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Rookie watch: Barzal becoming playmaker for Islanders

Center using pass-first mentality to succeed, has 11 assists in 17 games

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Mathew Barzal has succeeded at making good use of his finest asset in becoming the playmaking center the New York Islanders envisioned when they traded up to select him in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft.

In his first full season in the League, Barzal is averaging 15:49 of ice time as second-line center. Among NHL rookies, he is tied for second with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists), tied for sixth in shots on goal (34), and fifth in face-off winning percentage (49.2) among those who have taken at least 25 draws.

Never was there a time in Barzal's amateur hockey career when he didn't excel at puck distribution. When he was captain for the Burnaby (British Columbia) winter club team of the Pacific Coast Bantam Hockey League in 2011-12, he had 55 goals and 98 assists in 51 games.

He had 79 points (10 goals, 69 assists) in 41 games as captain for Seattle of the Western Hockey League last season, leading the Thunderbirds to the WHL championship with 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 16 playoff games. 

"One of my best attributes is my passing and head-up vision," Barzal said. "I think guys like Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals) and Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) are pass-first guys and they're both very good. I'm skating with good players in Andrew Ladd and Jordan Eberle who can really rip the puck, so why wouldn't I pass to them?"

Barzal (6-foot, 189 pounds) has 11 assists, tied with New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier for most among NHL rookie forwards. He had five assists in a 6-4 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 5 to become the first Islanders player to do so since Pat LaFontaine on Jan. 11, 1990. 

Video: COL@NYI: Barzal picks up five assist in Isles' win

Islanders general manager Garth Snow thought so much of Barzal and his potential that he traded defenseman Griffin Reinhart (2012 NHL Draft, No. 4) to the Oilers for the No. 16 and No. 33 selections. They selected Barzal at No. 16.

Barzal, 20, was No. 11 on NHL Central Scouting's final rankings of North American skaters eligible for the draft. He was a projected skilled forward receiving exceptional grades in stickhandling, passing, playmaking, anticipation and versatility.

He persevered despite the disappointment of being returned to the WHL after a two-game audition for the Islanders at the start of last season. His mission was to improve and dominate.

"It was kind of a moment that you work for your whole life and then you don't play that great and it slips away," he said. "There was also a different coach (Jack Capuano) back then and a little different style. Either way, it's tough to crack the NHL but after a couple days, I was fine. I went back to junior and made the most of it."

Barzal said the time he's spent with Islanders captain John Tavares has been invaluable.

"I always knew he was a hard worker but his will in practice is better than anything I've ever seen," Barzal said. "He finishes every single play; he looks to beat his guy 1-on-1 all the time. His habits are just unbelievable so that's something I've picked up on. I need to come to work every single day and not take a morning skate or warmup for granted because we all know John won't."

Barzal has provided the Islanders stability behind Tavares at second-line center.

Video: VGK@NYI: Barzal slams home big rebound for PPG

"He's got confidence with the puck and an ability to change directions and create opportunities for guys around him," Islanders coach Doug Weight said. "He can find people while he's shifting his weight and turning away from checks, and instantly he sees the ice. When you have the hands matching the brain, you can make those plays."

The Islanders control 56.28 percent of all shots attempted at even strength with Barzal on the ice.

"[Eberle] is a super smart player and has a knack for the net," Barzal said. "[Ladd] is always working hard and getting to pucks. I'm just trying to fit in and have an impact."

 

Rookies on the rise

Charlie Lindgren, G, Montreal Canadiens (undrafted): Montreal agreed to terms on a one-year, two-way contract with Lindgren (6-1, 182), 23, on July 6. He is 3-1-0 with a 1.24 goals-against average and .964 save percentage in four games this season, and 6-1-0 with a 1.42 GAA, .956 save percentage in seven NHL games. He's the third goaltender in franchise history to earn wins in his first five career appearances, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

 

Alex Tuch, RW, Vegas Golden Knights (Minnesota Wild, 2014 Draft, No. 18): Tuch (6-4, 222), 21, was acquired by the Golden Knights in a trade with the Wild on June 21 and has seven points (four goals, three assists) in 12 games averaging 14:31 of ice time. Tuch had 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists) in 57 games for Iowa of the American Hockey League last season.

 

Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets (2015 Draft, No. 17): Connor, 20, has done well since being recalled from Manitoba of the American Hockey League on Oct. 16. The 6-1, 182 pound left wing, who plays on the top line with center Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, has eight points (four goals, four assists) and a plus-2 rating and is averaging 18:09 of ice time in 11 games

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