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Mathew Barzal makes his NHL return to the Northwest

Former Thunderbirds star Mathew Barzal is the front-runner to be NHL rookie of the year. (AP)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Playing in his hometown for the first time, Mathew Barzal’s New York Islanders teammates let him lead the team on the ice for warm ups Monday evening at Rogers Arena. Barzal skated on the ice but the rest of the team remained in the tunnel, leaving the former Thunderbird to take a couple of laps all by himself.

It would be the only time that Barzal would be alone all day. After his team’s morning skate, he was surrounded by local media who wanted to know how he felt about playing in his home town.

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The press stood several cameras and recorders deep, but Barzal is used to this now. It comes with the territory of being in the NHL and having the early success that he has experienced. He’s the front-runner to win the NHL’s Calder Trophy, given to the rookie of the year, but he’s not focused on that.

“First thing, we’re in a playoff race,” Barzal said. “I would never put that in front of our team’s success and our shot at the playoffs. I can’t be cheating for points, I’ve got to play 200 feet. Every game for us is so meaningful in terms of the standings.”

While he may be focused on his team’s success, he is the front runner for the Calder because he’s stormed through his rookie campaign. He leads New York – and all NHL rookies – with 69 points that he’s picked up on 18 goals and 51 assists through 67 games.

That includes three nights where he recorded five points, a feat that no rookie has achieved in 100 years. Watching him, he seems to be playing the same way he did in Seattle. He commands the puck, uses his speed and quickness to pressure the defense, luring defenders in and finding open teammates.

The competition is tougher than it was in Seattle, which makes his success all the more eyebrow-raising.

“Early on you’ve got to get used to the speed and find your game,” Barzal says. “At that next level you’ve got to think a little bit quicker. I think once I picked up the speed of the game I was able to play more my style.”

Barzal had hoped to start his NHL career last season. He made the Islanders roster out of training camp and appeared in two games with the big club – two games that weren’t memorable. He got sent back to Seattle, but not without some trepidation.

“I think he went back last year and we had some questions,” Islanders head coach Doug Weight said Monday during his morning media scrum. “He was so good, such a great skater, and so much ability to handle the puck and create space that you know, you worried about whether that league’s good enough for him and if it’s going to challenge him to get better in the areas he needed.

“To Mat’s credit and to coach (Steve) Konowalchuk’s credit… we gave him some challenges and they addressed them all year and he played like a different player.”

Barzal returned to the Thunderbirds and piled up 79 points in just 41 games while leading the club to its first WHL Championship in franchise history.

“I was upset there but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from being a better player,” Barzal says of being sent back. “So, I went down there and stayed, tried to get on the ice early to work on stuff, after practice working on stuff. There wasn’t really a day that I thought I was better than the league.”

While he wasn’t too good for the WHL, he is proving to be a perfect fit in the NHL.

Playing in the NHL now, he’s had the opportunity to come across some of his former Seattle teammates.

Just a few weeks ago, Barzal and the Islanders were in Las Vegas to play Shea Theodore and the Golden Knights. The two were matched up on the ice for most of the night and Barzal got the better of his former mate as he had an assist in a 2-1 Islanders win.

“That was cool, I went out to dinner with him the night before and we were talking,” Barzal said about playing against Theodore. “It was cool to kind of look back and see how far we’ve come. He’s playing in Vegas now and has had a funny road. He’s a great guy.”

Barzal would go on to say he’s excited to see all his former teammates having success. Ethan Bear has been called up to the NHL by the Edmonton Oilers, who just happen to be the Islanders’ next opponent. He also said he talks with Ryan Gropp and Scott Eansor on a regular basis.

While busy in New York, he tries to keep up with the current Thunderbirds as best as he can and talks to his friends still on the team.

The Thunderbirds are in the past now for Barzal as he is just taking the first few strides on his pro career. Two-thirds of the way through his rookie season, he says he still has those moments where he can’t believe that he is in the NHL.

“I have one of those every day,” he said. “Where I can’t believe this is happening. It’s fun.”

Nothing is guaranteed in the NHL and Barzal came into this season with some modest goals.

He wasn’t thinking rookie of the year or setting marks that the league hasn’t seen rookies make in a long time. His goals were much simpler.

“Honestly, my first goal was to just get on the team,” he said. “I was thinking about it all summer, if they were going to try me in the (AHL) and let me develop down there for a bit. My first goal was to get on the roster.”

Barzal is on the roster now and on his way towards NHL stardom.

Monday night in Vancouver, his Islanders lost a 4-3 overtime affair to the hometown Canucks. Barzal had two assists, including setting up a late, overtime-forcing goal in the third period. The Rogers Arena crowd was littered with Thunderbirds sweaters as many Seattle fans had made the trek north to see Barzal.

For four seasons with Seattle, Barzal was theirs, but now those Seattle fans share him with the rest of the hockey world. With the expected arrival of the NHL to Seattle in 2020, Thunderbirds fans should get a chance to see him playing in Seattle again in just two years.

“Obviously I have roots there, playing junior there,” Barzal said of Seattle. “That would be fun to go in there one day and play an NHL game. … I think it’s going to be great. It’s going to be an easy transition as we’ve seen in Vegas. I think in Vegas the atmosphere was unreal, it was so fun.”