Mathew Barzal, Islanders hold keys to Thunderbirds season

Jul 18, 2016, 11:35 AM

Mathew Barzal’s potential return to Seattle remains the biggest question of the offseason. (T-Bir...

Mathew Barzal’s potential return to Seattle remains the biggest question of the offseason. (T-Birds photo)

(T-Birds photo)

It’s no secret that Mathew Barzal is the most dynamic player on the Seattle roster. The T-Birds boast a number of talented players – you don’t make it to the WHL Championship on the shoulders of one man – but no individual forces opposing teams to gameplan around him in the way that Barzal does.

In many ways, Barzal is the key to Seattle’s success in 2016-17 in the same way that he was in 2015-16.

Last year, he centered the team’s top line, often playing between and creating plays for other NHL draft picks. He led the team in points, assists and plus/minus during the regular season, also finishing third in goals. In the playoffs, he again led the team in points and assists.

Next season, he’ll be expected to have the same impact … assuming he returns to Seattle. At this point, that’s a big ‘if.’ Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell echoed the same thoughts, saying that Barzal’s return is the biggest question mark of the offseason.

While he didn’t say it directly about Barzal, it’s pretty clear that Farwell was implying that Barzal’s status could determine how the Thunderbirds approach next season. When asked if he sees Seattle replicating last year’s success, Farwell said “we have to wait and see who is back.” Moments earlier, he’d indicated that Barzal was the strongest candidate to leave among those who have a chance to advance to the next level or play elsewhere.

Connect the dots and it’s easy to see that much of Seattle’s future hinges on the 19-year-old Barzal.

So, what are the chances that Barzal returns?

When Frans Nielsen departed the Islanders for the Detroit Red Wings earlier this summer, the writing seemed to be on the wall that the position of second-line center was Barzal’s to lose. But fortunately for Seattle, New York is a deep team in the middle.

John Tavares is the Islanders’ first-line center and likely will be for the next decade, which essentially means that there’s one spot left for Barzal, whose style of play and level of talent isn’t a good fit for a third- or fourth-line role.

The Isles also have Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, and Ryan Strome – a former fifth overall pick who also projects as a high-scoring center on one of the first two lines – fighting for spots.

That’s at least four players who already have NHL experience and, according to some, are slotted into the team’s four center spots.

Pete Truszkowski, a blogger for Isles Nation, personally doesn’t believe that there is space for Barzal on the Islanders this season.

“(Islanders GM Garth) Snow went on record and said that he puts a lot of the blame on Strome’s sophomore slump on moving him from center and that he’ll play there more this year,” Truszkowski said.

“With Snow’s comments on Strome, I feel like he’s a lock to start the season at center,” continued Truszkowski. “(Islanders head coach Jack) Capuano has said he loves Brock (Nelson) at center due to his size and defensive ability. John Tavares and Casey Cizikas are locks to play center.”

That’s four young players currently under contract that the Islanders have invested heavily in, including three former first-round picks (Tavares, Strome and Nelson) and one, Cizikas, who just signed a sparkling new five-year,  $16.75 million dollar contract to remain in Brooklyn.

New York does have a history of having their highly-touted center prospects play every forward position, as they did last year with Strome. The same could happen with Barzal, but the Islanders as a whole are deep at forward.

Truszkowski ended his thoughts by saying, “If nothing changes, I don’t think there’s room for Barzal this year.”

With a few months left until either the NHL or WHL season begin, countless numbers of things could still happen. But at this point, it’s still a very real possibility that Barzal comes back to Seattle this winter one year older and hungrier. If he does, expect Seattle to invest heavily in another big run this season.


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