At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, the New York Islanders took the opportunity to see how their two first-round picks from the 2015 draft would perform at the NHL level. Mathew Barzal, drafted 16th, and Anthony Beauvillier, drafted 28th, were both 19 years old at the time.
Barzal was slightly favored to make the team, although both played well enough in training camp to make fringe veteran players nervous about losing their roster spots. In the end, it was Beauvillier who impressed the coaching staff enough to stick around and he rewarded them with a respectable rookie season, playing in 66 games and scoring 24 points.
Barzal had trouble finding his footing and was only able to get on the ice for two games. His only contribution to the scoresheet was three minor penalties, including one for touching the puck before leaving the penalty box. After spending a few days in the press box, he was returned to his junior team to play out his season there.
He may have been disappointed but it was probably the best thing for him. He returned to the Islanders a year later having improved his game enough to lead the team in scoring (22 goals, 63 assists, 85 points) and win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
Barzal’s Amazing Rookie Year
Barzal’s rookie year was an entertaining one. He was poised and showed his speed and soft hands with the puck. Fans watched in amazement as he circled, deked, and cycled leaving beleaguered back-checkers in his wake. He developed great chemistry with his eventual linemates, Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle who benefited from his vision and his passing acumen. He also became a mainstay and key contributor to the Islanders’ successful power play where he scored 27 of his 85 points.
His season was filled with highlights including his first career hat trick in a 5-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets at the Barclays Center in December. That night he became the 11th Islanders rookie to score three goals in a game and the first to do it since Michael Grabner in 2011.
He topped that feat on three occasions by scoring five points in a game. A five-point game is a rare occurrence in the NHL. Since the 1997-98 season, only four other players have scored five points three times in a season: John LeClair (1997-98), Alexander Ovechkin (2007-08), Sidney Crosby (2009-10), and Evgeni Malkin (who did it four times in 2011-12). That’s impressive company and all of them were veterans at the time while Barzal did it as a 20-year-old rookie.
Game 1: Islanders Beat the Avalanche
On Nov 5, the Islanders beat the Colorado Avalanche 6-4 in Brooklyn in a strange game. It was already notable because the Avs traded Matt Duchene to the Ottawa Senators during the game. He was on the ice for two shifts before he was sent packing.
There were also a couple of fluky goals on each side. Four Islanders defensemen scored that night and Barzal assisted on five of the six, including one on a beautiful flip pass to Eberle near the crease that he easily finished off before the goaltender could react.
Game 2: Islanders Defeat the Rangers
On Jan 13, the Islanders trounced their crosstown rivals, the New York Rangers, by a score of 7-2. Barzal scored two goals on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and added three assists. His second five-point game as a rookie put him into a very exclusive club. Only six other players have managed it, one of them being former Islander Bryan Trottier who did it in 1975-76. The others are the three Statsny brothers: Peter, Anton, and Marian, and two players from the early days of the NHL, Cy Denney and Joe Malone who both did it during the 1917-18 season.
Game 3: Islanders Take Down the Red Wings
On Feb 9, the Islanders defeated the Detroit Red Wings 7-6 in overtime after coming back from a four-goal deficit in the third period. On this night, Barzal provided an encore five-assist performance as he’d done against the Avalanche back in November.
Four of his five points were scored as part of the comeback in the last nine minutes of the game.
Again he made history, becoming one of only two players to have three five-point games as a rookie. The other player was Joe Malone but Barzal is the only NHL player ever to record five assists twice in his rookie season.
Barzal Becomes Heir Apparent to John Tavares
Barzal ended his incredible rookie season with 85 points, one more than team captain and former resident superstar John Tavares. With Tavares signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the offseason, Barzal has an opportunity to take the reins and become the team’s top-line center. He may want it but it’s going to be tough. By inheriting the role, he is going to be facing tighter checking from the opposition as Tavares did, which is much more than Barzal faced in the number two spot behind him.
If he succeeds, he will become the new face of the Islanders franchise. With his ability to control the play, there is no reason to think this won’t happen. There are few players on the ice who can catch him.