When Mathew Barzal put pen to paper on an eight-year extension worth $9.15 million annually, the message was clear from both sides. The New York Islanders committed valuable money to a homegrown talent they believe will play a critical role in this team hoisting a Stanley Cup in the near future.
But it also put pressure on Mathew Barzal to be “the guy.”
“Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello told us back on Oct. 4. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, that puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that.”
“Now it’s up to him, also, to respond to that.”
Despite both sides coming together for this deal, the Islanders and Barzal still had an issue.
Since Lamoriello arrived in 2018, he had yet to bring in a high-caliber player to play alongside him.
Yes, Jordan Eberle was left exposed in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft and had played solid with Barzal. Yes, Kyle Palmieri was brought in, and injuries had limited his ability to be effective, with Palmieri showing great chemistry with Brock Nelson and Anders Lee since returning from his latest injury.
We had been waiting to see Lamoriello go out and get a player for Barzal, who could ultimately skate side-by-side with him for the foreseeable future.
And on Monday evening, Lamoriello went out and got one of the bigger names being tossed around in Vancouver Canucks forward Bo Horvat.
Albeit a career season with 31 goals in 49 games, Horvat may not be “superstar” that fans envisioned to play alongside Barzal, but it was never about that if you went below the surface.
There’s no guarantee that a superstar would have gelled with Barzal, given that Barzal needs the puck on his stick to be effective.
Something that stood out from that conversation was the fact that Meier is a puck carrier, and his game would have to change if he linked up with Barzal.
When we spoke with Horvat on Monday, following the trade to New York, NYI Hockey Now asked him what had changed in his game that was allowing hin to be more successful.
“Just going to the right areas and putting myself in a position to score those goals or make those plays,” Horvat said.
Going to the right areas is all why Horvat can thrive alongside Barzal.
It’s what led to Casey Cizikas’s early success with Barzal, but Horvat brings more of an ability to finish–which is why Lamoriello gave up what he did to get him.
With Lamoriello doing his job, it’s now up to the face of the franchise to show the Islanders and the NHL that he is a superstar in this league and that all he needed was outside support.
Up to this point, Mathew Barzal’s season had been a weird one.
Despite no goals in his first 18 games, he was recording assists at an alarming rate, with 19.
Through 34 games, Barzal sat with just five goals but a whopping 28 assists.
But quickly, the goal total rose as Barzal went six straight games with a goal from Dec. 29 to Jan. 5. The an injury forced him to miss the Jan. 7 game against the Calgary Flames, and upon his return, he went cold.
Islanders head coach Lane Lambert was asked if Barzal was healthy, and he said he was.
With one final game to go before the All-Star break, Barzal had no goals in 10 straight contests with just one assist.
He got the monkey off his back in a big way, scoring the overtime winning against the Vegas Golden Knights to send the Islanders into the break on a two-game winning streak, just two points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second wild-card spot.
The inability for consistency through the first 51 games of the season was two-fold for Barzal.
On one hand, he had reverted to peeling off along the boards, passing up shot opportunities in key areas of the ice. Bdidn’tthe other hand, he had a carousel of linemates, and it became clear that Lambert was prioritizing other lines, giving Barzal players who didn’t fit elsewhere.
Per MoneyPuck.com, Barzal has played with 15 different line combinations this season.
The longest line combination that Barzal played with was Josh Bailey and Oliver Wahlstrom for 23 games (309:12), with just nine total goals.
Barzal played 30 games with Wahlstrom, but they each scored just three goals at even strength, Barzal going scoreless in their first 12 games together.
Wahlstrom did not understand how to find space in the offensive zone. Barzal did not do the best job at helping him with that either.
Horvat has shown an excellent ability to not just find space, as well as open up for shots with a quick release. He hops on loose pucks, like an Anders Lee, and also is one of the best tippers in the NHL, tied for the league lead with 11.
This just means that Barzal need to shoot a bit more than he has as of late but also not hesitate to find Horvat in all areas of the offensive zone.
There’s no question that Mathew Barzal is the Backstrom to an Ovechkin. And for the first time in his NHL career, he has a player that finishes at a high rate.
Now it’s time for Barzal to make magic and take advantage, or maybe, just maybe, the problem all along wasn’t the players around him, but just the way he plays the game.