Russ Farwell, the longtime general manager of the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds, knows how difficult it is to select the best teenage hockey players in the NHL Draft. As a former GM of the Flyers in the early '90s, like his colleagues he had his share of hits and misses.
But even Farwell was surprised to see the uniquely gifted Mathew Barzal, one of the best players in Seattle history, go unselected for 15 picks - including selections 13, 14 and 15 by the Boston Bruins - before Garth Snow and the Islanders snapped him up in the 2015 NHL Draft.
"We were aware of teams across the NHL that had Mathew as high as fourth or fifth overall in their rankings," Farwell said in a phone conversation from Seattle. "I know Carolina liked him a lot, but decided to go with a good defenseman [Noah Hanfin, fifth overall]. And sure, I was bit surprised he went by those picks Boston had."
So what do you think happened, Russ?
"I'm not sure," said Farwell. "Maybe some teams saw Mat as a star in junior and a potential one in the NHL, but questioned whether he could adjust his style for the pros."
It's easy to second-guess now, especially after Barzal has a five-point game as he did against Colorado last month, or after he turned Aaron Ekblad inside-out on his highlight-reel, no-goal last night in Florida. But the slight at the draft is even more baffling because, if you ask any scout who watched Barzal closely in junior, they'll tell you his dedication and work habits were never in question.
In a 20-minute talk with Farwell, the words "focus" and "drive" are used by him a dozen times in connection with Barzal. Should the Islanders' rookie continue to contend for the Calder Trophy and develop at this rate, some scouts might have some explaining to do.
Farwell and the Thunderbirds had it easier when a 15-year-old Barzal was draft-eligible in the Western League in 2012. Seattle won the draft lottery that year, jumping from the third pick to the first overall. There wasn't any debate.
"Taking Mat was an easy decision," said Farwell. "None of us had to think twice. In his age group, Mat was the guy. Since he was 12 years old, the spotlight has been on him. He was an easy guy to scout."
With the Thunderbirds, Barzal was under the tutelage of former 13-year NHL forward Steve Konowalchuk. The ex-Capital, who earned every one of his 790 NHL games with hard work, was a very positive influence on Barzal.
The smartest move the Islanders have made in recent years, when it comes to player development, was the one to send Barzal back for a fourth season under Farwell and Konowalchuk. To Barzal's credit, he didn't mope. Ater representing Canada at the World Junior Championships, he returned for his final months with the Thunderbirds like a man on a mission. Seattle won the WHL title and Barzal was named playoff MVP, despite missing some action with a bout of mononucleosis.
"After the World Juniors, his outlook was incredible," said Farwell. "He really matured. The driving force behind the Islanders' decision was that Mat would get to play a ton of minutes for us and in every situation, and that paid off for Mat, the Islanders and our club. His game really took off in the second half of last season."
It has continued with his first full season as an Islander. Farwell watches the Islanders closely because of his connection to Barzal and former Seattle defenseman Thomas Hickey. Farwell believes that, despite his player slipping in the draft, Barzal ended up on the ideal team.
"With John Tavares there, Mat doesn't have to be the guy," said Farwell. "That's helped him excel more quickly than just about everyone expected. He's always had the talent, focus and drive. When you think about it, it's amazing how things worked out. When Mat was properly developed and ready for the NHL, he turned out to be exactly what the Islanders were missing."