By Jeff Capellini
Mathew Barzal needs to show that he belongs. He can’t give the Islanders even the slightest reason to think otherwise.
Due to salary cap constraints, the Isles may not be able to start the regular season with all of their top youngsters. Players such as centers Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier, or winger Josh Ho-Sang may become casualties of a financial crunch. If so, one or two of them could end up calling AHL Bridgeport home for at least a little while.
But I’m here to tell you that Barzal cannot under any circumstances be one of them. He has the greatest upside of all the Islanders’ kids, and perhaps the most potential of any player the team has had since it selected John Tavares with the first pick in the 2009 draft.
Beauvillier had his moments as a 19-year-old rookie last season, as did the 21-year-old Ho-Sang after he was recalled from Bridgeport in early March. However, Barzal, who is between the two in age, figures to be the best of the bunch. If it’s instant offense you crave, he has the tools necessary to make believers out of even the most pessimistic of fans.
And, boy, do the Islanders need someone with Barzal’s skill set to take some of the pressure off of superstar Tavares down the middle.
Due to certain general managers asking for the moon and stars, the Islanders were unable during the offseason to add more scoring help beyond the trade for Jordan Eberle. That’s not to say they don’t have compelling talent to complement Tavares. They do. It’s just that at this point they really don’t have that second-line center who can facilitate the offense more than just being a nice two-way player, which Frans Nielsen was for years before leaving via free agency last summer.
Don’t get me wrong, Brock Nelson and Beauvillier are fine talents, but the former is really not a distributor of the puck and the latter has yet to show he can be a playmaker worthy of top-two line minutes. Nelson has three straight 20-goal seasons to his credit and finished with a career-high 45 points last season, but he has a penchant for disappearing for stretches, sometimes by the game and other times by the week. Despite having nice tools, including a serious set of wheels, Beauvillier, whose versatility will allow him to also see time on the wing, is probably another year or two away from becoming a bona fide top-six forward.
Barzal may be the most inexperienced of all the Isles’ kids, but there’s no denying his potential. He has been a point-producer extraordinaire everywhere he has played and head coach Doug Weight has made it clear that the players who give the Islanders the best chance to win will be in the opening night lineup Oct. 6 at Columbus.
Barzal’s talent and presence are undeniable. He has star written all over him. He just needs to emerge on the biggest of stages. Last fall, when he spent all of two games with the Islanders before being sent back to Seattle of the WHL, he didn’t look the part. The game at the highest level was a bit overwhelming. Things moved a tad too quickly. That was to be somewhat expected because, let’s face it, this league isn’t for everyone.
This time around, the Islanders need the NHL to be Barzal’s playground. If the 16th overall pick in the 2015 draft hits, nobody will be talking about how general manager Garth Snow has, thus far, been unable to pry disgruntled stud Matt Duchene away from the Colorado Avalanche.
As currently constructed, the Islanders have a fine mix of veterans and younger players. It seems everyone can skate, and many have considerable skill. But at center this team still feels overly top heavy, like it’s Tavares and then hold your breath. That’s why the pressure has been on Snow for some time now to ease the burden on his captain and get someone in here who can be a playmaker and also pot 25-30 goals.
It’s looking more and more like Snow will be unable to do that any time soon due to a combination of cap concerns and very high asking prices around the league.
So it’s incumbent upon the kids to step up and prove their worth. The Islanders have long been thought of as having one of the better minor league systems in the NHL. Due to the aforementioned circumstances, some younger guys are being asked to grow up a bit quicker than what is really reasonable. But such is life in a salary cap-defined league.
Barzal, at just a shade over 6 feet and around 185-190 pounds, has all the requisite skills needed to be a true playmaker in the NHL, someone who thinks pass first but has the ability to finish when necessary. The beauty of his game is how long he can hold on to the puck before making a good decision, which is exactly what you want from a guy who figures to one day be a 20-minute-per-game player.
He has strength, hands and speed, and is more than willing to bang away in the corners and behind the net. He also sees the ice unbelievably well.
In addition to what he figures to bring at even strength, Barzal’s many attributes should translate well on the power play, where the Islanders finished 28th in the league last season. It was one of the primary reasons on the ice why New York missed the playoffs by one point.
As evidenced by his two goals early in the preseason, Barzal seems much more comfortable right now than he was a year ago, when many figured a nine-game audition to begin the season would be all we’d see of him. It turns out he lasted just a fraction of that time.
But now a year older and wiser, he looks like someone the Islanders will want to hitch their wagons to for a very long time.
And with Tavares’ contract situation undoubtedly the most pressing thing the Isles need to resolve between now and next season, knowing they have someone like Barzal presumably ready to assume a featured role has to give Snow and ownership a few less gray hairs.
But, hey, in a perfect world, both Tavares and Barzal will be with the club for years. That’s a future most any Islanders fan would have signed on the dotted line for yesterday.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN