ColoradoAvalanche.com is profiling draft-eligible prospects leading up to the 2015 NHL Draft in Florida on June 26-27. Mathew Barzal is the No. 11-ranked North American skater in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings. The Avalanche has the 10th overall selection at the draft.
A stand out talent, Mathew Barzal is great at creating opportunities for his teammates and his vision might be the best of any of the players entering the 2015 NHL Draft.
“A fantastic east/west skater with the capability of creating time and space for linemates; he’s the top center on a team that has struggled this season but possesses great vision, puck skills and is the ultimate playmaker,” wrote Mike Morreale of NHL.com in his midseason mock draft. “He’s at his best when controlling the puck and seeking out options.”
The No. 11-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting was on another level early in his hockey career. Barzal played for the Vancouver NE Chiefs of the British Columbia Minor Midget Hockey League in 2012-13, setting the league record for the most assists in a season with 74 in only 34 games. He also found the back of the net 29 times as well.
While still skating for the Chiefs, the Seattle Thunderbirds selected Barzal first overall in the 2012 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. In his first season in Seattle, he collected 14 goals and 40 assists in 59 games, finishing tied for fifth among WHL rookies in points.
The expectations for Barzal were high entering the WHL, but Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell pointed out that the young skater had to adapt to new challenges during his first season, just like many other players who enter the major junior ranks.
“Mathew was a dominant player in his bantam year,” Farwell said in an interview with Gare Joyce of SportsNet.com. “There are a lot of expectations that go with that. That you’re just going to keep on dominating. For a 16-year-old coming into the league like Mathew did last season, there’s a transition that you have to make. It’s not easy, not even for the best players.”
Going into his sophomore campaign with Seattle, Barzal had more confidence with a season of WHL hockey under his belt.
“I had a great summer, training hard back home. So I think that has paid some dividends,” Barzal said to SportsNet.com's Andrew Eide last October. “I guess having a year experience, knowing how to use my body better and how to play against those bigger guys helps.”
The 17-year-old got off to a hot start in 2014-15, but a knee injury forced him to sit out two-and-a-half months in the middle of the season.
“It was tough those two first weeks when I was lying in bed doing nothing,” said Barzal in an interview with Kelly Friesen of Yahoo Sports. “Mentally it was tough to sit out when I really wanted to play. But I used that time to try to get better. I was working out and when I watched games I wasn’t just watching the game, I was looking for ways to improve.”
When Barzal was able to return to the ice, he made sure his presence was felt and helped the team reach the playoffs. He finished the regular season with 12 goals and 45 assists in only 44 games, ending the year with the highest point-per-game ratio (1.29) among first-year, draft-eligible forwards in the WHL.
He added four goals and four assists in six postseason contests, but the Thunderbirds fell to the Portland Winterhawks in the first round of the WHL Playoffs.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound, right-shot center’s overall game has developed over the last few years in several areas, including becoming more consistent on a night-to-night basis.
“It’s pretty impressive the amount of offense he generates,” Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk, a former Colorado Avalanche player and assistant coach, said to the Associated Press. “He’s just a smart player who makes good plays and good decisions with the puck. There are a lot of guys who have the talent to play in the NHL, but to do that you have to play a complete hockey game, be a good defensive hockey player and win battles to get the puck. He’s improved and is more consistent in all of those areas.”
Barzal’s draft ranking this year has fluctuated due to his injury, but former NHL general manager and current NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button spoke highly of him as he noticed the impact that he can bring to a team when out on the ice.
“Difference maker may sum up Mathew,” wrote Button last September. “He not only wants to be one, he is one. Always in the ‘guts’ of the action and he has the puck so much during the course of a game. Smart and really understands what is unfolding and is both quick to take advantage yet patient to let it unfold. Exudes confidence and with a very good skill set, that confidence leads to productivity, both for him and the team.”
The young player from Coquitlam, British Columbia understands that becoming a successful player in the NHL doesn’t happen overnight.
“I think you have to get better at everything to get to the next level,” Barzal said to Eide. “Everyone’s faster, bigger and stronger so for me every day, I’ve got to work on something new.”
Barzal could one day be the answer for a team looking for ways to create more opportunities on the offensive side of the rink. With analysts calling him “the ultimate playmaker” and a “difference maker,” it’s no wonder why he is projected to be a high pick in this summer's draft.