In 2011, then-Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Morgan Rielly
suffered a serious knee injury early in his year. A torn ACL caused him to miss the rest of his regular season in his all-important draft season. Despite the injury, Rielly was still considered a top defenceman in the 2012 NHL Draft. As we all know he was selected fifth overall by the Leafs and is one of the team's young stars.
Fast forward to 2015 and you see the similarities to Seattle Thunderbirds centre Mathew Barzal.
Barzal, who was touted as one of the top prospects heading into this season, also missed a sizable portion of his year due to a knee injury. Upon his return he was a force, finishing up with 57 points in 44 regular season games. He also added four goals and eight points in six playoff games for Seattle. Had it not been for his injury, he could have been in the same conversations as Hanifin, Strome and Marner.
In the past year Barzal has represented Canada at the U-18 level in both the Ivan Hlinka tournament and the Worlds. At the Hlinka Memorial he recorded a pair of goals and seven points in five games en route to gold. At this past U-18 World Championship he had three goals and 12 points in seven games for a bronze medal winning team.
As a player, Barzal is a strong two-way centreman with great hockey sense and better offensive skills. He reads plays well and forces turnovers on the defensive side of the game. When he has the puck on his stick he is a skilled playmaker with a great release on his shot. He creates time and space for himself with elite skating ability, which, in turn, creates time and space for his linemates. His production has come while being the clear cut top player on his team and his level of play should elevate with a better group around him.
Primary concerns with Barzal going forward are twofold. The obvious question is his knee. His injury was not as severe as some players have had before resuming long, successful careers. With that said, joints are finicky business. Teams will want to do their due diligence to get a read on the odds of the injury recurring. A second area of focus when looking at Barzal is his consistency. With players of immense skill, you hope to see them play at full tilt all the time and there are questions about whether you get that from him. It's not uncommon for this to be an issue for young players and presents an opportunity for a team's development staff to help their growth.
Barzal is expected to be taken in the first half of round one at the 2015 Draft.