When the word "excitement" and the NY Islanders are mentioned together, the first name that comes to mind is Mathew Barzal. The 26-year-old, who is now heading into his seventh professional season, remains one of the most electrifying players in the NHL. As the Islanders look to bounce back from a disappointing 2021-22 season, much will lie on the shoulders of the Coquitlam, BC, native, as he is the driving force behind the franchise.
Like most of the Islanders' lineup, Barzal had a down season in 2021-22. Finishing with only 59 points (15 goals, 44 assists), Barzal still managed to tie for the team lead with Brock Nelson. However, according to QuantHockey, his .808 P/GP (points-per-game played) was the second lowest of his career (.756 in 2018-19) and the first in which he did not lead the team as Nelson held a slight edge, finishing with .819 P/GP.
"It seems like we’ve just had so many (games) packed together. There are some tired bodies in that room. A lot of mileage this year, it felt like. Obviously, not where we thought we’d be. Coming into the start of the year, we thought we’d be competing for the cup."- Mathew Barzal
Aside from his rookie campaign, Barzal has played the rest of his career under former head coach Barry Trotz. Trotz is known for his strict defensive system, which can be limiting for offensive-minded players like Barzal. This season, he will be playing under newly appointed head coach Lane Lambert. Though Lambert came through the NHL ranks under the tutelage of Trotz, it is believed he will allow for a little more creativity, which would certainly benefit a player of Barzal's caliber.
Since his Calder Trophy-winning season in 2017-18 when he led the team with 85 points, Barzal has failed to score more than 62 points in any of his five following seasons - although two were cut short due to the COVID pandemic. During his rookie year, Barzal was seeing minutes as a member of the second line as former captain John Tavares was centering the team's top line. Tavares' line required the attention of many opposing top defensive units, allowing Barzal to operate against opponents' second or even third pairings.
Throughout much of his career, Barzal has had captain Anders Lee playing alongside him. Down the stretch last season, Lee was moved to the wing of Brock Nelson, where the two found much success. Lambert may decide to start the season where last season ended, putting Lee with Nelson and either Kyle Palmeri or Josh Bailey. That could likely garner the attention of the opposition's top defensive pairings allowing Barzal, possibly with Oliver Wahlstrom and Zach Parise, a more favorable matchup.
When the puck is dropped on October 13th, against the Florida Panthers, it will be the start of the final year of Barzal's three-year $7 million AAV contract with the Islanders. He will remain a restricted free agent as the team hopes to agree to a long-term contract with their most recognizable player. Rumors have swirled around social media that like Tavares heading to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Barzal is going to pack his bag and leave Long Island for the Seattle Kraken, which is where he played his junior hockey with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Barzal has always worn his emotions on his sleeve when it comes to winning. His emotion was on full display following the Islanders' elimination in the Conference Finals/Semi-Finals in consecutive seasons by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Barzal has made it clear how badly he wants to bring the Islander franchise and their fans the success they've been clamoring for. Entering the final season of his contract, Barzal will need to show he is the man for the job if he hopes to cash in on his next deal.
As we've seen across the league, players tend to step their game up while in a contract year. If Barzal wants to be paid among the top players in the league, this is the year he will have to prove his name belongs in the top tier of centers and we could see him have a season reminiscent of his rookie year. Barzal and the Islanders are hoping for a breakthrough season, returning the franchise to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.