Barzal working for his NHL success

There’s a great theory about elite skill, how it can’t be taught and untapped without hard work.

Coquitlam’s Mathew Barzal would beg to differ.

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The National Hockey League’s top scoring rookie with the New York Islanders, Barzal stars in a growing highlight reel of him doing the magical, the incredible and the superlative.

Monday, he got a chance to add to that reel in front of about 100 family and friends in his first game as an NHLer at Roger’s Arena against the Vancouver Canucks. He helped set up two goals, including one by Jordan Eberle on a power play with just over a minute left to play in the third period that tied the game, 3-3. The Islanders ultimately succumbed in overtime, but Barzal, and his contingent, were rewarded when he was named the game’s third star.

Although genetics and family encouragement played huge parts in Barzal’s development, the main element has been that roll-up-your-sleeves kind. From the age of 12 his name was often bandied around in the same discussions as like-aged Connor McDavid, despite the fact both teens had a lot of growing to do.

Now 20, Barzal says his game continues to evolve, but that’s something he’s determined to work on. There is no waiting for elements out of his control to come together.

“Where’s my game grown the most? Probably just goal scoring because previously I didn’t score quite at this pace,” Barzal told The Tri-Cities News Sunday after the team’s practice. “I have more goals now than I did in the (Western Hockey League) last year. That’s made a bigger difference than my passing.”

A goal last week at the Molson Centre in Montreal highlighted both his speed and anticipation at work. Then there was the move – picking up a loose puck at centre ice, blowing past Canadiens’ blueliner Noah Juulsen, before backhanding the puck in the net.

His celebration was classic goal scorer. When your team’s on a six-game losing trend, any opportunity to boost the morale and set a tone is appreciated. Scoring goals is great, he admits.

His dad Mike was a fast forward with the 1983-84 Penticton Knights, whose best player, Brett Hull, set a junior A record with 105 goals in 57 games. The father passed along his workman attitude about giving your all, and the son put it to work on the ice.

The leading candidate for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best rookie, the Burnaby Winter Club alumnus came into this season ready to work.

“The great thing about Mathew is that he knows the better he plays the better our team plays,” Islanders head coach Doug Weight said. “He’s really become a guy like John (Tavares), guys in the league who, how they go (is) how our team goes.”

Prior to Monday’s game in Vancouver, Barzal stood 15th overall in NHL scoring, with 18 goals and 49 assists in 66 games. Hard to believe that it took seven games before he registered his first NHL goal, beating future Hall-of-Famer Henrik Lundquist at Madison Square Gardens.

Since then, he’s been on a tear, with a couple of five-point games and the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for February. Some tried to hype Monday’s game as a showdown between the Canucks’ Brock Boeser and Barzal, but Weight feels these distractions are for others to worry about.

“They both are having tremendous seasons and both very good hockey players but when it comes down to it, you want to have success as a team. That’s the most fun; and (Barzal) knows that,” said the coach.

He doesn’t deny the game was in the back of his mind for some time.

“I probably started thinking about it for a month now,” said Barzal, who saw a handful of children at Rogers Arena adorning his Islander jersey. “It’s pretty exciting. It’s pretty tough not to think about. It’s a big game for us and a big game for me, the first time playing in front of my family and friends.”

Last year’s run to the Memorial Cup gave him a chance to play in big, important games, and eased any disappointment he had of not sticking in New York after two games. There’s a fine line to developing talent, Weight said, but playing and leading his peers was a crucial opportunity.

“It could have gone two ways. It really could have. … For him, we had long discussions whether it would help him or hurt him. Ultimately it came down to Mat. He made the decision to go back and work on his game and areas to make himself better,” Weight said.

Hockey has been No. 1 for him since his dad signed him up at the age of four. While he maintained a busy schedule, competing in a variety of sports right up until deciding to sign with Seattle in 2013 – a year after the Thunderbirds made him the first overall pick in the WHL bantam draft.

In 2015, his stock fell due to a broken knee cap that sidelined him for 28 games and New York capitalized by trading up to claim him 16th overall. In the meantime, he’s starred with the Canadian under-20 team, garnered positive reviews on his approach and on-ice leadership. Last year he missed 30 regular season games with Seattle but still contributed 10 goals and 69 assists over 41 games.

Now showing signs of a veritable sniper, Barzal isn’t content with the stats. He wants to play a vital role in helping New York claim a wildcard playoff spot.

Getting to this place, where hockey is fun and the hard work is a given, is part of his core. Just like the game.

“I’d say (hockey is) everything about me. When I was young I was obsessed with the game; you grow out of that a little bit but at the same time I’m always that kid at heart,” he said. “I love to come to the rink and practice. Just being a hockey player is part of my life. I’m OK with that.”

Veteran teammate Andrew Ladd, who, like Barzal, played briefly with the Coquitlam Express of the BC Hockey League, notes it’s not easy to make the leap from major junior to the NHL and thrive. But the Coquitlam product is turning heads and is an impact player on a team led by Tavares.

“(Barzal’s) puck control, (and) his speed through the neutral zone is one of the best in the league, so to be able to say that of a first-year player is pretty special. He’s been fantastic for us offensively and does a great job of driving that line,” said Ladd. “The main thing for when you look at young guys is that they show up, put the work in and he does that each and every day to get better.”

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