Center Mathew Barzal of the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League will end up being one of the top picks at the 2015 NHL Draft despite missing a large portion of his season because of a freak injury.
Barzal sustained a broken kneecap during an off-ice incident in early November.
"I was horsing around in the dressing room," Barzal said. "We were just having fun; he's one of my best buddies that did it. We were wrestling and I tripped in the dressing room. The worst thing was it was after a 17-hour bus ride to Saskatchewan. We get there ready for a good road trip and first practice in some tiny arena. It was not fun."
Barzal returned Jan. 23; the 28 games he missed didn't hurt him in the opinions of NHL scouts.
"The thing that was impressive is that it took him only about a period and a half just to get his game back and start to dig deep to play," NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "That's the kind of player he is for me. He's someone that hangs on to the puck, lets things develop and dictate with pace and make defenders really back up and give him space. Once you start doing that with him, he'll either take an opportunity to get the puck on net with his own shooting ability or he does a really good job dishing to the open man."
Barzal had seven goals and 18 points through Seattle's first 16 games before the injury, then scored five goals and had 34 assists in 28 games after returning. His 57 points were second on the Thunderbirds despite missing more than a third of their games. Barzal had four goals and eight points in six games during the WHL playoffs.
Despite the injury Barzal improved from his rookie season in 2013-14 to this season, raising his point-per-game average from 0.92 in 2013-14 (54 points in 59 games) to 1.30 in 2014-15.
"My playmaking and skating are strengths," Barzal, 18, said. "I've always been a good passer since I was young. My skating is something I've always been good at. But when you get to the next level you have to be faster and you've got to make those plays at a faster speed. I'm looking forward to the challenge."
NHL Central Scouting has Barzal at No. 11 in its final ranking of North American skaters.
"We have him right on the bubble of our top 10 at Central Scouting, which the North American skaters list does not include goalies or Europeans," Gregory said. "He, certainly, for me is a top-15 guy. But he also is a dynamic enough player, certainly with the way he makes players around him better, is going to really have an opportunity. A right-handed centerman who can set plays up is a unique commodity that a lot of teams are going to say, 'This is a guy we've got to have.' It wouldn't surprise me if he went in the top 10 at all."
Barzal said his parents are more nervous about the draft than he is; he's more hopeful and flattered.
"That's been my goal all my life, is to be a top-10 guy," Barzal said. "To be regarded in that group of highly skilled players, obviously this draft is one of the best in years. But to be talked about in that discussion is an honor."
At 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, Barzal isn't as big as highly ranked draft-eligible centers Jack Eichel, Dylan Strome and Pavel Zacha, but his skills and intelligence help him stand out.
"I think he's a kid, if you saw him at the combine, he has an opportunity to get a lot stronger," Gregory said. "I think there's more development there. So this is the big thing come draft day, that you start to look at guys that are very similar to you and who has most upside, and I think his ceiling is really high. I think that's going to be something that's going to make teams really discuss a lot of things when comparing him to someone else. He's got such a good hockey IQ too that those things translate well to the next level, and that's what teams are trying to predict, obviously. I think he's going to get a lot of attention for sure."
Barzal grew up in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Although he was a Vancouver Canucks fan, he finds inspirations for his game elsewhere.
"I was a big fan of [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins growing up," Barzal said. "He played at the same minor hockey association, so I watched him quite a bit growing up. I was a big [Jarome] Iginla fan when I was young and [he was] playing in Calgary. I just loved the way he played."
Barzal's playmaking ability has won over scouts, but he knows he needs to round out his game; he scored 26 goals in 103 games in two seasons with Seattle.
"I know I need to shoot more," Barzal said. "That's one thing I need to work on, putting pucks on net, scoring goals. I know going into next season I'll be looking at the net a lot more."
What he's done already has Barzal firmly in the discussion of the top forwards in a draft class many consider to be the most talented since 2003. Whether he ends up going in the top 10, he's eager to know where his NHL future will take him.
"I know a lot of the guys [in this draft class] and I've played against them since I was young and they've always been studs, so it's cool to have everything wrapped up," Barzal said. "I guess draft day is going to be an exciting day."