Even in an NHL that's getting younger, Mathew Barzal is getting a chance that most rookies would dream of.
The 20-year-old is penciled in as the Islanders second-line center on opening night, skating with veterans Andrew Ladd and Josh Bailey. Starting the season between a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Ladd and the team's second-leading scorer from last season in Bailey is a huge opportunity for a player with two NHL games under his belt.
"I kind of feel a bit more comfortable knowing that I'm on the opening day roster," Barzal said. "I think that helps playing with Ladd and Bailey, obviously two unbelievable players. Ladd, a two-time Cup winner and Bailey, he's had some great seasons, especially last year. I think he's one of the most underrated guys in the league actually. I think it can work."
Barzal's opportunity is a continuation of the team's philosophy towards younger players from last season. Last year Anthony Beauviller became the first teenager to play a full season with the Islanders since 2011 while Josh Ho-Sang played in big situations - like starting a 3-on-3 overtime - after his recall from Bridgeport. All three made the team out of training camp this season. All three are 21 or younger.
Video: The Road to Opening Night
"We've had a bit of a youth movement," Cal Clutterbuck said. "If those guys can come in and be effective and contribute along with the guys who have been here a long time. The coaching staff is a lot of ex-players, a lot of NHL experience, so it's been a good mix."
Playing in an important role comes with expectations, so Barzal will have to produce offensively if he wants to stay as the second line pivot. With 13 talented forwards on the roster, there's healthy internal competition for minutes and roles.
"If one of the younger guys, Beau or Ho-Sang or myself is playing well, the coaching staff is going to ride with it," Barzal said. "At the end of the day, age doesn't matter, when the puck drops we're on the same playing field. Whether I'm 20 or 28, I'm still trying to play hard and win hockey games."
Head Coach Doug Weight has said he plans on putting his younger players in positions to succeed. While an old-school NHL coach may have started the offensively-gifted Barzal out on the fourth line in a checking role, Weight is putting his "dynamic" rookie in a spot suited for his skill set. It worked in preseason, as Barzal led the Islanders - and was seventh in the NHL - with seven points (3G, 4A) in four games, playing in a top-six role and on the top power-play unit.
"He's a great skater, great puck possession, he sees the ice well and he's a confident kid," Weight said. "He's really taken on the game and talk about cliches, but he's playing throughout 200 feet. He's attentive to everything and a smart hockey player. He's taken the steps that he had to to be in this lineup tonight and I'm excited for him."