BOSTON — For Mathew Barzal, it’s all about standing out and fitting in. Standing out on the ice and fitting in to an Islanders team that has a lot of longtime teammates.
He’s got the first part down pretty well. Heading into Saturday night’s game here, Barzal led all NHL rookies with 27 points and was at least in the top 10 among all NHLers in GIF-able moments.
The second part has been easy, too, for a 20-year-old who talks a lot and enjoys the banter and chirping that all rookies must endure.
“Everybody’s on him a little bit every day,” Cal Clutterbuck said. “And that’s a great part of being on a team, especially one where guys genuinely care about each other. You can say things to guys and it’s not a thing. Guys laugh about it, he takes it, puts his tail between his legs for 20 minutes and then he’s back wagging his tail. He’s one of the guys.”
This has been a big week for Barzal. He faced off against his idol, Sidney Crosby, for the first time on Thursday in Pittsburgh. Then here on Saturday Barzal faced the Bruins team that passed on him three straight draft picks, Nos. 13-15, before the Islanders traded into the No. 16 spot and selected him in 2015.
Barzal’s confidence was on display during the run-up to that draft. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported a story about the Isles center from a pre-draft interview. A team rep asked Barzal, “Why should we pick you?” His reported reply: “Don’t, and see how it works out for you.”
“You’re saying he’s cocky?” Jordan Eberle asked with a laugh. “I think confidence is important, especially coming in as a young kid. You need that. You look at the best players in the league, they all have swagger. He’s earned it. It’s something you earn by playing well and for him, he should never lose it. It makes him who he is and makes him a good player.”
Barzal loves the attention his teammates give him. He also loves being able to measure himself against the best, night in and night out. He was jokingly talking about Crosby prior to Thursday’s game, but in the visitors’ room after most everyone left following a 4-3 overtime loss, all Barzal could talk about was how Kris Letang interfered with him to prevent an OT breakaway — and how sure Barzal was he would’ve scored to end it.
“Every night there’s a player on the other team that’s better than me and I want to play better than that guy,” he said. “I play with John Tavares, he’s better than me every single day. So I have something to push for every day. That’s something I think I lacked in junior, having that player I could emulate or try to be better than. It’s really helping my game. It’s the drive in me, I just want to be the best. I’m just a competitive guy, hockey brings that out of me.”
That’s also nothing new.
“You could be playing cards or having a debate about who’s the best NBA player, he always wants to win,” said Scott Eansor, who played three junior seasons in Seattle with Barzal and is now an Islander prospect playing in Bridgeport. “He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met and it really works for him.”
“I’m a LeBron guy,” Barzal said. “Either you realize he’s the best or you’re just a hater.”
Clutterbuck’s brand of humor isn’t for everyone. He can take some younger players off guard with cutting remarks. “My wife tells me that all the time,” he said. “I think I’m being funny and everyone else just thinks I’m an [expletive].”
“When they’re going well like he is, you want to make sure they keep being confident without getting ridiculous about it,” Clutterbuck said. “I try to come in every day, take the temperature and respond accordingly.”
As for his wondrous on-ice skills, Barzal refers to Crosby again. Crosby’s greatest skill is his ability to control the puck and make plays at top speed — the way he balances on the flat edge of the blade, not the inside or outside, to keep opposing players away and look for shots or passes. That’s something Barzal has displayed often already this season.
“When I was in junior, my assistant coach [Tyler Alos] would pluck clips of Sid for me to watch,” Barzal said. “That’s a big thing in my game. I’m a smaller guy but I’ve got a low center of gravity like him. It’s something I’ve been working on, take pride in, that puck protection. He’s the best at it and I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as him, but it’s just cool that it’s something I can work towards.”
And Barzal will continue to take the jabs from his teammates. He recalled sitting on the bench in a game earlier this season and complaining to his neighbor that a rookie linesman was having a bad night.
“Just because it’s his first game, he can’t be making mistakes like that.”
Casey Cizikas smiled at Barzal. “You remember your first game?” Barzal made his NHL debut last October in Washington and took three penalties, including a rare one for playing the puck before he stepped out of the penalty box.
“We laughed when Casey said that,” Barzal said. “I’m a pretty outgoing guy, I take everything pretty lightly when it comes to chirping, messing around. I love that stuff. I don’t always give it back, you know what I mean? I have a ton of respect for the guys in this room who’ve been in the NHL for a lot of years. But I love it. It makes me feel comfortable.”
Mathew Barzal has been a scoring machine at times this season.
Totals: 8 goals, 19 assists
Games through Friday