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Drafted by Islanders, Mathew Barzal slips into ideal situation

T-Birds center Mathew Barzal was as surprised as anybody to be picked by the Islanders. (Thunderbirds photo)

SUNRISE, Fla. – If you somehow predicted that Thunderbirds center Mathew Barzal would be the 16th selection by the New York Islanders in the first round of Friday night’s NHL Entry Draft, you just might be a genius.

After all, the Islanders didn’t even have the selection as of Friday afternoon. When Barzal surprisingly slipped past Boston’s three consecutive picks at 13, 14, and 15, Islanders general manager Garth Snow seized the opportunity to trade for the pick, which had originally belonged to the Pittsburgh Penguins before they traded it to Edmonton.

Snow sent Griffin Reinhart, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, to Edmonton in exchange for the No. 16 pick and the No. 33 pick.

Barzal was as surprised as anyone else to be heading to Brooklyn.

“At the start of the day if you told me I was going to be an Islander, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. “Giving up Griffin Reinhart, he’s a big asset. For them to jump up and pick me like that, it shows they have interest in me. You want to go to a team that really appreciates your game. I’m so happy they jumped up and grabbed me.”

What makes the pick more surprising is that New York hadn’t even spoken to Barzal prior to the draft. Most teams like to interview players at least once or twice during the pre-draft process in an effort to get to know them better, but that wasn’t the case for the Coquitlam, British Columbia native.

“To be honest, they were one of the teams I didn’t even talk to at the (NHL) Combine,” recalled Barzal. “I had no idea this was coming.”

Most prognostications had Barzal getting picked right around 10th overall. That selection belonged to the Colorado Avalanche, who possess a number of connections with the Thunderbirds. Current Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk played parts of two seasons with Avalanche Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Joe Sakic, and Sakic’s son was recently selected in the WHL Bantam Draft by the T-Birds.

Realistically, Barzal could have been picked anywhere after the first five selections, but when Boston stockpiled first-round picks over the past couple of days it seemed like an obvious fit. The Bruins have done their homework on recent Seattle players as well, with their free-agent signing of Justin Hickman being the most obvious example.

“I was a little bit (surprised about Boston), to be honest, and maybe the other picks too,” said Barzal on getting passed over by a few teams that seemed like strong fits. “You never know with a draft like this and the talent in this age group. Anything could have happened today.”

Konowalchuk was in attendance Friday night and also expressed that he was a bit surprised by Barzal slipping to where he did.

“I believe he’s a top player that could have gone higher,” he says. “I know there were teams that were debating him close to the top 5. But it’s funny, one guy gets taken out of order and everything shifts. I think he’s a good player and he could have been up in that area but I also understand that drafts never go according (to plan). Where he’s picked is a very big honor. Not too many players get that honor so he should be very proud of himself.”

The most obvious reason for Barzal getting taken where he did was the knee injury that forced him to miss a couple of months during the WHL regular season. While it wasn’t a hockey-related injury as it occurred in the locker room during a road trip, it could have caused some teams to shy away from spending a valuable first-round selection on him.

“It was a tough nine weeks,” said Barzal of the time he missed after fracturing his kneecap. “I was proud of myself how I bounced back. I thought we had a good run at the end of the season.”

Fortunately for Barzal, even though the circumstances were unpredictable, he finds himself in an ideal situation as he joins a young team that boasts a talented roster with Stanley Cup aspirations in the near future.

“I’ll drop how many spots I need to to be on a team that’s competing for a Stanley Cup,” said Barzal when asked if being a slightly later pick could actually be a positive for him. “If (the Islanders) get by that first round (in the NHL playoffs), you never know. They could have been playing in the Finals. For them to already be a Stanley Cup team says what they’ve got in the system already.”

The strong Islanders roster is led by John Tavares, the first overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft who entered the league with high expectations of his own. He’s since gone on to become one of the league’s best centers at just 24 years old.

“It’s going to be nuts,” says Barzal on playing with Tavares. “I’m excited to get on the ice with him and see how he handles himself and what he’s like. He’s a great guy to model your game after and I would like to learn a few things.”

The importance of having an established leader such as Tavares is not lost on Konowalchuk, who had a long NHL career of his own.

“It’s huge,” says Konowalchuk, who spent most of his career with the Washington Capitals. “You go to an organization with the proper leaders and the kind of program that the Islanders seem to be building right now, they’re on the way up. Tavares seems to be the real deal on and off the ice. You learn from him.”

This year won’t just be a learning experience for Barzal, however. He’ll certainly be playing student when he heads to Islanders camp, but when he makes his likely return to Seattle, he’ll be expected to assume the role of teacher.

“It’s the same thing we try to do,” continued Konowalchuk. “We expect Barzal to be an example to the young guys and one of those leaders. It’s very important to have the right leaders and I think the Islanders are in a very good position to be a top team for the next while.”

While the road had a couple of forks, it’s hard to think of a situation that could have been better for the gifted young center. He won’t be rushed into the NHL and won’t be expected to shoulder the weight of a team’s future on his shoulders, yet he’ll have every chance to become an impact player at the game’s highest level.

Barzal says that he’s never been to Brooklyn – only Manhattan &ndash but that he’s excited to be playing in a city with a buzz that he describes as “unreal.”

Unreal – probably the best way to describe Barzal’s draft experience.