To win in the NHL or any professional sports league, your best players need to be your best players. That was not the case on most nights during 2021-22 for the New York Islanders and their star center Mathew Barzal. “In order for him to help us, he’s gonna be that dynamic guy,” head coach Lane Lambert said on Tuesday. “That guy who’s pushing the pace and using his teammates and making his teammates better around him.”
Barzal finished the season with 59 points (15 goals, 44 assists), tied for the team lead with Brock Nelson. However, as Michael Stahurski pointed out in Barzal's season preview, per 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.
NY Islanders' Barzal: I have to be among the top players in the League
"I feel like I always put that pressure on myself regardless," Barzal told NHL.com. "I feel like in order for us to be good, I have to be among the top players in the League. I feel like I just didn't do it consistently enough last year. I felt like there were just certain things that just didn't go right, and just didn't feel great about it."
Barzal had a down season individually in a down year for the team. Part of the reason was a lack of continuity with his linemates, a theme that has been common year-to-year but there was especially true during last season. In the past, Barzal found success playing with Jordan Eberle and Anthony Beauviller, as well as Eberle and Anders Lee.
After Lee's injury in March 2021, his role was not filled by Kyle Palmieri when he was acquired from New Jersey, but rather Barry Trotz elected to play Leo Komarov on Barzal's wing throughout the post-season to the frustration of fans. Last year, the rotation of line-mates was even more pronounced with Lee, Josh Bailey, Oliver Wahlstrom, Zach Parise, and others playing on his wing.
All had marginal success playing with Barzal, but most playoff teams have a consistent top line, both in production and familiarity with each other - something that has mostly evaded Barzal during his Isles tenure. "I would love some concrete chemistry with somebody," Barzal said in January. "Rotating guys in and out sometimes is hard to get that chemistry. In saying that, I pride myself on being a guy that can play with anyone."
Entering the final season of his 3-year bridge contract that paid him $7M annually, 2022-23 is set up as a huge year for Barzal to earn a long-term extension considerably north of that number. His ability to bounce back individually will be arguably the biggest key to the team bouncing back collectively.
“We need him to be at his best every night in order for us to have success,” said Lambert. “The one thing I’ve learned about Mat, certainly over the last four years, is his growth as a player. As an overall player. And his point production may have dropped a little bit, but it’s the other areas of the game where he’s improved.”
The Islanders are counting on Lambert's new voice and fresh face to provide a spark for Barzal and a way for him to get back towards the point production the team needs to score consistently enough to win games in a highly competitive Eastern Conference. A big part of that will be finding the right line combination with enough chemistry and sticking with it for the majority of the season.
"At the end of the day, it's a team game, and I just know that when I'm playing well, I know we have a better chance," added Barzal. It's true when he's playing well, the team has a better chance to win, but the organization needs to also create a situation that provides him with a better chance to succeed.