As the coronavirus shutdown continues for all sports, there isn’t much to talk about currently. For the NHL and the New York Islanders, it’s mostly about waiting for word to come down as to when they can return to play. But there might also be another thing worth discussing — Mathew Barzal.
Before the season was suspended last Thursday, the 22-year-old had just eclipsed the 60-point plateau for the third straight season. He was, once again, the leading point scorer for the Isles as they battled for a playoff spot. And he’d just come off another solid performance in his team’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Canucks in his native British Columbia.
The two-time All-Star has been carrying the Islanders since the break and pretty much all season. Which poses the question, if the season is canceled, where does the franchise see itself with Barzal?
Obviously, he’s the face of the franchise and their most valuable player. It’s been that way since former captain John Tavares left for Toronto two summers ago. While all the hoopla has always been about getting help around Barzal, there were more than a few instances this season where a lack of leadership and maturity has overshadowed his skill and insane hockey sense. The late-game moment 3-2 OT win in Buffalo back in December, the benching during the third period against the Rangers before the All-Star break in late January, and most recently his infractions in the Ottawa game and in Vancouver, are all examples of where the organization needs him to grow his game.
“You’ve got to stay in the moment,” head coach Barry Trotz said about Barzal after his bad decision nearly derailed all the Isles’ momentum in the game last Tuesday. “It’s all a part of the learning process and something you have to fight through.”
Look, this isn’t an article to rip him, but it’s clear that even though Anders Lee might wear the “C” on his jersey, Barzal turning into a leader is just as crucial for this organization to be successful. He is an RFA heading into this summer with his rookie deal expiring, and there’s no doubt he’s going to be paid by g.m. Lou Lamoriello, despite the rumblings of possible offer sheets and contract disputes.
Barzal has shown the qualities a team would want in a leader — fiery, competitive, resilient — to a certain extent. Still, he needs to prove even more that he’s going to be “the guy” moving forward.
What that means is showing more consistency.
Before his second period tally in Ottawa last week, Barzal had just three goals in his past 31 games. Those types of slumps are brutal, especially after he had started this year off red hot before cooling down. And many will say it’s because he doesn’t have the top players around him, but Barzal has the type of ability to transform the guys around him in vice versa.
The Islanders would also benefit well in the future if Barzal played a more straightforward game. I know, I know, he’s the only one who can drive anything offensively. But watch at times this year, that type of individual play has resulted in an abundance of turnovers and self-inflicting mistakes that have altered games.
We’ve already mentioned his maturity, but just to add to that, Barzal just needs to be aware of situations to engage and to stay away from. At 22, it’s easy to be a hothead. Then again, when a team depends so much on you, there has to be a middle ground. That comes with growing your game and showing accountability in oneself. By going this route, Barzal would not only be seen as a different player among his teammates but also the referees.
There’s no doubt the Islanders are building around Barzal as the centerpiece of their future. He being that key piece also means taking steps to become the star everyone believes he’s capable of being.
The Isles might not know what the future holds, but they know where they stand with Mathew Barzal. It’s an evolving place, one that looks different the next time they step on to the ice.