Mathew Barzal has no intention of abandoning the defensive part of his game that became more detailed last season under Barry Trotz. The Islanders coach insists upon that priority from all his players.
But Barzal, the Islanders’ scoring leader in each of his first two NHL seasons, is also aiming to come closer to his 85-point performance that earned him the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year in 2018.
“It favors defense a little more, that’s not even a secret,” Barzal said on Thursday as the Islanders reported for training camp physicals at East Meadow. “The year before with 85 points, I felt my play last year was actually better. But I think I would like to get back there. I think that’s a goal.”
Training camp’s first on-ice sessions will be Friday and the Islanders open their seven-game preseason schedule at Philadelphia on Monday night.
The Islanders allowed the fewest goals in the NHL in Trotz’s first season behind their bench while improving 23 points in the standings to finish second in the Metropolitan Division. They swept the Penguins in the first round but were swept by the Hurricanes in the second round.
Barzal, 22, had 18 goals and 44 assists last season and followed with two goals and five assists in his first eight NHL playoff games.
“He really bought in as the season went on,” right wing Josh Bailey said. “He kept doing the right things. I expect more of that from him this year. He’s always going to find a way to create, he’s so dangerous with the puck.”
The Islanders’ 228 goals ranked 21st in the NHL and their power play was 29th in the 31-team league.
“It’s easier coming in here this year knowing the system, knowing what’s expected,” said Barzal, headed toward restricted free agency without arbitration rights as he enters the final season of his three-year, $2.775 million entry-level deal.
“I felt like my game grew in all areas of the ice,” Barzal added. “Just details. Whether it was trying to bear down on faceoffs or certain little things like passing the puck in the right moments or backchecking, being a little harder stick-checking. Over the course of last year, it was a slow progression. The last 15 games and the playoffs, I really hit stride and started to play some of my best hockey. So I’m hoping to build on that.”
Training camp will determine the initial line combinations for the regular-season opener on Oct. 4 against the Capitals at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum.
But it would be somewhat of a surprise if Barzal wasn’t back between captain Anders Lee and right wing Jordan Eberle to start. Eberle was also Barzal’s linemate for much of Barzal’s rookie season, though Trotz took a long time last season to get back to that combination.
“The last two years, we showed we had some chemistry,” Barzal said. “It would be nice to start, at least to give it a try to see if it’s still there.”
Barzal and left wing Anthony Beauvillier both noted on Thursday how they’ve seen some predictions the Islanders would take a step back this season — “I don’t think anyone in the hockey world sees us making the playoffs two years in a row,” Beauvillier said — and Barzal added that’s likely because the team does not have a superstar scorer such as the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby or the Oilers’ Connor McDavid.
But Barzal said making the playoffs last season has also motivated him further this season.
“To get a taste was definitely great for me,” Barzal said. “That’s where I want to be. That’s what I look forward to. Nothing really elevates my game like the playoffs and those pressure moments.”
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