It didn’t take long for the Islanders to acknowledge the transition from one era of their franchise history to the next.
John Tavares signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs a week ago. The Islanders’ Facebook page now features a picture of Mathew Barzal celebrating a goal.
The social media switch reflects the Islanders’ reality. Ready or not, Barzal, 21, is the team’s new marquee player and No. 1 center, a potential future captain and, quite likely, the face of the franchise even more than new president Lou Lamoriello.
And those who have known him since he was a teenager insist Barzal craves this prominent role.
Barzal, the runaway winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, flourished as The Man for three seasons of junior hockey with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.
“Matt was a high-profile guy,” said Russ Farwell, Seattle’s vice president of hockey operations. “To go there and assert his game into the NHL and play the way he did, it was special. He’ll be a driven guy for years. A lot of guys are reluctant. Matt will really embrace stepping up.”
“Absolutely,” added Andy Eide, who covers the Thunderbirds and the WHL for ESPN-710AM in Seattle and Sportsnet.ca. “That’s the role he had in Seattle. He was the face of the team while he was here. He relished that role. He wants to win but he also wants to be ‘the man.’ He wants the puck on his stick at the big time.”
Of course, the NHL is a huge step up from the WHL. But Farwell and Eide said they were impressed with how well Barzal’s game translated to the bigger stage.
“It was remarkable to me how much it was the same game,” said Eide, who was in attendance as Barzal notched two assists in the Islanders’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Canucks in Vancouver on March 5. “The puck on his stick, whirling around the ice. That was the game he played in juniors.”
Barzal, selected 16th overall in 2015, had 22 goals and tied Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier’s club rookie record with 63 assists as he centered the second line last season. With Tavares on the top line, opponents had to split up the defensive responsibilities to counter those two.
The presumption is that Barzal will be elevated to the top line, meaning he likely will see more matchups against the opponent’s top defense pair and best defensive line.
Barzal said he already has had that discussion with new coach Barry Trotz.
“He said it would be different my second year,” Barzal said. “I’ll get more attention and, without John, it will be amplified. I’m excited about that. That’s being competitive. I take that more as a compliment, more of a respect thing.”
Barzal said the expectations he has for himself will not change with Tavares gone. But he’s ready to embrace a bigger role.
“Oh, of course I’m excited,” Barzal said. “Obviously, you can’t replace a guy like John.”
“He’s a high-end talent, that’s for sure,” added left wing Matt Martin, reacquired from the Maple Leafs on Tuesday. “I don’t want to say he’s happy about John leaving, I’m sure he’s not that type of guy. But he does have a chip on his shoulder. I think he believes he can be one of the best players in the league. And you’re going to have to have a bigger role to do something like that.”
Farwell said he believes Barzal’s mental strength will allow him to develop comfortably into an expanded role.
“He’s a driven, driven guy to be the best player he can be,” Farwell said. “He’s totally focused on his game. He’s a very confident guy, too. He was a really highly touted minor player, so being the show or being the guy wasn’t foreign to him. His whole life, everybody has pointed to him.”
“Every night, teams were basically suffocating me. Two, three guys on me,” Barzal added of his junior hockey career. “It just made me a better player. Just like in the NHL, you’ve got to find ways to get through it.”
Barzal credited former Islanders coach Doug Weight with helping him learn how to maintain his game while being the focus of the opponent’s defensive efforts. He praised Tavares’ work ethic, saying that was something he tried to emulate.
Former Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk, who played 790 NHL games for the Capitals and Avalanche, also was instrumental in that regard.
“He was great for me,” Barzal said. “He really instilled a hard-work mentality. No shifts off. He was actually the most extreme about being accountable so it wasn’t really a wake-up call when I came to the NHL.”
But Barzal did have a wake-up call when he was returned to Seattle after playing two scoreless games for the Islanders early in 2016-17.
Barzal responded with 10 goals and 69 assists in 41 regular-season games for the Thunderbirds, then capped his junior career with seven goals and 18 assists in 16 playoff games.
“I think it motivated him,” Eide said. “The NHL was where he wanted to be, but I talked to him his first game back, in Vancouver. He was disappointed but excited to be playing again. He said, ‘It’s good to be playing a lot of minutes again.’
“It could’ve gone two ways. He could have moped and been upset. But it went the opposite direction. That last year here was unbelievable. He made everybody around him better. They ended up winning the [WHL] championship on his back.”
Nobody expects Barzal to single-handedly lead the Islanders to their first Stanley Cup since they four-peated in 1983. But for the Islanders to contend, he must be a key contributor.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Trotz said on Sirius XM NHL Network. “You look at his skill level, his speed. His ability to separate from other people is impressive. So if you’ve got a building block, he’s one of them.”
A new face of the franchise.