WINDSOR, Ontario -- For the first few months of 2017, center Mathew Barzal had two hockey teams on his mind. While he was leading Seattle to the Western Hockey League playoffs, he also was paying close attention to the New York Islanders.
Barzal, 19, was chosen by the Islanders in the first round (No. 16) of the 2015 NHL Draft. He was on their opening-night roster and made his NHL debut against the Washington Capitals on Oct. 15. But it didn't go the way he wanted. He was whistled for three penalties, including two in the first 5:06 of the game. He had 10:10 of ice time, won two of six faceoffs and didn't have a shot attempt in a 2-1 loss.
He was scratched for the next five games, then got another chance against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 26 but finished minus-2 and got just 9:20 of ice time in a 3-2 loss.
Barzal was returned to Seattle on Nov. 9. He went back to the WHL determined to fix the weaknesses in his game.
"I'd played exhibition games and I'd been through training camp, but there's nothing like playing in a regular-season NHL game," he said. "That's something that I'm working hard to experience again."
Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk said Barzal had no issues refocusing on helping his junior team.
"Getting Matthew back was a huge moment in our season because he's our captain and such a big part of our leadership group," Konowalchuk said. "He's also obviously one of the best players in junior hockey."
Barzal immediately began showcasing the skills that made him so desirable to the Islanders.
In 41 WHL games, he had 79 points (10 goals, 69 assists). He also helped Canada win a silver medal at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship with eight points (three goals, five assists) in seven games.
"When I was with the Islanders the game was always being played at a high tempo," Barzal said. "I tried to play the same way here, keeping the game at top speed."
At the same time he was watching every Islanders game he could and was rooting for them to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They finished one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.
"I couldn't watch all of their games but I probably saw 30 or 40 after I got back to Seattle," he said. "They were great in the second half of the season. I thought they were going to get there, and I was cheering for them. Not just because of playing for them, but because I have so many friends on the roster."
Those friends got to cheer for Barzal during the WHL playoffs. He had 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 16 games and was named playoff MVP. He also helped Seattle defeat Regina to win the league championship and advance to the Memorial Cup for the first time.
"It was tough last year when we lost in the [WHL] final, but winning this year made it all worth it," he said. "We worked hard, and it was great to get the reward of lifting the [Ed Chynoweth] cup.
"It also means we've got a chance to win another championship."
Seattle played Erie, the Ontario Hockey League champion, in its first game of the tournament at WFCU Centre on Saturday. There were some familiar faces for Barzal to go against.
"I played with Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes) at the World Juniors, and I was on a line with Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay Lightning)," he said. "I roomed with Taylor, so we got to be good friends."
Barzal had an assist, setting up Austin Strand's tying goal late in the second period. But Strome knocked home a Raddysh pass early in the third and Erie won 4-2.
"We liked being 2-2 going into the third, but we've got to be more desperate," Barzal said. "We have to dictate the tempo of the game, and at the beginning of the third we were letting them play their game."