Mathew Barzal faces new challenges in second season with Islanders
It will be many more weeks before we begin to get a handle on the Islanders’ star hierarchy in the post-John Tavares Era. But the assumption is that Mathew Barzal eventually will rank at or near the top.
He had better, given the hole Tavares left at center and the precociousness that landed Barzal the Calder Trophy in 2017-18. But still, these things take time.
After Thursday night’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Penguins at Barclays Center, Barzal has but one goal (and 11 assists) in 12 games, with a team-worst plus/minus of minus-7.
He also found himself being criticized by coach Barry Trotz for some of the same things Trotz’s predecessor, Doug Weight, discussed last season.
Sophomore slump? Too soon to tell. But Trotz spoke at length about Barzal both Wednesday and before Thursday’s game, and he said this is part of the process.
“The second year is always tougher than the first year,” he said. “First year for young players, they come in, everything in the league is great. They’re getting all this recognition. They play in these great cities and all this. Then the second year, it’s a little different.
“Now you move up the rung. Everybody knows who you are. You think you can do more, but actually you just have to be more efficient in what you’re doing, because you’re going to get a lot more attention.”
For the Islanders to sustain their promising start, Barzal must be a central figure, must be a two-way player and must play well with others. Sometimes he still opts for style points over just plain points.
Thursday night was another adventure. In the first period, he was called for an unwise hooking penalty in the offensive zone, and the Penguins scored during the ensuing power play.
Then there was the time he kept the puck as he circled behind the net, prompting a frustrated fan to scream, “Shoot the puck!”
In overtime, Barzal lost control of the puck, leading to a breakaway for Sidney Crosby that Thomas Greiss stopped with a diving poke check.
It was reminiscent of a play in overtime against the Oilers last March, when Barzal tried a fancy move, turned over the puck to Connor McDavid, then had to pull him down on a breakaway, leading to a penalty shot.
Asked about Thursday night’s miscue, he said, “I tried making a pass . . . I kind of fanned on it a little bit. Greisser made a great play and bailed me out. It’s obviously my turnover and I’m just hoping for a save.”
Barzal dismissed the idea that he has faced extra attention from opponents, as well as the notion that he feels added pressure to perform in the absence of Tavares.
“No, I don’t feel it,” he said. “I feel the same pressure as last year. Just playing my minutes and trying to play hard.”
Barzal is who he is, which is talented and entertaining. But Trotz, who called his early play this season “erratic,” wants him to be more than that and is trying to help him get there.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Trotz said. “He likes to have the puck offensively. I just think he’s trying to do too much with it and hanging on to it too much . . . When he plays east-west and all that, he has a lot tougher time.”
Trotz added, “He’s a hell of a player. As I told him, I think he can be one of the top players in this league, and he should be.”
Trotz knows Barzal wants to help the team move on from the guy who moved on to Toronto.
“Trust me, he’s trying. He wants to be one of the leaders of the team,” Trotz said. “He’s trying to fill that bigger void and I’m trying to tell him: Just play the right way.
“There are things we’ve got to get out of his game at 21 so he’s not doing it at 26. My goal is to make him an elite two-way player in the league, not just an elite talent. There’s a big difference between those two.”