Mathew Barzal is Islanders’ reason for hope
It obviously remains to be seen how many games the New York Islanders are going to be able to win this season. Even with their promising start -- including a decisive 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks on Monday afternoon -- this is still not a particularly great roster on paper, and there is definitely some rebuilding to be done in the coming months, especially as they face the potential unrestricted free agency of Anders Lee (their newly appointed captain), Jordan Eberle, and Brock Nelson.
The one thing that should give Islanders fans some amount of hope is they seem to have the most important part of any rebuild already in place: A young, cornerstone franchise player.
That player is second-year sensation Mathew Barzal, and three games into the 2018-19 season he is showing just how impactful he can be, even as he now becomes the focal point of the team’s offense.
He is also already starting to show that there was nothing fluky about his debut season.
Barzal’s rookie performance was one of the best we have ever seen in the NHL, especially when you account for the era it took place in. His 85 total points were the 19th most among rookies in league history, while his 63 assists were the second most, behind only Joe Juneau and Peter Stastny (both of whom had 70 assists in their rookie seasons). Among the total point leaders, almost all of them were from players that entered the NHL in the firewagon days of the 1980s when every top-line player in the league was capable of 80 or 90 points. The only rookies in the past 20 years that had more points than Barzal in their rookie seasons were Alex Ovechkin (106) and Sidney Crosby (102), while Evgeni Malkin was the only other player that topped 80 points in his rookie season during that stretch.
That is elite company, and it should be a strong indication of what Barzal is capable of in his career.
He isn’t just a good young player, and he isn’t even just a blossoming “star” at this point; he could be on the verge of becoming a superstar.
So far this season he has already recorded at least a point in all three of the Islanders’ games (continuing a point streak that goes back to the end of the 2017-18 season and is now at seven games) and has once again been a one-man highlight reel when he is on the ice.
The puck just seems to follow him, and when he gets it he skates at a different speed than everyone else around him.
He is nearly impossible to contain, even when teams make him their top priority. Sharks defenseman Brent Burns found that out the hard way on Monday afternoon.
Beyond that, just look at what happened in the first period of Monday’s game against the Sharks.
As soon as the puck touches his stick, the Sharks penalty killers swarm to him and attempt to surround him. It does nothing as Barzal calmly finds a shockingly wide open Josh Bailey on the other side of the ice for a clean one-time blast that leads to Anders Lee pouncing on a rebound for a power play goal.
It was nearly identical to the play that resulted in Bailey’s game-winning goal in the season-opener against the Carolina Hurricanes.
He is, quite simply, already one of the game’s most electrifying players and a player that commands your attention as soon as his skates touch the ice.
He has the game-breaking speed that few of his peers can match, and he has the hands and vision to make him a complete, all-around force offensively.
All of that together makes him the type of player that can make everybody around him better, and he is just the type of player the Islanders need to be the focal point of their rebuild.