It’s wild to think that in a little over a year, Mathew Barzal has gone from not being on most Islanders fans’ radars to being arguably the team’s most anticipated prospect.
With no first round picks in the 2015 draft, the Islanders seemed like the last team who would get a shot at Barzal, who was expected to be a pretty high selection if not a top 10 pick. But GM Garth Snow surprised everyone, trading 2012 first rounder Griffin Reinhart to Edmonton for the 16th overall pick and using it to take Barzal after the Bruins passed on him with three straight choices.
In other words, a lot of moves and a lot of luck landed Barzal in the Islanders’ hands and the talented center is inching closer to hitting the NHL after a year back in junior. In a pair of interviews today from the NHLPA Rookie Showcase in Toronto, Barzal talks about a few topics including his mental approach to the game, his friendship with a future teammate and his hopes for sticking with the big club past September.
In The Hockey News, writer Matt Larkin lays out the case that Barzal could be the Islanders’ most important addition this season after a muddled free agent signing period. While Andrew Ladd and P.A. Parenteau might not be clear upgrades over the departed Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, having Barzal come in ready for the NHL would change everything.
So does he feel ready?
“I’ve been in the gym lots,” he said. “I’ve been working out really hard all summer trying to put on some size, because you go to the next level, and everyone’s so big and strong. On ice, I’ve been working on my skating, working on my skill. My shot for sure was an eye opener at last year’s camp, just seeing how hard everyone shoots. I was definitely lacking in that area, so I worked on that a lot this summer.
“As a rookie coming in, everyone’s so big, and you’ve been watching these guys since you were four and five years old. Am I intimidated? I don’t think I’m intimidated, but it’s different when you’re playing against guys that are so good and guys you’ve been growing up idolizing.”
Barzal also discusses his fast friendship with defenseman Travis Hamonic, whom he got to know well at last season’s training camp. The two text and talk playful trash with one another in what’s already become a friendly rivalry.
“My first practice against him, I kind of got him good on a 1-on-1, but after that I never beat him again,” Barzal said with a laugh. “So I always throw that in there once in a while. That one time.”
Whether or not Barzal has adopted Hamonic’s offseason outdoor training regimen of chopping down redwoods and killing Sasquatches with his bare hands was not immediately reported.
And at NHL.com, Mike Brophy talks to Barzal about his deft passing and how he approaches the game as an offensive player. Barzal says that his first inclination is to help set up linemates that can score and that he takes inspiration from an Islanders rival (but a really good one).
"When I get asked about playmaking and why I don't shoot more, I play with Ryan Gropp, who probably has the best release in the Western League, and Keegan Kolesar, who absolutely rips the puck," Barzal said. "I'll shoot when I need to, but if those guys are in a position to shoot, I want them shooting. Those guys are pure goal-scorers. It's kind of like [Nicklas] Backstrom [of the Washington Capitals]; if he's looking to shoot or he can dish to [Alex] Ovechkin, you probably want it in Ovechkin's hands."
Nice company to shoot for (pun intended).
Both articles also specifically mention Barzal’s modesty and his humble attitude coming into Islanders camp. While he’s gaining confidence, Barzal knows nothing is guaranteed, even for first round picks with all the goods that fans are clamoring for.
But his goal is clear: to be on the Islanders on opening night.
"I don't like to get too far ahead of myself," Barzal said. "I am going to go in with a humble mindset and work as hard as I can. Hopefully I can make a good enough impression where they can't send me down and I basically work my way into the lineup. There's nothing going to be given to me, I know that for sure."
Islanders fans can get a good look at Barzal’s hands and humility at the scrimmage against the Flyers prospects on September 21st at Northwell Health’s Al Arbour Rink.