Mathew Barzal reflects on time with Islanders, return to Thunderbirds
Mathew Barzal is back in Seattle and the rest of the Western Hockey League has been put on notice. A team that made the WHL Championship last season and seemed to be starting to find their groove this year just welcomed back perhaps the league’s best player.
Barzal received an extended audition in the NHL that had both T-Birds and New York Islanders fans holding their breath. The Islanders clearly have a great deal invested in the 19-year-old from Coquitlam, B.C. as they sought to find a place for him on a roster loaded with other young talent.
The start of the 2016-17 hockey season went well for Barzal, who with an impressive training camp and preseason forced himself into consideration for a full-time roster spot.
“I thought training camp went really well,” said Barzal, who was picked in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft in 2015. “I had four or five points in preseason and started to get really comfortable with the speed and size and physicality of the players.”
Unfortunately for Barzal, an impressive showing in the preseason didn’t translate to any guarantees when opening night rolled around and the Islanders invaded Madison Square Garden to take on the cross-town rival Rangers.
“It went a little bit differently than I thought it would,” admitted Barzal. “It would have been great to play on the opening night roster against the Rangers or in a couple more games to get a little more comfortable, but at the end of the day, (Islanders) coach (Jack Capuano) went with the lineup he thought gave us the best chance to win.
“He’s a smart guy and there’s a smart management group with the Islanders, so I can’t argue with anything they did.”
Much of what kept Barzal from cracking the lineup this season was New York’s depth down the middle. John Tavares is one of the NHL’s best centers and a player the Islanders have built their roster around. After him, you have Ryan Strome who, like Barzal, they are heavily invested in as a former fifth overall pick. Casey Cizikas, who just signed a five-year contract extension before the season started and Brock Nelson, another former first-round pick, occupy the other two center spots.
“Personally, I thought I played well,” Barzal said of his pair of regular season contests. “In the two games I played I don’t think I blew anyone’s socks off but if you watch my shifts, I thought for the most part I was pretty solid.
“But New York is a deep team and it’s a tough situation for young centers. They have four guys that are pretty established and had good starts to the season. It’s a numbers game and a contracts game and they’re pretty deep through the middle.”
Many questioned why Islanders management might keep Barzal around for so long if he’s not going to play. Why have him sitting in the press box when he could be playing in competitive games in Seattle? It’s not an unfair question, but Barzal has no doubt in his mind that it was ultimately a beneficial experience.
“I’m just thankful that I got into two games and they kept me for as long as they did,” he said when asked about some of the positives he can take away from this rollercoaster experience. “I’ve prided myself for the past three years on being one of the hardest working guys (in Seattle) and I’m a bit of a rink rat — I’m always there. But the hardest working guys in Junior are average in the NHL.
“I was watching (current Islanders) Dennis Seidenberg and Jason Chimera come in an hour before practice every single day to work out and lift heavy. I got a little taste last year during the preseason, but just seeing how these guys prepare is amazing. This year it’s going to be a step up in the gym and holding everyone on the team accountable.”
The Islanders’ choice to send Barzal down for another year of seasoning is about the best news Seattle could have received. It’s been an up-and-down start to the season with the injury to Keegan Kolesar and unexpected return of Ryan Gropp, which eventually led to the trade of Cavin Leth.
For the first time this season, there is now some clarity when it comes to Seattle’s depth chart. Moves will still be made as there is still an overage of bodies up front, but for the most part, the T-Birds know what they’ll be moving forward with.
“We were on hold a bit with the injury to Kolesar and waiting for a decision on Barzal but we always felt we had a contending team when everyone was up and going,” said general manager Russ Farwell. “ We are potentially a better team up front than last year with the steps Alexander True, Matthew Wedman and Nolan Volcan have made and the way Scott Eansor has been playing. The addition of Sami Moilanen really gives us three very good lines and we have a number of guys competing to round out our roster.”
For Barzal, there is no doubt that this will be his last year of Major Junior hockey and his last chance to win the coveted Memorial Cup. If not for the CHL’s agreement with the NHL that drafted players couldn’t play in the AHL until they were 20, it’s almost a certainty that Barzal would have joined the Bridgeport Sound Tigers following his demotion from the Isles.
“When I was in New York, I felt like I could make an impact with the Islanders,” said the ultra-competitive Barzal. “Internally, I just want to win. The same goes when I’m in Seattle. I want to make an impact every single night and I feel like I can be one of the best players in the CHL.”
Once he does make it back into the lineup, which could be as soon as Saturday night when the T-Birds head to Vancouver to face the Giants, Barzal’s style will be heavily influenced by the Islanders, who made it clear what they want to see him work on this year.
“New York told me that if I were to score as many points as I did last year, they’d be very happy,” he said when asked about what it means to him to be the best player he can be. “One thing they emphasized was scoring more goals and really taking pucks to the net. I don’t think I’m a perimeter player but I am a pass-first guy. One day I’m going to make their hockey club on my 200-foot game and being known as a responsible center.”
With all of the changes, is this team built for another long playoff run?
“I can’t see why not,” said Barzal, whose presence alone sends expectations through the roof. “It’s a different dynamic than last year. Our back end and goaltending saved us in a lot of games. I’ve heard Toth is a very good goalie and nothing against him, but (Landon) Bow was great and we had a really strong defensive corps. I think this year our forwards should take another step. We have enough offensive talent up front to really outscore teams this year.”
When Barzal and Kolesar do eventually rejoin the team, Seattle will boast perhaps the best top-nine in the WHL. Adding two players who are both elite scoring threats will improve the T-Birds’ current 2.73 goals-per-game average and give head coach Steve Konowalchuk the advantage when it comes to the chess match that is matching lines against each other.
Whatever happens, it looks like the Thunderbirds are built for another push to the top of the Western Conference.