The New York Islanders season is over after a sudden and disappointing ending. While they reached the playoffs in a bounce-back season, they were outmatched by the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round and lost the series in six games.
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One of the bright spots in the series was Mathew Barzal, who showed flashes of brilliance, especially in Game 2 and Game 5. His season had plenty of highs and lows in a year that was cut short by injuries but in the 58 regular season games, he showed that he can become an elite player. At 25 years old, Barzal is entering the prime of his career and looks poised for a big year in 2023-24 which could put the Islanders over the top and make them Eastern Conference contenders.
Barzal’s Rocky Start to the Season
Barzal signed an eight-year contract extension days before the 2022-23 season and the expectation was that he’d become the star on the top line to lead the offense. At the start of the season, he continue to display his playmaking ability but lacked the scoring presence needed to make him elite. Through 18 games, he had 19 assists, making him a point-per-game player, but no goals.
It looked like Barzal was struggling to adapt to life without Jordan Eberle, who was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. In 2021-22, he showed his limitations as he lacked a sharpshooter on his wing and couldn’t be as dynamic a forward as many hoped he’d be. Barzal could still create scoring opportunities but couldn’t find open shots as he didn’t have a playmaker on his wing to open up the ice for him.
Heading into the All-Star Break, Barzal had only 12 goals but a team-leading 31 assists. It looked like he would remain an elite passer but not an all-around skater that could carry the Islanders but that changed during the break when general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello made a splash acquisition.
Barzal Finds Chemistry With Horvat
When Bo Horvat was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks, he immediately injected life into a struggling roster. The Islanders entered the All-Star Break with a 25-22-5 record and out of playoff position but his all-around production allowed them to go 17-9-4 and reach the playoffs.
Horvat centered the top line and Barzal moved to the wing, giving the Islanders a line with two elite playmakers on it. The connection between the two skaters was great, especially for Barzal who finally could thrive as a passer and a scorer. In seven games together, he scored two goals and six assists with Horvat creating more scoring chances for the top line.
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Unfortunately, Barzal was injured shortly after the trade was made. He only played seven regular season games with Horvat, a small sample size but enough games to prove that the two skaters can form a special connection. Barzal missed the final two months of the season and returned for the playoffs where he was forced to rekindle that chemistry he had with Horvat, but against the Hurricanes who have one of the league’s best defenses.
Barzal Stepped Up in the First Round
The Islanders struggled to find scoring chances against the Hurricanes and goals were hard to come by. In the first round, they only scored 15 goals in the six games series. However, one of the few skaters creating offense was Barzal. In Game 2, he scored a goal that allowed the Islanders to tie the game heading into the third period, a game they ultimately lost 4-3 in overtime. In Game 5, Barzal stole the puck at the blue line and scored his second goal of the series on a breakaway which ultimately gave the team a 3-2 victory.
Barzal’s two goals added a spark to the offense but more importantly, it showed his willingness to shoot the puck. He has a great shot and when he has open looks, he can find the back of the net. He is an elite passer but if he continues to aggressively shoot the puck on the net, he can become one of the elite players in the game, something the Islanders can hope for in the upcoming season.
Where Barzal Needs to Improve Next Season
The big thing for Barzal is he needs to become a shoot-first player. While his skating ability often draws skaters to him and opens up shooting lanes for his linemates, he can create scoring opportunities for himself. He needs to use his speed to create shooting lanes and aggressively fire the puck on the net. Additionally, he needs to not only be the primary puck handler on the power play but take on a greater role as a goal scorer, helping out a unit that was hapless this past season.
The Islanders have struggled offensively in recent seasons and it was awful in the first round. However, with Barzal continuing to improve, the offense and team altogether will improve as well.