Mathew Barzal turned 24 on Wednesday, which meant he no longer can be considered a young, rising star in the NHL. Instead, he should now be thought of as a star in his prime.
Barzal, who led the Islanders in scoring in the regular season, was tied for fifth on the team in scoring in the postseason entering Game 6 of the Isles’ first-round series Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nassau Coliseum, with three assists in the series’ first five games.
The Isles led the series, 3-2, and had a chance to close it out Wednesday with a victory to advance to a second round matchup against the Boston Bruins.
Barzal is the same age as the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, who scored an amazing 105 points this season in 56 games. Compared to McDavid, though, Barzal is a grizzled veteran when it comes to playoff hockey, with 36 playoff games through Wednesday. McDavid, whose Oilers were swept in the first round of this year’s playoffs by the Winnipeg Jets, has played in 21.
But where McDavid, the first pick overall in the 2015 draft, seems like a fully developed star, Barzal, the 16th overall pick in that same 2015 draft, is still growing and getting better, according to Islanders coach Barry Trotz.
"We've played a lot of playoff games the last three years, and he's learning that the playoff game is a little different than the regular season game,’’ Trotz said Wednesday of Barzal. "[There]'s not as much space. Guys are tighter on you, you're getting matchups more and more… and you’ve got to keep your emotions in check, and the discipline part of it is all encompassing. So, he's continuing to learn.’’
Barzal, a speedy, 6-foot, 187-pounder whose dazzling, circling moves in the offensive zone evoke memories of former Chicago Blackhawks great Denis Savard, is unique on an Islanders roster known for its physical, straight-up-and-down style.
Playing on the defense-first Islanders, Barzal, who has 76 goals and 252 points in his four-year NHL career — and seven goals and 27 points in the postseason entering Wednesday, may never put up the kind of numbers players like McDavid or Toronto’s Auston Matthews do. But Trotz called him by far the Islanders’ most dynamic player.
"Obviously, he's got these good hands,’’ Trotz said. "But what makes him exceptional is his [skate] edges; his speed and his edges. And then the hands are probably secondary. But he has breakaway speed [and] his ability to cut laterally, forehand or backhand, is almost the best I've seen.’’
And, Trotz said, Barzal is constantly working to improve the areas where he needed improvement.
"He's worked on his shot over the last couple of years; it's gotten much better,’’ Trotz said. "He's worked on faceoffs; it's gotten much better.’’
After Barzal lost his left wing Anders Lee to a season-ending knee injury in March, the Isles’ No. 1 center still managed to produce at nearly the same level he did in the first half of the season with Lee on his line. In the 28 games before Lee got hurt March 11, Barzal had nine goals and 15 assists. In 27 games after Lee’s injury, Barzal had eight goals and 13 assists.
Leo Komarov, who ended up filling Lee’s spot on the No. 1 line, called Barzal an "unbelievable player.’’
"He loves the puck,’’ Komarov said. "He does a lot of good things, so my job is to try to get him the puck, and battle for it, try to make some room for him out there.’’