carries $2.25M, while Dermott weighs in at $863K. The window for an LTIR stay is at least 10 games and 24 days, so one would expect that Hyman and Dermott would join Clarkson and Horton on LTIR. With Dermott’s cost fairly minimal, things would be most cramped once Hyman is healthy enough to play again. Will Toronto be forced to make a trade, or waive someone they’d rather keep?

Losing Hyman and Dermott for what sounds like close to a month isn’t great to begin with, but things could be especially tricky once they can actually play.

Although the Maple Leafs solved some of their biggest riddles, they’ll still need to answer more questions in the short term, so Babcock could be a busy man — almost as busy as Kyle Dubas.

(H/T to Rotoworld.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Bruins get another major bargain with McAvoy contract

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Over and over again, the Boston Bruins find ways to sign core players at stunning discounts. They pulled off another steal with budding star defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Sunday.

Remarkably, they signed McAvoy for slightly less than what the Blue Jackets gave Zach Werenski. McAvoy’s contract is for three years, with just a $4.9 million AAV. That’s … incredible value.

Like with Werenski, it’s structured in a way that can make a future contract hefty, and open the door for eventual UFA status. But for a team that’s focused on now as much as the Bruins happen to be, this is even better. It also makes affording Torey Krug‘s next contract feel a lot more feasible. Also, Cap Friendly points out that McAvoy needs more time to reach UFA status than Werenski and Timo Meier, two players who’ve set a standard for how many RFAs approached negotiations this offseason.

When people try to beat up on the Maple Leafs for their expensive top guys, they often (almost unfairly) bring up Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak only costing about $20 million combined – less than John Tavares and Auston Matthews put together. This could be another contract people cite when they shake their head in awe at what the Bruins have done.

(Now, they just need to make sure not to give away any contracts to the likes of David Backes.)

About the only knock on McAvoy, 21, is that he’s dealt with some injury issues. Beyond that, he’s a really well-rounded defenseman, one who’s been instrumental in extending Zdeno Chara‘s career.

Check out how his RAPM charts at even-strength stack up against Werenski, via Evolving Hockey:

McAvoy made a resounding first impression during the 2016-17 postseason, making his NHL debut at that stage, and impressively logging 26:12 per playoff game. He then started strong in 2017-18, generating seven goals and 32 points in 63 games. This past season provided much of the same, as McAvoy scored seven goals and 28 points in 54 regular-season contests and delivering strong work in postseason appearances.

Again, the main concern is staying on the ice, as otherwise McAvoy’s passed his early tests with flying colors.

Cap Friendly estimates the Bruins’ remaining cap space at about $3.2M, and it’s possible that RFA defenseman Brandon Carlo might eat up all of that, or almost all of that breathing room.

This is fantastic stuff by the Bruins. Again.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.