New York Islanders prospect Mathew Barzal
nearly made the NHL roster last September as an 18-year-old. He's ready to make a similar impression this fall.
Barzal, who projects to one day be the Islanders' second-line center behind John Tavares, couldn't participate in their development camp this summer because of a hip strain. He expects to be fully healthy when training camp opens in September, and when it does, he has his sights set on taking the next step in his career.
"It [stinks] obviously," Barzal said of having to watch the Islanders' other prospects skate. "But at the end of the day, the Islanders have the best interests for me. It's just a little hip tweak, so it's just erring on the side of caution. But come September, I'm going to be ready and come in and try to make a statement."
Barzal impressed Islanders brass during his time in New York last September during camp and preseason games. He believes the chance to play against some of the NHL's top players was beneficial upon his return to Seattle of the Western Hockey League, where he had 27 goals and 61 assists in 58 regular-season games, and five goals and 21 assists in 18 playoff games.
"It was a great experience," said Barzal, who turned 19 on May 26. "I got to play against (Washington Capitals forwards Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov), I got to play with Tavares, (Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy). These guys, they're just so good. It was a real eye-opener for me. All aspects of my game kind of improved I think, especially the defensive side of the puck. I'm really looking forward to it again this year.
"But just because I was one of the last cuts, it doesn't mean that I'm guaranteed that this year. I've got to come in with a humble mindset and work real hard."
That's the approach the Islanders want Barzal to take when he enters his second NHL training camp. Even if he doesn't make the roster this fall, they're still excited about what he could bring down the road.
"I think if he can continue to do all the right things, he'll get the opportunity as the coaches see fit," Islanders director of player development Eric Cairns told NHL.com. "He's a great player and had a great year. He was one of the guys who led that Seattle team to the WHL Final. He played at world juniors (for Canada) last year too. He's a great player."
The chance to learn from Tavares, the Islanders captain, was one of the biggest things Barzal took away from last year's training camp. He plans on picking Tavares' brain a bit more in September.
"Oh man," Barzal said. "You can take so much from that guy's game. I took actually more off the ice. We play maybe a little bit different styles on the ice; I find him to be more of a shoot-first guy. He's got an unbelievable shot and release. But off the ice, he works so hard and is such a great leader. I was just kind of watching him in the gym, watching him being the last guy on the ice, it's just eye-opening that even though he's a top-three, four player in the world, he doesn't take a day for granted.
"Honestly watching Tavares score that overtime goal (against the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs) almost gave me chills. It was pretty special seeing the crowd and the city really get behind them. Awesome year for them, and hopefully we can keep on improving from here."
Once Barzal's hip heals, he will get back on the ice in preparation for Islanders training camp. He realizes that being New York's first-round pick (No. 16) at the 2015 NHL Draft won't mean much in September. He'll need to earn his keep.
"I'm not coming in thinking anything's going to be given to me or anything's going to be easy," Barzal said. "Do I think I'm ready? We'll see. I'm working super hard this summer. I'm not taking a day off. I'm doing everything I can come September.
"Whether I stay or whether they send me back (to Seattle), I can really look myself in the mirror and truly say I did I everything I could to make the team."