New York Islanders forward Mathew Barzal is starting to heat up, and that’s a scary proposition for other teams in the conference.
Barzal, 21, notched three goals against Toronto—finishing the week with five goals and an assist over a two-game span, as he was named the league’s second star of the week.
Meanwhile, the Islanders held former captain John Tavares off the stat sheet on Saturday night. Playing for the first time against his former team, Tavares had some quality scoring chances, but was ultimately kept from lighting the lamp.
If nothing else, Saturday night’s matchup pitted two elements against each other for the Islanders—the past against the future.
Tavares was the face of the Islanders franchise for nine seasons, leading the team in scoring and bringing the club to the second round of the postseason. From the time he stepped onto the Coliseum ice until his final game at Barclays Center, Tavares represented the Islanders in all of his interactions.
But this summer, Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million deal with the Leafs, and his public image took a big hit. He published a Players’ Tribune article attempting to quell tensions, but that hasn’t seemed to work—when the Islanders take on the Leafs at Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 28, Tavares will be greeted with boos and jeers.
It would have been easy for the Islanders to go back into rebuilding mode. But Lou Lamoriello recognized that the current roster has plenty of talent—and that more help is on the way in the minor and junior ranks. So Lamoriello decided to surround his young core—Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Devon Toews and Jordan Eberle — with hard-nosed, gritty players. The Islanders are currently in playoff position, even as they retool.
Instead of dwelling on the past, the Islanders decided to look towards the future.
The future is brightest with Barzal, the second-year forward from Coquitlam, British Columbia. Barzal was the 16th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, after being passed on repeatedly by the Boston Bruins.
Quickness, patience, and intelligence are all words that come to mind when thinking of the youngster. In the opinion of Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analyst, Barzal is a “smooth-skating playmaker who boasts superior playmaking ability.”
Over his first 122 career games, Barzal has 89 assists and 121 points—jaw-dropping numbers for a kid born in 1997.
So what’s holding him back from becoming one of the premier offensive talents in the league?
While Barzal ranks tenth with 89 assists over the last two seasons, he comes in at No. 100 when it comes to scoring goals. This, of course, isn’t a big problem. Barzal is an elite playmaker, and the Islanders have other forwards to bury the puck—Eberle and Anders Lee, to name a pair.
But if Barzal starts scoring goals, he will go from good to great—a scary proposition for the other teams in the Metropolitan Division.
In the last week, Barzal has doubled his scoring total, from five goals to 10. Likewise, he has been taking more shots. Since Dec. 15, when he recorded a goal and an assist against the Red Wings, Barzal has been averaging 3.25 shots per game—higher than the 2.06 clip he posted in the previous 30 contests.
“I’m just trying to do the right things out there and play in the system,” Barzal told Newsday’s Andrew Gross. “If you just do everything honestly for the team and help them win, when you play like that, things seem to fall into place.”
For Barzal, becoming more of a team player may mean sharing the puck less than he has done up to this point. While he will continue to be one of the premier playmakers in the game, adding goalscoring to his repertoire will make him an even more potent force on the ice.
For the rest of the league, that is a scary proposition.