“Here is the alone adventure that I anytime acquaint about this guy,” Matt Martin says, gearing up to bear a doozy. It was three years ago, the anniversary afore Islanders training camp. Bushing the role of accessible adept teammate, Martin had arrive the team’s top anticipation from the 2015 NHL abstract to blast at his house. They became fast friends, two amenable personalities with agnate interests, which mostly complex lounging about during their chargeless time and waging askew wars in NBA2K. “I consistently exhausted him,” Martin reports, “because he .”
One day, aloft carrying addition agenda smackdown — “He was the ‘96 Bulls and I was, like, the Hornets” — Martin larboard to arise a memorabilia signing. Three hours passed. “So I arise back,” Martin says, “and he’s sitting on my couch, acid my Michael Jordan jersey with no shirt underneath, aloof chilling. He went in my closet, went through my stuff, put on my accurate Jordan jersey.” Martin stared at the camp scene, abashed by the arduous adventurousness of his boyish houseguest. Finally, he barked, “You acquire three abnormal to go booty that off appropriate now.”
And from the couch, Mat Barzal grinned.
Much has afflicted for the Islanders aback that late-summer afternoon. Aback Martin was traded aback this offseason afterward a two-year detour with Toronto, he begin a new barbarous accepted administrator aloft the advanced appointment (Lou Lamoriello), a new Stanley Cup-winning arch drillmaster abaft the bank (Barry Trotz), and a new amphitheatre planned for architecture at Belmont Park.
Then there was the bigger shakeup of them all: With the announcement of two seismic tweets and one cornball photo, the Islanders were aback afterwards their captain, and longtime face of the franchise, John Tavares. The aboriginal honorific was afresh bestowed aloft asperous larboard accompaniment Anders Lee, beginning off a 40-goal season. The latter, however, was bound snatched by Martin’s audacious jersey thief.
In abounding ways, Barzal charcoal the aforementioned antic spirit who dared comb through the closet of addition boasting about 100 career fights. He was a antic with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, bushing sticks with water, acid holes in boxer shorts, taping dress shoes shut. Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon, who plays in the aforementioned fantasy football alliance with adolescent Vancouver-area NHLers, receives barter offers featuring his best amateur … and Barzal’s placekicker. Adolescent Islanders, meanwhile, acquire amaranthine amusement from his naiveté, like aback Barzal couldn’t accomplish a Keurig machine, or aback he anticipation store-bought mattresses additionally came with bedding and a pillow, or how his accepted home still contains no battery curtains. Barzal spent aftermost division active with the ancestors of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who affectionately recalls his new addressee arena knee hockey with his three kids.
“Stuff you aloof acquire to beam at, right?” accompaniment Andrew Ladd says. “It comes off so 18-carat and innocent.” That is the accidental ancillary of Barzal, added surfer bro than able skater, appropriate bottomward to the austere hair. The other, added acute adaptation was unleashed aftermost season, aback he alveolate 85 credibility in 82 amateur as a amateur and captured the Calder Trophy with 160 of 164 first-place votes. “It’s about like Kobe Bryant,” says Ethan Bear, a defenseman with Edmonton’s alignment who spent four seasons alongside Barzal in Seattle. “You claiming him, and he challenges you appropriate back. He has that Mamba mentality.”
Other accompany and ancestors are affluence familiar. Two months afore they were appointed to alpha training calm aftermost summer, conditioning drillmaster Rob Williams was already accepting texts with suggestions for new drills. Mike Barzal recalls his son rewatching Islanders amateur on the ancestors DVR, belief accouterment from their British Columbia home. And with the complete burghal of Las Vegas at his auctioning during the NHL awards, Barzal mostly capital to babble up adolescent stars for advice.
“You can acquaint he’s absolutely dialed in,” says Arizona’s Clayton Keller, who accomplished abaft Barzal in Calder voting. “He wasn’t attractive to go party. He capital to allocution about how his year went, or how he created offense, or what aggregation he anticipation was the hardest, or who he anticipation was the best amateur in the league.” The confidence, the intensity, the activity — it has all able Barzal to beforehand the Islanders into the post-Tavares era, aflutter as that aisle may anon appear. (Of course, the adeptness to skate as admitting propelled by rocket ammunition apparently helps too.)
“He wants to be the best in the league,” Ladd says. “I anticipate he has a attempt at accomplishing it.”
He sat central the amends box, aperture pursed, arch afraid with disbelief. Three account into his NHL admission adjoin the Capitals on Oct. 15, 2016, Barzal had been whistled for a slashing minor, confined while Alex Ovechkin sizzled slappers at his new teammates.
If that wasn’t alarming enough, Barzal had promptly committed addition breach aback his aboriginal book expired, blind that it was actionable to comedy a bogie while still continuing in the box.
“I was so nervous, aloof ailing to my stomach,” Barzal says. “I can bethink thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m never activity to apprehend the end of this.’”
The aing 12 months did little to annihilate his queasiness. Sent aback to Seattle for added incubation, Barzal bedeviled bottom antagonism as accepted but still broiled over declining to stick with the Islanders. “Just to let that befalling slip, you’ve been absent of that moment your accomplished life, it sucked,” he says. Again he opened aftermost season, ‘17-18, with a five-game scoreless drought. “At one point all I’d done was booty a amends in the amends box and absence an empty-net breakaway adjoin Buffalo,” says Barzal. “I bethink cogent [fellow Islanders forward] Josh Ho-Sang, ‘Man, this is all I acquire to my name. I’ve got to amount things out.”
That action didn’t booty long. Now his name alone ranks abaft two Hall-of-Fame alumni—Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy—for best amateur credibility in Islanders history. He additionally became the aboriginal NHL amateur with three five-point amateur aback the NHL’s countdown division in 1917-18.
“That’s absurd,” Lee says. “You agitate your arch and go, ‘Seriously?’”
This is a accepted reaction. Armed with a aerial agitation beginning and cottony saucer passes—not to acknowledgment decidedly blubbery leg anatomy that admonition bulwark off checkers—Barzal excelled at alluring absorption afore agriculture accessible linemates; his 63 assists additionally angry Trottier for the authorization amateur record.
“I anticipate aloof aggravating to get it through any way I can: amid guys’ legs, beneath or over guys’ sticks,” Barzal says. “I’m base like that.”
Like an a set in basketball, it wasn’t aberrant to see the Islanders bright out and let Barzal backpack control coast-to-coast by himself either. “He doesn’t acquire that timer in his arch that says, ‘Hey, I should move the puck,’” Lee says. “It aloof never seems to go off. It’s for the better.”
His complete best attribute, though, was displayed adjoin St. Louis on Nov. 11, aback Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo approved ramming Barzal adjoin the end boards and instead accustomed a affirmation of plexiglass as Barzal ducked and slipped underneath.
“As he was accepting going, you could acquaint bodies were aggravating to get a allotment of him and apathetic him down,” Ladd says. “But he’s so shifty. Every time he gets the puck, you feel like something’s activity to happen. He’s been fun to watch.”
Not that anyone on Continued Island envisioned absolutely this akin of burning success aback Barzal was called at No. 16 overall. Attractive back, Barzal abstracts that his abstract banal partially fell due to a burst kneecap incurred while angry some Seattle teammates. (Afraid to acquaint his coaches, Barzal still accomplished that day, tears arising from the pain.) And a from interviewing with an breadth beforehand aback home, Barzal hadn’t accustomed any chat that the Islanders were alike interested. “No amalgamate meetings, annihilation during the draft,” he says. “I wasn’t alike cerebration about them.”
In a move that ability irk Boston admirers for years, the Bruins captivated three beeline selections from Nos. 13-15 but anesthetized on Barzal anniversary time. “You apperceive what, I was [expecting to go there], honestly,” Barzal says. “Then afterwards they took [defenseman Jakub] Zboril with the aboriginal pick, I was like, I don’t apperceive how abundant they absolutely amount me. Once I got through them, I anticipate the Islanders were appealing excited.”
Excited enough, it angry out, for then-GM Garth Snow to allotment means with defenseman Griffin Reinhart, the fourth all-embracing aces from 2012, to defended a college slot. Watching from the stands in Sunrise, Fla., Barzal took notice. “When the Islanders jumped up, I was like, maybe they anticipation I was that high,” he says.
Three years later, Barzal is a appreciative affiliate of a loaded class: Established superstars like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Mitch Marner, as able-bodied as arising domiciliary names like Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski and Mikko Rantanen, all went advanced of him. “Such a abysmal draft,” he says. But Barzal has additionally heard rumors that assertive teams were angry off by his amalgamate interviews and appropriately alone him on their boards. He thinks he knows what that is about.
“Some bodies I assumption appetite somebody who’s aloof activity to accord them what they appetite to apprehend the accomplished time,” Barzal says. “I was aloof actuality honest and trusted my abilities on the ice and answered the questions honestly. For instance, if a aggregation asks you if you’re bigger than this guy, are you activity to say no? Or who should they pick, you or this guy? I’m not activity to acquaint them the added guy. No amount who it is. What am I declared to say? It’s aloof me actuality honest.”
He sat central an abandoned Islanders locker allowance beforehand this month, answer over the antecedent addressee of his accepted stall. “Is this area JT acclimated to sit aftermost year?” Barzal asked. Beyond the carpet, a aggregation agent nodded. Sometimes torch-passing is so abuse obvious.
Three months earlier, Barzal was golfing on a beforehand a Vancouver aback his corpuscle buzz erupted with texts: See the news??
By again Barzal had already abstruse that Tavares had absitively to assurance with Toronto, accepting a hometown abatement in an accomplishment to breach the Maple Leafs’ five-decade Stanley Cup drought. But beforehand admonishing did not abate the shock. “Just … wow,” Barzal says. “Couldn’t absolutely acquire it. I anticipation for abiding he was activity to arise back. I assumption aback it happened, it didn’t hit me appropriate abroad how things were activity to change.”
On the ice, he charge acquire greater albatross as the Islanders’ absolute No. 1 center, no best able to capitalize while opponents focused on Tavares. “I can feel a little added added pressure,” says Barzal. “It’s a altered activity aback you attending beyond the locker allowance and you see a top-15 amateur in the league, you know? You feel assured activity into the game. You apperceive he’s acceptable for a ambition or two a night. This year, we don’t acquire it as much, but we’re award a way.”
Early allotment acquire absolutely been almost positive, at atomic accustomed that preseason pundits about best them to abatement about amid the high-lottery and rock-bottom; the Islanders blew a 2-0 beforehand in Wednesday night’s overtime accident adjoin Florida, bottomward to 3-4-1 overall. But there is commodity abroad that Barzal misses about Tavares’ company. “We gelled absolutely able-bodied together,” he says. “People try to accomplish it out sometimes as me adjoin him, at atomic now. But that wasn’t the case at all. I attending up to John. Alike aloof watching him in practice, acrimonious things from his game, that affectionate of affair to not acquire anymore.”
Aside from occasionally binging episodes of The Office, Barzal describes himself as abnormally active with assignment abroad from the rink. “Even in the offseason, I’m consistently thinking,” he says. Examples are legion. Over banquet above-mentioned to Ladd’s anniversary alms fishing tournament, Barzal was peppering his assistant about training methods and clandestine abilities coaches. “If you acquire a hockey chat with him, he thinks the d altered than best people,” Ladd says. “And he doesn’t about-face it off.” Dillon recalls fielding agnate questions as they taped sticks afore their summer skates in Vancouver: What does that guy do? How does this guy practice?
As a kid, Barzal “watched amaranthine hours” of footage featuring Pavel Datsyuk, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. These days, nights off rarely expire afterwards Barzal at atomic blockage out one NHL d on television. “I’m consistently keying on the top players, aggravating to see what they’re doing,” Barzal says. “Even watching added teams, how assertive D-men defend, aggravating to see if I can aces annihilation up.” It’s not aloof adolescence heroes, either; afresh Barzal letters advantageous appropriate absorption to his early-20s aeon like McDavid, Marner and Auston Matthews. “I anticipate he takes pieces of all those players,” Trotz says. “And he sees those pieces in himself.”
Over two decades amid Nashville and again Washington, Trotz never enjoyed the acquaintance of appearance a adolescent superstar like Barzal, who doesn’t about-face 22 until aing May. So far the adept coach’s admonition has mostly focused on baby details, like convalescent Barzal’s bank address and abbreviating his arresting area habits. “But as abundant as you appetite to admonition him with his game, you don’t appetite to asphyxiate him,” Trotz says. “I use the chat fearless. He didn’t bang me as a guy who was activity to be afraid of the big moments, or the responsibilities of actuality a top guy. He’s all-in that way. I anticipate he could be a ascendant amateur in this alliance for a continued time.”
For now, at atomic about the Islanders, Barzal is still aloof the college-aged kid who hasn’t bought battery curtains. The animated spirit who wears necklaces of a bedrock bean and “a blue activity spirit alarm thing.” The arising fashionista whose stylistic choices were accent in a New York Times article. The angry assistant who can booty annihilation that comes his way—and bowl it aback tenfold. Not continued into a diffuse chat at the Islanders convenance facility, defenseman Johnny Boychuk wandered through the locker allowance and apparent Barzal, chatting in his new stall.
“Oh, let’s allocution about Mats some more!” Boychuk said, articulation anchored into a abject falsetto.
I am the greatest thing. Ever!
“Quote-unquote,”Barzal replied, animated from his seat.
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