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Barzal excited, "can't wait" for draft day

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

Waiting is the hardest part.

For Seattle Thunderbids pivot Mathew Barzal, it’s become a daily grind. Nervousness. Excitement. The whole lot.

“I just want to get to draft day. The wait is killing me.”

Luckily, we’re not far off. Close enough, indeed, for many to begin finalizing their plans for what could be a life-changing event June 26 and 27 in Sunrise, Florida.

“I have a pretty big crew coming,” Barzal, a projected first-round pick, said over the phone late last week, prior to the NHL Scouting Combine. “My aunts, uncles and cousins will all be there, and I actually have a few close family friends that are going to come down as well. They’re coming down for the draft, but they’re also going to enjoy Florida a little bit. I mean…how could you not,

The Coquitlam, BC product is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the draft, and for a while, was even in the discussion as a possible Top 5 pick.

Whether or not it happens, this is a player with Top 5 skill.

Barzal was taken with the first pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft after lighting it up with the Burnaby Winter Club Bantam ‘A’ squad the previous year. In 35 regular-season games, he registered 39 goals and 107 points en route to a share of the Hockey Now Minor Hockey Player of the Year Award. Jansen Harkins, who then represented the North Shore Winter Club, was the other

The Burnaby Winter Club is one of the finest minor hockey programs in North America. Cliff Ronning, Paul Kariya, Glenn Anderson and more recently, Karl Alzner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, are just a
few of the program’s elite alumni.

Naturally, Barzal takes pride in having been a part of it. Best of all, though, it prepared him for a near seamless transition to the junior ranks.

In 59 games in his rookie campaign with the Thunderbirds (2012-13), the 5-foot-11, 175-pound pivot tallied 14 goals and 54 points. He was on track to surpass numbers this year, but he suffered an off-ice knee injury in early November, forcing him to miss a good chunk of the season
before returning on Jan. 23.

“It took me a while to get my bearings,” Barzal said, noting the grizzly four-game stretch post-injury in which he was held off the score sheet.

He quickly made amends, however, notching a season-high four assists in a Jan. 30 road game at Prince George.

“I needed a game like that. It was big for my confidence, especially in my draft year and at a time when we were pushing for the playoffs.”

He was well above a point-per-game pace the rest of the way, finishing the season with 57 points (12G, 45A) in 44 games before adding another eight (4G, 4A) in six post-season contests. By
year’s end, he was one point shy of the team lead in scoring despite playing 24 fewer games
than his fellow draft-eligible teammate, Ryan Gropp.

The Thunderbirds fell to the Portland Winterhawks in the first round of the WHL playoffs.

“Jets prospect Nic Petan scored the OT winner in Game 6,” Barzal said, chuckling at the obvious connection in speaking to the team’s official website.

“It was a good series. I laugh at the mention of Petan, but it’s honestly amazing how playing these past two years in the U.S. Division has benefitted my development. Seeing guys like him, (Nashville Predators prospect and Winnipeg native Brendan) Leipsic, (Mitch) Holmberg, on and on — I’ve learned a lot and have incorporated some of their traits into my own game.”

Barzal sees the value in self-critique. He’s a talented playmaker with elite speed, puck skills and passing ability, but he feels he can add more.

“One of my goals over the course of the off-season is to develop my shot,” he said. “Once guys read you as a passer it’s easier to defend, so to have that dual threat, it opens up other options and forces the D to back off. My speed is another thing. I think if I can get my foot speed and my leg strength up, I can become more of an explosive skater and really separate myself in those first few steps. That’s critical at the next level.

“There’s always something, you know? If I can develop my shot and get a bit bigger and stronger over the off-season, I’ll be setting myself up well for a shot at the pros. My goal is to come back
in the fall and be the best I can be, wherever I end up.”

Asked if he had a preference, Barzal wasn’t choosy. He’s far more concerned about managing the nerves come draft day.

“I usually don’t get nervous, but I’ll say it now: I’m going to be sweating bullets, I know it.

“But right now, it’s all excitement.”

-- Ryan Dittrick,

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