With each passing year, Mathew Barzal has continued his ascent towards being recognized as one of the best players in the NHL has to offer.
The Islandersâ€™ star center has garnered respect from pundits and fans alike, and on Sunday during NHL Networkâ€™s NHL Top Players countdown, it was revealed where he slots in among the elite for the 2021-22 season.
Barzal ranked it at number 29 as the only Islander represented so far. Just like the three years prior, he might be the only one. You could have easily made the case for a Brock Nelson, Semyon Varlamov or Adam Pelech to make the list. But Barzal has the star power that comes with being a top-50 contender.
The newest ranking now makes it three straight years Barzal has made the list. Itâ€™s also the third consecutive time heâ€™s moved up significantly. The 24-year-old placed in at 42nd before the 2019-20 season and 49th in 2018-19.
“The thing that really astounds me where Barzal is concerned is that ability to escape laterally,” NHL Network analyst Stu Grimson said. “Side to side he’s among the best players in the game today. Top-end speed, top-end puck handling, he’s got a great shot. But that ability to change direction laterally, to throw off false information … when you get this player underneath the face-off dots, underneath the hash marks in the offensive zone, I think he’s as hard to contain, as hard to defend against, as there is in this game today.”
Barzal slotting in at 30 seems like a very good spot based on the progression he’s seen in his career. He once again led the Islanders in points in 2019-20 and was a clutch performer in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Semifinals. That said, there are still parts of his game that can get even stronger which Grimson also made note of.
“Here’s a guy, you go back a couple of years of 60-point seasons back-to-back,” he added. “When he steps into the NHL he rattles off 80-plus points to win the Calder. To me, he’s on the brink of getting closer to that peak physical strength. I think I see an upward trajectory, upward tick towards in Barzal’s game. I think he gets to that point-per-game we’re accustomed to seeing.”
Barzal will certainly have the fullest of opportunities to get back to that play now with Anders Lee returning from injury and a goal scorer in newly re-signed Kyle Palmieri flanking him on the first line. Those two players are certainly the best linemates in terms of skill that the 25-year-old has been with since entering the league. Barzal was affected big time by Lee going down last year, so those two re-igniting their chemistry should make be something to watch for.
Individually, there are expectations that Barzal can take it to another level at both ends of the ice with this being the fourth year of the Barry Trotz regime. He’s still not on a level of say Sidney Crosby or Patrice Bergeron, but he isn’t as far as some may think. This being year number five for him could be when Barzal’s defensive game takes a huge leap forward.
The Islanders have Stanley Cup aspirations this year, and Barzal will once again play a key role in finally getting them over the hump. Now seen as a top-30 player in this league — or higher if you perceive him that way — he’s in a echelon of special talents and continues to make strides as one of the game’s best.