Despite the New York Islanders’ 2021-22 season as a whole, and certainly in lieu of their recent blowout loss to the St. Louis Blues, this team still has a good foundation to move forward with, as incomplete as it may be. Mathew Barzal remains the team’s only true superstar, save for Ilya Sorokin and a budding Noah Dobson, but even he hasn’t been immune to the ups and downs of the current campaign. While many of his stats are up this season, his overall game is going through growing pains. As many wished for years as John Tavares did his best to carry this team, this time needs to be different. Barzal needs help to evolve and take his game to the next level.
Barzal Raises the Bar
During the 2020-21 season, Barzal showed some serious growth, raising his level of play to a superstar level. Not only did we see his playmaking climb to new heights, but he also leaned into the sniper role. The playmaking center was an excellent set-up man for Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee, among a few other first-line players in his short career so far. But last season, he added a shooting mentality, which he kept even into the playoffs, leading the Islanders alongside Josh Bailey in that category.
Like any great player, Barzal elevates whoever his coach surrounds him with. He’s played with a variety of linemates of all different skill levels and, for the last two seasons, he’s been a huge part of the Islanders being within a game or two of the Stanley Cup Final.
Though, as good as he’s been with a mixed bag of linemates, there’s a ceiling to his abilities without assistance. He’s done a lot without much around him, like Tavares before him, but the best players in history take the next step with someone riding shotgun. Eberle was a good start, but they need more.
Barzal at His Limit
As good as Oliver Wahlstrom is and has the potential to be, he’s still learning the NHL game. Additionally, and perhaps more difficult than that, he’s now learning to play the NHL game next to someone who thinks the game as fast as Barzal does.
“That’s part of the process of learning to play,” head coach Barry Trotz said near the end of March. “Instead of going to space, he’s going maybe to support when he doesn’t have to. That’ll come as he gets to know and have more reps with Barzy and Zach. They’ll be times where he’ll just have to lay in the weeds sometimes and wait for the puck and other times he’ll have to go and support…There is a little bit of, I’ll say indecisiveness, where, am I shooting it or am I looking for something different? And Wally’s a shooter. We want him to shoot” (from ‘Oliver Wahlstrom-Mathew Barzal duo coming up big for Islanders’, New York Post, 3/23/2022).
Wahlstrom and Barzal have certainly shown some chemistry, which isn’t easy to do, but you have to wonder if he requires wingers with a little more experience to go along with that skill. It could simply mean what many are thinking – find a skilled left-winger to play on the first line with him and continue to give Wahlstrom the opportunity. Signs point to that, as general manager Lou Lamoriello made more than a few mentions of “hockey trades” during his PR tour in March. For now, Barzal is having an up and down season and, frankly, hasn’t looked like himself, especially over the last few games.
Barzal and Wahlstrom – and let’s not forget what Zach Parise brings to the table despite not being the long-term solution – had a really great stretch for a moment. They were sound defensively and had a lot of opportunities that simply weren’t finding the back of the net. They’ve cooled off since that stretch a couple of weeks ago, and Barzal has looked fairly unnoticeable in general for the better part of two weeks.
In addition to that, we’re seeing Barzal simply try to do too much with the puck. He’s one of the quickest skaters and best stick handlers in the league, but he has a knack for overplaying the puck, something other teams’ defenses have figured out a bit this season. He needs to find a way to continue to add to that sniper mentality, keeping defenders honest when he has the puck. The team needs their superstar forward to make a difference on the ice in the offensive zone, even though other Islander forwards have proven they can step up as of late.
This is not a scare tactic piece, placing worry into readers about Barzal leaving the team as a free agent the first chance he gets. Not even Tavares did that; in fact, he did the opposite, for those who don’t remember. This is simply to point out that in order for him to evolve and take the next step, he’s going to need some help on his wing – or both wings – beyond the potential of Wahlstrom. This offseason will determine if he gets that opportunity in 2022-23.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.