It probably happened more than once; and a doubletake may have even been required, but the sight of No. 13 pressuring through the defensive zone shorthanded, as he angled his outstretched stick and strategically anticipated the next move of his opponent was an occurrence this preseason. The instances weren't bountiful, but did happen a handful of times when Mathew Barzal was sent over the boards on the penalty kill.
Barzal's cameo on the grittier of the special teams units comes as a result of Valtteri Filppula's departure. The vacancy of the Isles former third-line center - who signed with Detroit over the summer - created a void among the penalty kill. In Filppula's wake, the coaching staff has explored all potential options to fill the hole throughout the preseason, including playing Barzal shorthanded.
"You want to give them at least an opportunity to add something to the toolbox and we'll see who's going to do that," Head Coach Barry Trotz explained. "Mathew Barzal, can he kill a penalty? If he can, he's a right-handed shot. There are a lot of attributes. He's got speed. He's got skill. He can become dangerous. The glamour position is the power play. The penalty killers are the ones that are sometimes the unsung guys that have to chew on pucks when things break down."
Tom Kuhnhackl Michael Dal Colle and Anthony Beauvillier are additional - and perhaps more traditional - candidates as well, as is Derick Brassard, who took some reps at Monday's practice. But Barzal's electric playmaking would bring a different flavor to the PK, making him an intriguing candidate.
Video: NYR@NYI: Barzal snaps quick shot by Georgiev
"If [coach Trotz] wants me on PK, I'm obviously going to do my best at being a good PKer," Barzal said. "Obviously, I would like to, but I do know that we have guys here that are good at it. It's not something that I'm forcing, but it is something that one day I would like to be on. Being 50/50 on it and what not, even just listening to the meetings and watching [the current PKers] can help me too. I'll be ready if they do want me to PK."
There's no question that Barzal is an offensive prodigy; between his nimble footwork, explosive speed and sharp hockey IQ, the centerman is bound to generate chances in the offensive zone. It's those very qualities that make the Coquitlam, British Columbia native an offensive threat for the penalty kill as well, seemingly able to break free if he were able to intercept a D-to-D pass on the blue line.
Following a phenomenal breakout 85-point (22G, 63A) rookie season, cemented by receiving the 2018 Calder Memorial Trophy honors, Barzal adapted his game during his sophomore season to compliment the Islanders' defensively-oriented structure. On paper, Barzal's overall production may have lessened with a modest 62-point (18G, 44A) sophomore campaign, but he made significant strides in his two-way game. Now, as the 22-year-old enters his third NHL season, he strives to continue his individual trajectory and - as Trotz puts it - add a new tool to his toolbox. Barzal is open to the idea of getting more shifts on the penalty kill, which would also yield more ice time.
"I think [playing on the PK] just helps the whole aspect of your game," Barzal said. "It's that defensive mindset that can translate to five-on-five. Just knowing where to put your stick or how to play [against] offensive players a little more. Being on the power play for pretty much my whole life, I know what guys are thinking or what their options are on the power play. Maybe that makes it a little easier for me to read. I do feel like I have an advantage there. I do feel like my speed can be a positive thing on the PK too."
Across the league, there's a trend of elite centerman doubling as consistent penalty killers. Whether it's Jonathan Toews in Chicago, Patrice Bergeron in Boston, or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Florida's Alexsander Barkov, or Ryan O'Reilly for St. Louis, there is value in a top-six forward taking shifts on the kill.
"If you look at those guys, they're all real good centerman," Kuhnhackl said. "They're smart players. Those guys, they know how to play on the power play. So, if you put them on the penalty kill, they can anticipate the plays. They know what they would do if they were in their position [on the power play]. For those guys to kill penalties also is obviously good, especially at the end of a game. Just say you're down a goal. You're still going to put your top guys on the ice like [Anders] Lee, [Brock] Nelson, Eberle, Barzal. You're going to put those guys out and they're obviously capable of scoring goals. It's nice to see everyone get the chance out on the PK."
Video: Lou Lamoriello: Sept. 30, 2019
There's no guarantee Barzal will be a regular fixture on the man-down unit, but after receiving sporadic looks during the preseason, Barzal welcomes the penalty kill as an opportunity to further evolve his overall game and earn more ice time. In the meantime, there's no harm in learning the ropes from the Isles current talents that occupy action on the man-down.
"If you can be on the PK and the PP that's just a compliment to your game," Barzal said. "I think it really can make you that much better of a player. If I can be that responsible player and be on the PK I would love to be on the PK."