The early arrivals to Long Island for informal Islanders skates are normally veterans, players with families that need to get settled in the area or ones with fairly certain roles on the team once training camp begins a week or two down the road.
Mathew Barzal does not fit either category. Yet there was the 19-year-old earlier this week, skating in drills coordinated by Eric Boulton, the unofficial leader of these unofficial workouts, and whipping the puck around in mini-games alongside Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk.
“I’ve skated quite a bit this summer, last two months I’ve been going pretty hard,” Barzal said. “Just nice to get down here a little early, skate with some of the older guys. The pace is a bit higher, just get used to that speed and strength.”
Barzal, who did not skate at the Isles’ prospect camp in July because of a minor hip injury, will be out on the ice at Northwell Health Ice Center on Friday among a group of 23 prospects to open the team’s rookie camp, held a week before the full training camp kicks off on Sept. 23 to give some of the organization’s prized youngsters a chance to work on their skills in a more formal setting away from the veterans.
About the only player among the 23 who has a better chance of securing an opening-night spot with the Isles is defenseman Ryan Pulock, who rose to the occasion in last spring’s playoff run and seems to be the leader for a top-six role heading into camp.
Barzal nearly made the final cut last camp after the Isles traded prospect Griffin Reinhart to the Oilers for the 16th pick in the 2015 draft to select the center out of Seattle in the Western League.
“I like the pressure, I like rising to the occasion,” he said of last year’s camp. “I had more fun with it than I was nervous or scared.”
And now the pressure may be ratcheted up: Barzal is still too young for the AHL, so it’s either stay with the Islanders or go back to Seattle, where he posted 27 goals and 88 points last season. With a crowded field of veteran forwards it seems Barzal is the only prospect with a real chance to make the squad; 2014 first-rounders Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang are almost certainly headed to Bridgeport for the start of the season.
Barzal knows what he wants. It’s why he came down to the Island from his home outside Vancouver a week early.
“I’m not really coming in feeling I have a spot,” he said. “I’ve got to earn a spot and work harder than I ever have to do that. I’m just really looking forward to it.”