Andy Graziano, SNY.TV Twitter
The first five games of the 2017-18 season were a struggle for Mathew Barzal. Adapting to life in the National Hockey League is never easy for a rookie and after only playing two games last season, including the infamous outing where he touched the puck from the penalty box, doubts could have crept into the 20-year old's head.
But lest we forget we're talking about a player whose draft stock fell in part due to what some team executives felt was a 'cocky attitude' and an abundance of self-confidence. Well placed stories tell the tale of Barzal responding to why a team should select him with 'don't and see how that works out for you'. General manager Garth Snow jumped at the chance to select the young, dynamic forward with the 16th pick of the 2015 entry draft after the Boston Bruins passed not once, not twice but three times.
Barzal has repaid the Islanders faith in him and backed their decision to send him back to Seattle of the Western Hockey League last year after his two-game run. His presence centering the second line with Andrew Ladd and Jordan Eberle has given New York two lines that can create and sustain offensive pressure, score goals at any time and create nightmares for opposing coaches who try to game-plan a way to slow them down.
Barzal already has a five-assist game to his credit, an Islanders team record for first-year players. Against the Winnipeg Jets, Friday's opponent, two days before Christmas, he notched his first hat trick. Over the course of his last 20-games, the Coquitlam, British Columbia native has points in 15 of them, racking up 22 points in the process and keeping him neck and neck with Vancouver's Brock Boeser in the race for the coveted Calder trophy as the league's top first-year player.
His skill, vision and decisiveness were all on display in overtime Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres, the Islanders' first game coming out of the holiday break. After a terrific hold-up play by Josh Bailey, recognizing captain John Tavares had left the ice on a change, Bailey curled back out of the offensive zone and fed Barzal, just off the bench.
You can see the dynamic rookie's eyes dart from one side of the frozen surface to the other, analyzing what was happening, not only from his bench, as Bailey was changing, but also where the Buffalo defenders were positioned. Once he saw the patch of open ice to his left, he darted there, making a quick outside, inside move that had Rasmus Ristolainen turned inside out before firing five-hole on Robin Lehner for the winner.
Mathew Barzal is growing right in front of our eyes. That aforementioned penalty box brain cramp is long forgotten, thanks to his seemingly lightning quick maturity and adaptation to the professional game.
"It was a good shot," Weight said about Barzal's winner, via NY Post. "I was glad he didn't decide to skate through everybody and deke them."
It's the simple plays, as Weight mentions above, along with his defensive responsibility, that had led to Barzal being one of the first on the team sheet every game, with zero, and I mean zero, chance he will be playing for anyone else...for a long time, either in the American or National Hockey Leagues.
Calder Trophy race:
Brock Boeser (Vancouver): 35 GP, 21-17-38, +2, 96 shots (21.9%), 48.9% 5v5 Corsi, 5.2 PS
Mathew Barzal (Islanders) 37 GP, 13-23-36, +5, 80 shots (16.3%), 54.4% 5v5 Corsi, 3.9 PS
Calvin de Haan is scheduled for surgery after the holidays, a procedure that will put the defenseman out for the rest of the regular season. With Johnny Boychuk now on the shelf week to week with a lower-body injury, an already stretched defense will be put to the test even more. Sebastian Aho should help, but expecting the 21-year old to be a savior might be putting too much early weight on the Swede's shoulders. Aho will not play tonight.