Once John Tavares departed for Toronto via free agency in 2018, the expectation was that Mathew Barzal’s elite playmaking skill would make him the new face of the franchise.
Barzal is the most recognizable Islander, thanks to some highlight-reel goals and two All-Star appearances. His choked-up words and tear-filled eyes in the immediate wake of the Islanders’ playoff elimination to the Lightning in Game 7 of the NHL semifinals spoke volumes for the entire team.
But captain Anders Lee remains the team’s emotional leader. That does not diminish Barzal’s NHL evolution.
"Every year you want to take a step, you want to get better," Barzal said on Sunday as the Islanders conducted their exit interviews. "I’m a year older. I should be getting better."
Barzal had 17 goals and 28 assists in his fourth NHL season and added six goals and eight assists in 19 playoff games. He’s the Islanders' unquestioned offensive leader.
But coach Barry Trotz consistently pushes Barzal, knowing he can reach elite status in the league.
"He continues to evolve," Trotz said. "You lead in different ways. Mathew’s our offensive leader.
"When you ask me about a leader, it’s a really broad question," Trotz added. "I tend to go with your leader is your captain. Why is Anders Lee your captain? Because he’s experienced a lot more. He’s a little older, dealing with children and a wife. Mathew’s not quite there. He’s not married. He doesn’t have children. That’s part of the leadership. You have to understand how your whole dressing room lives."
Trotz quickly cautioned not to read a deeper meaning from his words, he was only answering a question about leadership.
"If you take a round circle," Trotz said of Barzal, "he started as half a circle and now he is continuing to work all the way and be more rounded."