Entering his eighth year with the NY Islanders, Mat Barzal is the name currently most synonymous with the organization. His skating ability becomes mesmerizing to the audience and defenders, leaving everyone guessing as to what his next move will be. Suffering a lower body last season, Barzal missed a large portion of the season as the Isles pushed their way into the playoffs. He returned to the team for the first round of the playoffs, but it wasn't enough to get past the top-seeded Carolina Hurricanes.
Originally slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2023-24 season, there was speculation Barzal could jump ship like John Tavares and become the face of the franchise with the Seattle Kraken - the same city he was so successful in during his junior hockey career. The rumors were quickly put to rest when Barzal inked an 8-year extension worth $9.15M annually with the Isles last summer. Heading into the season as the team's highest-paid player, the pressure to produce has increased significantly on the 26-year-old.
Barzal's best season came during his rookie campaign, as he was awarded the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. That season, centering the second line behind Tavares, Barzal averaged better than a point per game, finishing with 85 (22 goals, 63 assists). Since then, Barzal hasn't finished a season with more than 62 points (this includes two pandemic-shortened seasons).
Making $7M a year during his previous contract, these numbers were already teetering on the verge of being unacceptable - but now earning north of $9M, his production needs to be closer to what it was during his first season with the team.
Finding someone to play on his wing to dish the puck while racking up the assists has been a missing piece to the roster for quite some time. Now that it looks like Barzal is the winger to lead the Isles to the next level, he'll look to create for his center in Bo Horvat.
The microscope is now focused on Barzal, as every detail of his game will be more scrutinized than ever. Now healthy and with a potential 40-goal scorer on his line, Barzal needs to be the player who leads this team back to the playoffs and brings the best out in those around him. If he goes through a lackluster first year of an eight-year contract, talks of his deal being a "mistake" will be heard across the island.