As the start of the season draws nearer for the New York Islanders, it’s time we begin to discuss expectations for every player, along with some other members of the organization.
Looking across the board, expectations for the Islanders this year are wide-ranging. As we conduct this exercise, we will outline both the ceiling and floor for each player this season and then set our expectations somewhere in the middle.
Today, we’ll discuss the expectations for Islanders’ forward Mathew Barzal.
In 2022-23, Barzal recorded the second-worst year of his career in terms of point production, scoring 51 points with 14 goals while playing in just 58 games due to a lower-body injury that cut his season short in mid-February. Barzal did return to the Islanders lineup in time for the playoffs, but clearly wasn’t back at full strength as he registered two goals in six games against the Carolina Hurricanes.
This came after the Islanders and Barzal agreed to an eight-year contract extension before the start of the season, making him the organization’s highest-paid player at $9.15 million per season. That deal kicks in this year and brings an increase in expectations.
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Seven years into his NHL career and the stats that Barzal has put up thus far don’t truly match his ability.
While injuries are partly to blame, the fact that Barzal hasn’t had many good linemates is a big reason for his underwhelming numbers. Barzal’s biggest asset is his playmaking ability, and the Islanders never had a great finisher for him to skate with. However, the addition of Bo Horvat last season may have solved that problem once and for all.
In seven games from Feb. 6, marking Horvat’s first with the Islanders, to Feb. 18, Barzal recorded eight points with two goals. It’s a small sample size, but Barzal’s 1.14 points per game pace in that stretch is a significant increase from 0.84 points per game, which is what it was during the year before Horvat’s arrival on Long Island.
If Barzal and Horvat can put up those numbers in their first handful of games together, imagine what they can do across an entire year. As they’re given more time to develop chemistry, there’s a good chance their production increases, and the Islanders find themselves back in the playoffs.
Now that Barzal has a linemate who can keep up with him, we could see a career year for him in 2023.
As I mentioned, the production Barzal experienced with Horvat came in an extremely short sample. And while there’s a good chance the two rekindle that connection, it’s just as likely they never do.
Following those first few initial games, Horvat had a rough time transitioning to the Islanders following his trade from Vancouver. Even when Barzal did return for the playoffs, Horvat’s play continued to drag. If his struggles carry over into this season, Barzal’s production will taper off as well because it’s largely dependent on that of his linemates.
The concerns over Horvat aside, it’s unclear who the third player on the top line will be to start the season.
Anders Lee got most of the shifts in that spot last year, but he doesn’t have the hands or the speed of a player best suited to play alongside Barzal. Oliver Wahlstrom fits that profile much better, but he has to reacclimate himself to the game as he returns from injury this season before he earns that role.
With so much uncertainty surrounding Barzal to begin the year, it’s difficult to foresee his numbers improving much more than what we’ve seen to this point in his career.
In the early part of his career, Barzal didn’t have much of a foundation for individual success. That shouldn’t be an issue going forward now that he’s paired with Horvat.
With the two having more experience playing together, it’s reasonable to expect Barzal’s numbers to trend in a positive direction this season. Will it be a career year for him? Maybe, maybe not. But it will at least be a step in the right direction.
However, Horvat’s arrival places added pressure on Barzal. No longer can the excuse be made that he doesn’t have the support necessary for him to produce, especially with this season marking the beginning of his new contract.
As the team’s highest-paid player, Barzal has to live up to those expectations.
Mathew Barzal is the face of the New York Islander, and this is the year his stats have to show it.