The New York Islanders are roughly five weeks away from beginning a transformative and crucial training camp before the puck is dropped on the 2016-17 NHL season.
In addition to working in newcomers Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and now two-time Islander P.A Parenteau, they will be missing Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin in the locker room.
It will also be the time when management and the coaching staff takes a long, hard look at what could be the future of New York's offense. Possessing, arguably, the brightest stock of young talent in the entire league, all eyes will be focused on three players when on-ice workouts begin.
Matthew Barzal, Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang will feel like all of Long Island's eyes are upon them, and truth be told, that might not be much of a stretch.
Barzal almost made the team last season, lasting the longest in training camp before being sent back to Seattle of the WHL to complete his third season of junior hockey. And what a season it ended up being for the 19-year-old from Coquitlam, BC, Canada.
Barzal collected 27 goals and 61 assists for a career-high 88 points in only 58 games before adding another 26 points in 18 playoff contests. Once compared to Conor McDavid, now of the Edmonton Oilers, Barzal has carved his own niche and is ready for yet another challenge to the Islanders' 23-man roster.
SNY had a chance to catch up with the young Islanders star and talk about his goals for the upcoming season as he heads into a crucial development phase of his career...
Andy Graziano, SNY: We know that you sat out the Islanders rookie camp with a minor hip issue, has that affected your offseason training routine? Any idea where the injury occurred and how does it feel now?
Matthew Barzal: "It's feeling real good. I've been back on the ice the past few weeks with some pros. It just kind of happened, it was such a long season last year - I think I played around 95 games with no break and it's such a grind. Things flare up and get sore but no major damage and the news is all positive right now, getting stronger each day"
AG: What is the biggest part of your game that you feel needs improvement as you strive to make the 23 man roster out of training camp?
MB: "I've been working hard all summer on my core and upper body. Last year when I walked into the room as a younger guy, just seeing some of those guys off ice, just massive. Kyle Okposo, Nik Kulemin, Matt Martin and others. I was a pretty thin kid but now I feel like I've added a lot more bulk and am a lot more confident with my physicality."
AG: Describe for the fans how you see your style of play and what they can expect..Who do you most compare yourself to in terms of past or present NHL players?
MB: "I've heard comparisons to Claude Giroux quite a bit. We're not the biggest guys but very quick on the puck, pass first type of players. He's obviously had an unreal career so far so hopefully I can follow in that mold. He's such a smart player and I can definitely see the closest resemblance to his style of play"
AG: Due to current CHL rules regarding young players, your options, while limited, are very clear to you for 2016-17. Either make the Islanders or return to Seattle and finish out your junior career. Does that add any pressure heading into camp and do you feel you have anymore to offer at the WHL level?
MB: "Obviously, the ideal situation is to make the club in New York, I'm really not thinking about Seattle at this point. It's kind of tough that as a 19 year old, you can't go to the AHL, you either make it or go back to junior. But at the end of the day, I'm not satisfied. It will be disappointing but that means I have things to work on. I have a great coach in Seattle, Steve Konowalchuk, who makes me accountable and has really helped me with my game to make it more pro like. Obviously, it wouldn't be my first option to go back to junior, but as of right now, I'm not really thinking about going back at all."
AG: Tell us a little about how you became interested in hockey and how it has led you to where you are, currently. Who have been your biggest influences growing up.
MB: "My dad was a junior A hockey player and just threw me in, like most Canadian dads tend to do. I also loved lacrosse. I honestly loved every sport I played. When I really knew was my first tournament in Quebec, when I won the MVP award, it became the sport I knew I wanted to concentrate on."
AG: What do you see as the biggest differences that will need to be adjusted to between the WHL and NHL as you move forward?
MB: "You see what's going on with Jimmy Vesey. It's crazy. He has a little more experience playing with team USA this summer overseas with some pros but I played 7 pre-season games last year, so I know what it's like as well. He's obviously a real good player and I actually heard the Islanders are talking to him, so that's pretty cool. That could be a real good fit. The differences in the leagues is always size and speed of the game. I know it's a pretty generic answer, but at the end of the day, it's true. Guys also are so damn smart. Every D man plays a great gap, plays a great stick. They read players so well. It's a huge transition. You can't teach that."
AG: Do you feel you actually play your best hockey when under the brightest playoff lights, when the competition really ramps up and the checking gets tighter? You have now collected 40 points in 33 WHL playoff games and 26 points in 24 career international games with Canada, pretty impressive numbers.
MB: "I love being on the big stage, whether its with Team Canada or Seattle or New York. I love the adrenaline. That's what it's all about. If you can't get excited for that, then what kind of hockey player are you, really? That excites me, being able to go out there and show what I can do but I absolutely love pressure and being under the brightest lights. Doesn't intimidate me at all."
AG: How well do you know the other young Islanders prospects, such as Michael Dal Colle, Joshua Ho-Sang and Anthony Beauvillier, even though they play, or played, in other leagues? Have you guys spoken about the challenges that lie ahead?
MB: "Obviously, we get together and talk at camp. But the last couple of years, we have gotten to know each other better and they're all great guys. Anthony Beauvillier and I are very close friends, we both speak French so we get along great [laughs]. Michael Dal Colle is a super guy, we've hung out quite a bit. Joshua is definitely a character but honestly, he's a great person.The prospect pool is so deep but at the same time, everyone gets along so well and that goes a long way in helping us all with our development."
AG: What are your thoughts of the Islanders offseason moves this summer. Losing three mainstay home grown guys in Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin and replacing them with Andrew Ladd, PA Parenteau and Jason Chimera?
MB: "I got to be pretty good friends with Matt Martin, stayed with him the first few nights last summer and he's a fantastic person and tough to lose but they did a really good job, got some pretty good guys. Ladd, Parenteau and Chimera are proven guys and have had solid careers. I've seen it at junior, but never seen it at the NHL level where guys get moved and change teams. It's honestly real fun to be part of, your team being involved in the speculation and rumors, being on the radar. It's a cool first time experience for me, I'm looking forward to getting in and meeting my new teammates. When I was 16, I got a taste when one of my closest friends and teammates got traded. It's kind of surreal at such a young age to have to go through that, but junior hockey in Canada is a business just like the NHL."
AG: What are you major interests outside hockey? Any favorite teams in other sports?
MB: "I honestly follow and love most sports. Football, golf, soccer, even baseball a little more this year. I'm actually a huge basketball fan, like crazy, love the NBA. Big LeBron fan. I couldn't get myself to get on the Golden State bandwagon. I like the villians, hated but prove everyone wrong. Steph Curry, he's so darn good, but everything kind of got put into place for them. They have four all-stars on their team in the starting five now. I can't get myself to root for those guys."