The overwhelming talent is always in plain view. Mathew Barzal skates like few others can in the NHL and adds in a playmaking ability and vision that simply can’t be taught.
But as the Islanders advanced through the rough-and-tumble NHL playoffs and opened Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night against the Lightning at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Barzal’s evolution as a more complete player has also been easy to see.
“I think, No. 1, it starts with the mentality,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said before Game 1. “He’s understanding how you have to play in the playoffs. He’s playing the right way. He understands that puck management and decisions are critical in the playoffs. The ability to battle on pucks when you don’t have it to get them back is critical.”
Barzal had two goals and four assists as the Islanders eliminated the Flyers in seven games in the second round and entered Monday night’s game with five goals and eight assists in 16 postseason games.
But it’s not the statistics that are defining Barzal’s play. It’s the way he’s stood up to the physical play and the dominating shifts his line with captain Anders Lee and right wing Jordan Eberle had against the Flyers, hemming them in their zone while creating numerous chances at the crease.
It’s been a team effort for the Islanders to reach the conference finals for the first time since 1993 – their last trip resulted in a five-game elimination by the Canadiens that ended almost exactly four years before Barzal was born. But Barzal stood out against the Flyers for spending so much of the series controlling the puck in the Flyers’ zone.
“He’s a dynamic player,” said center Casey Cizikas, as Barzal was not one of the two Islanders’ players made available for pre-game interviews. “When he’s on, he’s dominant. He’s got the puck on his stick all the time and he’s creating chances for guys on the ice. Other teams have to respect him. They’ve got to try and take him away. They’ve got to try to do whatever they can. But when they do that, they leave other guys open and he finds those guys.”
Trotz added that Barzal, 23 and in his second playoff run, is finally starting to eradicate all the unwanted remnants of his pre-NHL playing style.
“It’s getting any junior mentality that you might have that you carried through minor hockey right through to juniors and into the NHL, those are starting to fade away,” Trotz said. “He’s understanding the importance of all those situations and how you can make a difference even without the puck. Because he’s been a player that has made a difference all his life with the puck and now he’s learning he can make a difference without the puck. When you bring those two things together, you get a pretty elite player.
“That’s what playoffs do. They allow young people to mature and you’re seeing that with a number of players across the league.”
Trotz joked after the Islanders eliminated the Flyers that Barzal, who added a bloody nose in Game 7 to the previous stitches over his discolored right eye, was even starting to look like more of a hockey player.
Trotz has spoken repeatedly since becoming Islanders coach in 2018 after leading the Capitals to the Stanley Cup of the defensive responsibility Barzal – and all players – need to have to be effective offensive players.
At times, it’s been a hard lesson that’s gone against Barzal’s natural hockey instincts.
But Trotz also instilled the same lessons in Alex Ovechkin – who the coach has called the greatest goal scorer in NHL history – during his time in Washington.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he saw the improvement in Barzal while the teams were in the Toronto bubble.
“I really enjoy watching him play,” Cooper said. “He’s an extremely dynamic player. The puck seems to follow him all over the ice. I think he’s got a little bit more discipline in playing the system that they play, that’s probably some of the growth that I’ve seen. A really talented player that his best years are ahead of him.”