Once the final horn sounds on the 2022-23 season, the first thing on the minds of the New York Islanders faithful will be the future of star center, Mathew Barzal. Barzal is entering the final year of his three-year, $21 million contract and at the conclusion of the season will become a restricted free agent.
As he is a restricted free agent, Barzal will not be free to join whichever team he pleases. The Islanders will have the first chance to sign Barzal and would receive compensation if he were to agree to an offer sheet with another franchise if said offer sheet goes unmatched.
But, as we've seen the past few days, just because a player is a restricted free agent, that doesn't mean there aren't ways to force themselves out of their current situation. Overnight, former Calgary Flames star Matthew Tkachuk was shipped off to southern Florida to join the Florida Panthers. Tkachuk made the Flames aware that he did not intend to sign a new contract to remain in Alberta.
In return for Tkachuk, Calgary received last seasons league leader in assists, Jonathan Huberdeau, along with MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt, and a first-round pick. Before the trade was completed there were rumors that Tkachuk wanted to continue his career with the St. Louis Blues. Tkachuk's father, Keith, played nine seasons in St. Louis and is where Matthew spent a large part of his youth.
Similarly, since it was revealed that Seattle would be the home of the 32nd NHL franchise, social media has been filled with rumors that Barzal would eventually spur the Islanders and head west to become the face of the franchise for the Seattle Kraken. Seattle is where Barzal played junior hockey with the Seattle Thunderbirds, leading the team to a Western Hockey League title in 2017.
Barzal has never shown any intention of joining Seattle, publicly at least, but the thought still brings back memories of John Tavares leaving the franchise to join his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. At the time, newly appointed GM Lou Lamoriello could not convince the Mississauga native to re-sign with the Islanders, even offering more money than the Maple Leafs.
Tavares and Barzal spent one season together on Long Island. The team was an offensive powerhouse, but as strong as they were offensively, they were equally as abysmal defensively. The Islanders would go on to miss the playoffs, finishing seventh out of eight in the Metropolitan Division, and Barzal would go on to win the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. Soon after Tavares bolted north of the border, he referred to Barzal as "the kid who won the Calder" in a press conference - a nickname that would stick with Barzal.
Since entering the league, Barzal has only seen one consistent winger capable of scoring in bunches, which is Anders Lee. During Barzal's rookie campaign, Lee finished the season scoring 40 goals - a career-high. Though Lee is an extremely valuable winger, aside from being team captain, he makes his money within five feet of the goal crease. He isn't the type of goal scorer who finds the back of the net from distance. Capitalizing on rebounds and deflections is where Lee excels.
Finding a consistent, goal-scoring winger for Barzal to play with night in and night out has been a major need for the Isles' top-six, yet, they constantly strike out in pursuit. Whether it be Artemi Panarin or Johnny Gaudreau, the Isles can't seem to reel in the big one.
The organization is hoping that Oliver Wahlstrom could become that guy. The two have not seen much ice time together aside from the powerplay, with former head coach, Barry Trotz, showing a lack of confidence in Wahlstrom to step up and become the winger Barzal everso needs.
When it comes to superstars in the NHL, it is not frequently they jump ship during free agency. Moving a player of Tavares' or Gaudreau's caliber would generally be done via trade. Teams maintaining the rights of their best players could be one reason we see so much parity in the NHL. When each season kicks off, at least 20-25 teams typically believe that they are capable of being named Stanley Cup Champions.
On the other hand, in the NBA, it's commonplace to see the league's superstars bounce around from team to team multiple times in their careers and create "superteams." Though the NBA is still a far cry from the NHL with its lack of parity among contending teams, what is preventing NHL superstars from ditching their current digs in search of greener pastures?
Aside from the current situation in Calgary, two things typically can solve the issue of losing a superstar. Money and winning. There should be no issue when it comes to the Islanders splashing a pile of cash in front of Barzal's face, but as we've seen in the playoffs during the 19-20 and 20-21 seasons, Barzal desperately wants to win.
The emotion he showed after the Islanders were eliminated both years by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning was proof of how much winning means to him.
If you want to keep your star happy, you get some better players to surround him. In return, better players make him a better player, which results in more wins. It all sounds so simple in theory, yet, the Islanders have failed to do so and could now enter another off-season wondering if they will lose a franchise player once again.