A week ago, New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello, in as soft and subtle a way possible, made it clear that he holds the team's two-highest paid players, Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal, to higher standards. There has often been a narrative surrounding the team that before and after Barry Trotz, the players haven't always been held accountable to the extent that they should, and Lamoriello's soft jab, was not only warranted, it was true.
"Mat’s been playing very well,” Lamoriello said. “We like to think that players like Bo and Mat, there’s always more to give, and we’ll never accept where they’re at that time."
Lamoriello made sure that he pointed out the positive things each player was doing, but didn't back down from the notion that more was expected from each. "I’ll never give them the satisfaction that we can’t get more," the Isles GM stated.
Over the last two games, each player has responded. Horvat scored in both New Jersey and Carolina, but it's been Barzal playing at borderline superstar level, with a flare reminiscent of his Calder Trophy season. After a three-point night in New Jersey, Barzal capped off a four-point night with the OT winner in Carolina. It was the first time since 2018 that he had consecutive three-point games. He now has 23 points (6G, 17A) in 22 games, which has him on pace for a career-high 26 goals and 85 points, matching the total from his rookie season in 2017-18.
In The Hockey News, beat reporter Stefen Rosner did a deep dive into why Barzal is now firing on all cylinders, a quarter of the way through his first full season as a winger and it wasn't all about what he's doing differently offensively alongside Horvat.
"He's come along defensively. And this is the reason he's playing better offensively," head coach Lane Lambert said. "He's in the right positions defensively for the most part, and it's helping his offensive game. And he really did a lot of good things tonight [Thursday]."
The Islanders are paying Barzal $9.15M AAV over the next seasons to be more than a very good player. The 26-year-old needs to become a perennial All-Star and a point-per-game type of player, that, with Horvat can give the Islanders a dangerous top line that is a given each night.
The last two games have been a glimpse into the type of player Barzal can be when everything is clicking. When he's trusting his instincts and playing freely and confidently, he's one of the most exciting players in the league.
Barzal now has to show that he can sustain this level of performance throughout the season and lift this team when they are struggling. Even then, Lamoriello won't let him be satisfied, but he'll be a lot closer to reaching the full potential the GM expects.