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Raising the Barzal

Islanders Longread: The road to Mathew Barzal's first goal

by Cory Wright WrightsWay / New York Islanders

Mathew Barzal imagined his first goal 1,000 different ways in his head and he would have been happy with any one of them. Dangling through the whole team? Of course. A deflection off his shin pads? Absolutely. He just wanted to get the first one out of the way, to know that no matter what, he'd have a National Hockey League goal. 

As of last Thursday, he didn't have to picture it anymore. 

Barzal blew past Rick Nash down the left wall, cut to the net and snuck a shot through Rangers netminder, Henrik Lundqvist. As far as first goals go, beating a former Rocket Richard winner and a Vezina Trophy winner in an Isles-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden is pretty memorable. 

When he realized the puck had snuck through Lundqvist, Barzal's emotions took over. He could barely stand still after scoring his first goal, skating around in front of the bench before taking a seat, but even on the bench he was still buzzing. 

He'd dreamt of that moment for years, but the last two weeks were the longest part of the wait. For a gifted offensive player, six games without a goal feels like an eternity. When it finally came, he could exhale from the pressure he puts on himself. 

Video: NYI@NYR: Barzal beats Lundqvist for first NHL goal

"I just thought…finally. I can just breathe a bit more now you know," Barzal said. "Anyone will tell you if they go three, four or five games and miss a couple good chances, you're thinking, 'am I ever going to score? Am I going to go 82 games?' It's nice to get the first one."

Barzal was electric that night. He nearly had two or three more before the end of the game, if not for some big-time stops by Lundqvist and a crossbar. By the end of the night Barzal went from yearning for his first goal to being a little frustrated that he only had one. 

"[Trainer] Damien Hess said to me on the bench, 'now things get easier,' but then Lundqvist robs me two more times and I thought maybe they don't get easier," Barzal joked.

Tweet from @NYIslanders: Big night for @Barzal_97!Congrats Barzy. ���� #Isles #NHLFirsts pic.twitter.com/8ZMUjPQFHk

***

Barzal is still in the early stages of his NHL career, but he's been working up to this moment for a long time. 

Barzal grew up in Coquitlam BC - a suburb roughly 20 miles outside downtown Vancouver. It's too warm in the winter for outdoor rinks, so Barzal spent a lot of time roller blading around his cul-de-sac, strapping the pads on his neighbors for some target practice. He also spent countless hours on the ice at the Burnaby Winter Club, the same youth hockey association that produced Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Karl Alzner. 

"I was a rink rat. All day, pretty much every day," Barzal said. "Before school I'd be shooting pucks, after school I'd be shooting pucks or roller blading, then go for practice, come home and shoot more pucks and stickhandle. That was pretty much my life until I was 14 years old."

His father Mike was an early influence in his hockey career, putting him on skates at four years old and enrolling him at BWC one year later. 

Today he's a plumber, but in his youth Mike carved out a junior hockey career, playing for the Penticton Knights of the BCJHL from 1983-87. He wasn't bad either with 66 points in 54 games in his rookie year, playing on the same team as Brett Hull - who scored more goals (105) than anyone else had points on the team. 

Instagram from @barzal97: Mikey #happyfathersday

Mike coached his son until he was eight, but has always been an involved hockey parent. Mat said his dad is his biggest supporter, but pushed him throughout his youth hockey days. Mat has a natural talent, but his dad wanted to make sure he had a blue collar work ethic to pair with it and that he played the game the right way. 

"I was brought up to work harder than the next guy and earn my spot," Barzal said. "My dad's a plumber so he goes to the grindstone every day and that's how he raised me."

His dad watches nearly all of his games…twice, once all the way through and then a condensed version of Mat's shifts and texts his son some of what he sees. Some days it's a compliment on his speed, but on another it could be losing his man in the second period. It's okay with Mat because he loves to talk hockey - and they talk about the game all day long when he's back in Coquitlam in the summer. 

"He knows my game better than anyone, so it's nice to talk to him after games," Mat said. "He knows when I've had a good game and played bad as well. It's nice to have that guy I can trust and who is always going to be honest with me."

A couple hours before the Islanders-Rangers game, Mike sent his son a pre-game text. 

"Good luck tonight," Mike wrote. "Put on a Broadway performance."

After the game there was another text waiting, his post-game assessment.

"Yes! Yes! Yes!" 

***

Success in hockey had always seemed to come easy for Barzal. He's been a star player since pee-wee, lighting up the prestigious Quebec International Pee-Wee Tournament for 22 points in seven games. 

From there, it was everything you'd expect to see from a first-round NHL prospect: 153 points in 51 bantam games, scoring over a point-per-game at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and netting 111 points in his first 103 Western Hockey League games with the Seattle Thunderbirds. 

In 2015 he became draft eligible and despite a knee injury in his sophomore season in Seattle, the Islanders were big on Barzal. General Manager Garth Snow traded into the first round to draft Barzal 16th overall in the 2015 draft, parting with former No. 4 pick Griffin Reinhart. The deal reportedly hinged on Barzal's availability at 16. 

Video: Islanders Drafts: Mathew Barzal - 2015

The early success followed him to Long Island, as Barzal nearly made the Islanders roster as an 18-year-old, going home as one of the last cuts at training camp. He went back to Seattle and scored a career-high 88 points (27G, 61A) in 58 games, taking the T-Birds all the way to the WHL Final, losing in five games to the Brandon Wheat Kings. 

The next step was seemingly to make the Islanders roster out of training camp and become a regular in the lineup, but it didn't pan out as he'd hoped. Barzal's NHL debut was most memorable for a bizarre sequence where he was penalized for touching the puck while he was leaving the penalty box. He appeared in two of the Islanders first 13 games last season before being returned to Seattle, the first time he'd been cut from a major team. 

He took the news hard at first - as any hockey player would, but being agitated and stewing in juniors was not an option, not with the work ethic instilled by his father, not when his sister Liana was working two jobs, taking acting classes and going to high school. 

"Being an athlete you're going to be faced with adversity and I'm glad he got to see it at a young age," Mike Barzal said. "Hopefully it prepares him for any adversity that comes his way moving forward."

Going back to a competitive team and a supportive environment in Seattle, Barzal tried to top his career-year. Sharing the co-captaincy with Scott Eansor - now on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers - Barzal recorded eight more assists (69) in 17 fewer games, ultimately finishing with 79 points in 41 games. He scored another 25 points (7G, 18A) in 16 playoff games, capping his WHL career with a championship and a playoff MVP. Add the silver medal he won at the World Junior Hockey Championships with Team Canada and Barzal earned a lot of hardware last season. 

Instagram from @barzal97: WHL CHAMPIONS

"His attitude was great, right from the start," said Steve Konowalchuk, the former Head Coach of the Seattle Thunderbirds, now an assistant coach for the Anaheim Ducks. "We had a goal to win a championship and he led the way. He came back [from the Islanders] and he didn't go through the motions and think I'm just going to wait till next year. He came and worked on his game and led the way. He was a top 1-2 forward in the league and a big reason why we won."

Konowalchuk saw Barzal carry himself differently after returning to Seattle, mimicking the habits of players like John Tavares. He wasn't bitter about being sent back, or conceited about being on the cusp of the NHL, he just worked and set the tone for his teammates. 

"Who knows how it would have went if I had stayed last year, but it doesn't matter now," Barzal said. "I went back to junior last year worked hard and made sure I didn't lose a step."

That's the focus, drive and resiliency the Islanders wanted to see and Weight even made personal trips out to Seattle to watch Barzal in the postseason. When mini camp convened in June and training camp opened in September, Weight saw a more mature and improved center. Barzal led the Islanders with seven points (3G, 4A) in five games. 

Video: NJD@NYI: Barzal shows off speed and shot on PPG

"He knows his position now. He's a little stronger and the confidence grows from 19 to 20, it's a big difference" Weight said. "He's just a better player than he was. The reason he stayed around last year is that he was just as dynamic as he is now. He controls the puck and has confidence and he can make plays." 

Off the ice, Weight said Barzal is more cognizant of the veteran-rookie dynamic and little gestures like not being the first one on the food line go a long way with some vets. Not that he was ever brash or a troublemaker, but Weight said he's a little more reserved this season and is putting in more effort than ever in practice. 

"He's just been focused on his work ethic in practice," Weight said. "In the end it encompasses guys saying, alright he's making a valiant effort to make sure we know that he knows that he's young, he's willing to pay his dues, he gets it. I've seen it and I think it goes a long way in embracing teammates and he realizes how much work he has to put in and it's been good."

*** 

Barzal's started the season as the Islanders second-line center, both a reflection of the expectations and trust Weight has in the 20-year-old. 

To put his age in perspective, his first "big purchase" this season was a Nintendo Switch.

Even with that opportunity, there was still some trial and error for Barzal to start the season. He learned a few hard lessons about the speed of the league early, getting pick-pocketed by Kyle Okposo on a would-be empty-netter against the Buffalo Sabres. Perhaps the biggest lesson came in Anaheim when Barzal didn't have his head on a swivel and got hit hard by Kevin Bieksa - a guy he'd grown up watching in Vancouver. It was a welcome-to-the-NHL moment for a young player. 

"I was joking that when Kevin Bieksa retires, I'll probably be on his hit film," Barzal said with a laugh. "It actually kind of woke me up a little bit, that's a learning lesson that I can't be making those kind of plays in the NHL. Guys like Bieksa will step up on you and crush you. It was probably good for me in the long run."

Weight didn't waver when Barzal went pointless in his first five games and now the rookie is coming around. He collected his first NHL point - an assist on a Josh Bailey goal - in LA in his sixth game this season. Four nights later he scored his first goal against the Rangers and extended his point streak to three games with an assist on Saturday. 

His confidence with the puck appears to have grown and on Saturday vs San Jose, he made a heads-up play to circle and net, draw attention and then dish a one-timer to an open Andrew Ladd open in the slot for a goal. 

"I think what you see is that there are guys that are studs, there are guys that are pros and I think he's a stud and he's going to be a really good player," Weight said. "There's a long way to go, we can't start celebrating his career here, but he has the confidence in himself, he believes in himself that he can be great and he wants to strive for it."

Barzal said another one of his welcome-to-the-NHL moments was back when he was 18, getting a little star struck watching Alex Ovechkin skate in warmups in a preseason game. He'd grown up idolizing Sidney Crosby, Nick Backstrom, Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane - all gifted offensive players around his height - and had a feeling that he'd made it, looking across the ice and seeing a player like Ovechkin. 

Video: SJS@NYI: Ladd rips home one-timer for go-ahead goal

Just in the past two years, Barzal's come a long way from being starstruck in warmups. He's playing in a meaningful role on the Islanders and his confidence, comfort and timing is starting to match his dynamic talent. The first goal was a big moment for him, but now he's only focusing on the next one and all the next ones after that. 

"Before I would have been so googly-eyed and maybe got a little complacent or something," Barzal said. "Before I would have said alright I'm here, I had a good game, but now I'm not like that. I expect to do those kind of things and want to play even better next game and get two goals next game."

He has a long way to go to fully figure out the NHL game and reach his ultimate goals, but the Islanders have high hopes for Barzal. So does he.

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