Coming into the summer of 2017 (dubbed the Summer of Garth by many Isles’ fans) the New York Islanders needed a 2nd line center desperately. The team had massive holes at 2 spots in their roster, one at a 1st line RW, which later ended up being filled by Jordan Eberle, and then re-filled again with the in house option of Josh Bailey (with Ebs being moved to the 2nd line) and another, more gaping hole on their 2nd line in the form of a much needed, elite center to reinforce the offense and power-play. The Avalanche had the immediate, much sought after answer in Matt Duchene, a 26 year old, elite center who was drafted just 2 spots after the prodigal son, John Tavares, in 2009. In the race for Duchene this summer was the Predators, looking to build center depth for another deep run in May, the Penguins, looking for a third consecutive cup, and the Islanders, just wanting to make the playoffs in the first place. However, Joe Sakic, former Av’s legend and current GM of the struggling franchise, had too high of an asking price for his player who is only under contract through this season and the next, and he ended up not being traded during the offseason. However, today on November 5, 2017, the Ottawa Senators and the Nashville Predators accomplished what was seemingly impossible, by doing a three way trade with the Denver team which saw Kyle Turris being shipped to Nashville, a load of prospects and draft picks to Colorado, and Joe Sakic’s baby boy Matt Duchene being sent to the Great White North in Ottawa. In the end, the mighty Islanders did not end up with their preferred center in Duchene, however it doesn’t really matter to me, nor should it to any Isles’ fans, and we have to thank a handsome, 20 year old prospect named Mathew Barzal for that.
At the beginning of camp in September, it looked like the only 2nd line center Islanders’ fans had to look forward to was Brock Nelson, a player that goes on a hot scoring streak at the beginning of the season, and then vanishes as the year goes on. All of a sudden, at the beginning of the season, fans were treated to watching Mat Barzal skate up and down the ice, making all back-checkers in his path look like they were part of an AHL team. While this treat was not out of nowhere, as Barzal had been in the Isles’ system for a hot minute, as he was drafted by the Islanders in 2015 at 16th overall, after the Boston Bruins passed on him twice for inexplicable reasons. In 2016 Barzal made the team out of camp, however he ended up only playing in 2 games after an unimpressive start, which included him getting a penalty for slashing, and then another penalty before even leaving the box. After his first NHL campaign, he returned to his junior team in Seattle, where he went on to win the WHL championship and was named the league’s playoff MVP. Due to this, fans of the Isles knew he was a prized prospect, and that he was one we’d likely lose in a trade for Duchene. However, this trade never came to fruition, and Mat Barzal once again started a season with the team that drafted him originally. Since then, he’s been one of the Islanders best players, and serves as proof that the team no longer needs to look to trade for a superior center.
Sure, it’s objectively fun to salivate over our keyboards about a 3rd line that contains Duchene and Josh Ho-Sang, especially when the current reality for the Islanders is that their third line that consists of Beavillier, Nelson, and Chimera, is a concoction that produces some of the most boring and unproductive hockey I’ve ever seen. However, a 3rd line that does consist of Duchene (assuming that the current 2nd line stays intact) isn’t feasible at his cap hit. His current contract with his new team produces a 6 million dollar cap hit, and it also ends in 2019, so after July 1st that year, the Islanders would either have to re-sign him for (probably) more than 6 mil, or let him walk off into the sunset of unrestricted free agency. Mat Barzal’s contract, which is entry level until 2020, only has a hit of a measly 863,333 dollars, which is only 1/6 of Duchene’s hit. This is a great value for Barzal as he has similar production numbers to Duchene early on in this season. The money saved on Barzal will definitely come in handy when Garth Snow needs to find a way to re-sign his captain, which will likely end in a very lucrative, multi-year deal.
Speaking of production numbers, the rookie is already ahead of Duchene in points. Through 9 games (out of the young, 14 game season) Barzal has all of his 13 points, notching 5 assists in one game to set an Islanders’ record for the number of assists in one game for a rookie. Duchene, on the other hand, has 10 points through his campaign of 13 games. To be fair to the Senators’ new center, he has played this season on an unskilled Avalanche team, which last year had the worst record in hockey, winning only 22 games all seasone. Duchene will hopefully go on to thrive in Ottawa, and my guess is that he’ll end up higher in the standings point wise than Barzal, but I believe Barzal’s currents numbers makes him a comparable and even better answer at center than Duchene.
In hockey, I’m a big fan of the fun factor, a stat I made up which measures how fun and exciting it is to watch a player play. This is yet another category that I believe Barzal beats Duchene in. Don’t get me wrong, Duchene is a skilled player, an all-star, he scores a bunch of goals and assists a bunch of them for his teammates too. His style, in my humbled eyes (I don’t do much hockey watching outside of the Islanders) is that of a more John Tavares style, not flashy, but it definitely gets the job done. On the other end of the ice, Barzal has superhuman speed, skating prowess, and puck-handling skills. He takes it from the neutral zone, carries it into the offensive zone, and then goes on what I like to call the Tour de Barzal, where he skates in circles all around the offensive zone and behind the net until he can find someone to saucer pass to in the slot for a nifty assist. If you watch hockey and honestly say you do not enjoy the Tour de Barzal, you probably are either a Rangers’ fan or a bad person, and I lose any and all interest in you. While Duchene will likely end up being more productive than Barzal, he loses the highly sought after fun factor award to the rookie, only adding another reason I enjoy having Barzal over Duchene on the Islanders.
In conclusion, as it stands right this second, Matt Duchene is a better player than Mat Barzal, however, Mat Barzal is a 20 year old rookie in the running for a Calder trophy, and Matt Duchene is a 26 year old established all-star. In the future, Barzal could end up being a better player, only time will tell, but in this moment, he is still the better option at center for the New York Islanders for his inoffensive cap hit, his comparable stats, and his fun factor.