Last season, Mathew Barzal was on the cusp of realizing his NHL dream. One year later, it's becoming real.
Barzal, the Islanders' 2015 first-round pick, will make his NHL debut against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night, the first act in his nine-game audition with the team. The 19-year-old said he's going to measure the success of his debut in wins and losses, rather than his own statistics.
"It's not so much a personal showcase for me, I'm here to help the team win," Barzal said. "Tonight is a big game and I just want to make an impact. Personal success comes with team success."
So don't expect a four-goal night like Leafs prospect Auston Matthews' debut.
"Just a win tonight would be great," Bazal said when faced with the Matthews comparison.
The Islanders plan to play to Barzal's strengths, so the rookie will be at center on Saturday night, between Anders Lee and Ryan Strome. Barzal will also see time on the top power-play unit, where he practiced Friday.
"If we want to take a look at Mathew we have to utilize what his strengths are as a hockey player," head coach Jack Capuano said. "There's no question that from the offensive side of things that's what he brings. He'll get opportunities whether it's 5-on-3, 4-on-3, 5-on-4, we have to see what Mathew can do before we move forward and make some decisions."
Barzal led the Islanders with four points (1G, 3A) in the preseason and was a dynamic scorer last year in the Western Hockey League. The Coquitlam, BC, native set career highs in goals (27), assists (61) and points (88) in 58 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds last season.
The Islanders' prospect rode the momentum of a fantastic season - one that included a trip to the World Juniors and the WHL Final - into the summer and came into training camp brimming with confidence.
"I just worked hard all summer and came into camp feeling confident," Barzal said. "When main camp rolled around I felt that I had more confidence this year and could play, so just a lot of hard work and I'm ready to go."
"I have pretty high expectations for myself," he added. "I knew [General Manager Garth Snow] and management here was going to do whatever they thought was best for me, so I came in hoping to make it and trying to do everything I could. So I just worked hard and it worked out so far."
Barzal is expecting the pace to intensify compared to preseason, but he's confident that he can adapt.
"I've played a lot of preseason games, obviously not this caliber, but it's still a stepping stone," Barzal said. "I'm just looking forward to it and coming in with an open mind and playing confident. Once you get out there and you get the pace of the game and a couple of shifts under your belt, you start to feel confident."
Capuano did note that he liked Barzal's confidence and swagger. He doesn't think the rookie will succumb to nerves, but even still, had a few reminders for him ahead of his big night.
"You ask a young player and the nerves are going to be there for the first few shifts. You hope that they can get that out of their system and continue to play," the coach said. "With Mathew I don't really worry about it, he's got some confidence and swagger to his game and this is a great opportunity for him tonight."
Despite debuting in a hostile Verizon Center Saturday, Barzal will have a cheering section in the stands. His mom, dad, sister and a family friend have flown out from Coquitlam BC. As much as this is a dream come true for him, it's also a dream come true for them.
"This is a big moment for me and my family," Barzal said. "Moreso for them, they've put in so many hours and time for me, this is what I'm working for working for, so I'm excited."