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Islanders keen on ensuring Barzal won't be one that gets away

John Tavares is gone, but Mat Barzal is ready to step into the spotlight in New York and take over as the new leader of the attack for the Islanders.

After a year of being fed by Dennis Seidenberg’s wife, Rebecca, and having his lunch handed to him by Seidenberg’s kids in video games, it was high time for Mathew Barzal to find a place to live. After all, when you’re 21 years old with great flow and coming off the best NHL rookie season since Evgeni Malkin’s freshman debut in 2006-07, well, living in your former teammate’s basement beside a kid’s gymnastics practice mat isn’t exactly the most favorable look.

Clearly, it was getting to the juncture in Barzal’s life when it was time to pull on the big-boy pants. In his case, they’re probably all ripped up in a bunch of places the way the cool kids like to wear them these days, but metaphorically they might as well be a pair of acid-washed jeans coming up around the midsection of a dad bod, offset by a pair of sensible New Balance sneakers. Because with one stroke of the pen this past summer, Barzal was forced to grow up in record time and essentially become the man of the house.

That house, split between clunky Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, until the New York Islanders move into their new arena in Belmont Park in 2021, has had something of a pall over it ever since John Tavares made like a rolling stone and left to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the most profound free-agent signing in the history of the game. Sure, Anders Lee now wears the ‘C’ as the Islanders' new captain, but when it comes to replacing the face of the franchise, Barzal is the beacon of light to illuminate the way out of that dark day in July when Tavares up and left.

This is right around the time you’re probably expecting a quote from Barzal that goes something like, “I'm not John Tavares, I'm not trying to be John Tavares, and I never will be John Tavares.” But Barzal never said that, perhaps because he doesn’t have to.

Like Tavares, Barzal is insanely driven to improve and live up to the responsibility that comes with being a franchise player. But that’s where the similarities end. By Barzal’s own admission, Tavares is far more methodical on and off the ice, analyzing situations and almost never wavering from his intended path. Barzal, by contrast, is more of a freelancer, in a good way.

We do know that Barzal is a far better skater than Tavares has ever been. Barzal’s only formal skating tutelage has come from Victor Kraatz, a former ice dancer turned power-skating coach who just missed medalling in two Winter Olympics but won a World Championship with partner Shea-Lynn Bourne in 2003. Barzal is part of a wave of young players who have lightning quickness and the ability to process the game at warp speed, while Tavares’ strength is in slowing the game down. Barzal is one of the most explosive young players in the game and his edges are without peer. Tavares has worked hard to improve his skating to the point where it’s no longer a detriment, but he’s not in Barzal’s league in that regard. And while Tavares’ playing style resembles a high-level chess match on the ice, Barzal looks like he’s embroiled in a chaotic game of foosball. Even when the two players talk they couldn’t be more different. Barzal speaks with a free-flowing style, while Tavares has always been clear and deliberate with every word. “I know he’s not me, and I know I’m not him,” said Tavares, two days after scoring his first goal as a Maple Leaf. “We’re very different people in the way we view the game and the way we view the world.”

So, things will be a little different from this point forward. There are some who think the Islanders’ theme song this season should be Danse Macabre (or perhaps Tank by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. What? Too obscure?), but with the Tavares situation no longer hanging over them, this could actually be a time of renewal, and not in a John Spano/Charles Wang sort of way. After all, the Islanders have a new coach who's fresh off a Stanley Cup in Barry Trotz and a GM who’s the dean of the industry with three championships to his credit in Lou Lamoriello. And thanks to a home-run 2018 draft that yielded the likes of Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde to add to Kieffer Bellows and Ilya Sorokin, things are looking up. “I’m really excited,” Barzal said. “I’m happy for (Tavares), and I’m excited for us. I watched him score his first goal in Toronto, and I was excited for him. Obviously, it was a really big moment for him.”

And it didn’t take long for Barzal to respond in kind. One night after Tavares scored his first for Toronto, the Islanders were clinging to a 1-0 lead over the Carolina Hurricanes in the third period of their first game of the season. Some things change slowly, though. New York, by far the league’s worst defensive team in 2017-18, was outshot 46-20 and out-Corsied by a mind-boggling 50 shot attempts. The Hurricanes tied the score late, but Barzal drew a tripping penalty with four seconds remaining in regulation time, leading to an overtime power play during which Barzal got the puck along the half-wall on the left side and carried it out to the front of the net, drawing Jordan Staal and Brett Pesce to him. Barzal then stopped and feathered a perfect pass between their outstretched sticks, right to left-shot Josh Bailey, who was playing his off wing and ripped the one-timer so hard he ended up on one knee. Perhaps Barzal isn’t quite as chaotic and hellbent for leather as we’d all like to believe. “Mathew is going to play a lot,” said Trotz on the television broadcast after the game. “Mathew is going to be a big part of what we do. He’s a tremendous player, and he showed it at the end (of the game) when he drew the penalty and made a great play. We’re hoping to see a lot of great things from him.”

Like almost everyone in the organization, Barzal wanted to see his friend and mentor re-sign with the team. To be sure, the Tavares soap opera was one of the most drawn-out in league history, going the distance and culminating on the opening of free agency July 1. Tavares may have slept in Maple Leaf pajamas with team logos on his sheets and pillowcases when he was a kid, but the decision haunted him. Yet here’s the thing with teammates: they hate to see someone of Tavares’ ilk leave them, but they’re genuinely happy he made a life decision that he felt was best for him and his future. Any contract and term he was going to get from Toronto would’ve been matched by the Islanders, with a year added to it, and that stung a little bit, but in the end players want to see their colleagues happy. “It wasn’t an easy decision, it wasn’t just one or two years, it was over the whole course of the time he had been here,” Barzal said. “I’m sure there were some tough times for him mentally. And maybe sometimes he felt like he was on an island here. At the end of the day, no hard feelings, and I wish him all the best.”

Keeping Tavares would have breathed more life into an organization that has some momentum behind it already, but Lamoriello, in his blunt and perhaps just a little petty assessment of the situation, wasn’t wrong when he pointed out that it wasn’t as though the Islanders were ever a dynasty in the making with Tavares in their lineup. But having him there would have continued to buttress Barzal from facing the most difficult matchups against opponents' top lines. That will no longer be the case. And even though the Islanders have a capable second line centered by Brock Nelson, with Jordan Eberle on the right side and Lee on the left, much of the responsibility for creating offense will fall on Barzal and his linemates, Anthony Beauvillier and Bailey. Pretty tough not to christen that trio ‘The Killer B’s,’ but the reality is it’s a little hackneyed and overdone. Starting with the NFL's Miami Dolphins in 1982, the moniker has been used in hockey a couple times already. The Florida Panthers once had a top line of Aleksander Barkov between Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes and, in a clear example of stretching the rules, the Vancouver Canucks had a unit just last season with Bo Horvat between Brock Boeser and Sven Baertschi that had the same name. “I’ve seen some funny stuff on Twitter, some pretty creative stuff,” Barzal said. We couldn’t find any, so we asked him for a couple of examples. “Well, I’m not really in here naming lines and stuff. I guess that’s kind of the fans’ job.”

So Killer B’s it is, at least for the moment or until the lines get shifted around the way they often do in the NHL. But the focal point down the middle is Barzal, who had an historic rookie season in 2017-18. It came two years after he was taken 16th overall in the 2015 draft, a pick the Islanders used from the Griffin Reinhart trade with the Edmonton Oilers, immediately after the Boston Bruins passed on Barzal with three consecutive picks. Reinhart never caught on in Edmonton and will, in all likelihood, spend his second consecutive season with the Vegas Golden Knights’ minor-league affiliate. You know who else was selected in the mid-teens with a traded pick and turned out to be a superstar? Joe Sakic, that’s who. And the parallels between him and Barzal are certainly not out of line. Both are centermen from British Columbia with off-the-charts hockey IQs and an ability to get the puck into places where teammates can do something with it. One big difference: Barzal shoots right, while Sakic shot left.

With 22 goals and 85 points, Barzal outscored Tavares’ rookie season by 31 points and Sakic’s by 23. All three of them played on bad teams, though Sakic’s was an epically bad outfit, and he was a 19-year-old. Tavares was also 19 when he joined the Islanders and didn’t have, well, John Tavares to take on all the tough matchups. But Barzal, who raced past Boeser and Clayton Keller to capture the Calder Trophy, had three five-point games in his rookie season. The only other rookie to do that was Joe Malone exactly 100 years prior. “The biggest thing I learned about was that over 82 games you can’t live and die by every game,” Barzal said. “You have to move on.”

Barzal was speaking just about last season, not the Islanders, when he said that. But it’s just as fitting for the organization and the fan base, which lost Tavares because his hometown team was at a higher point in its development curve and it tugged at his heartstrings a little more than the one with which he spent the first nine years of his career. How quickly the Islanders move on will depend a lot on Barzal, which might be a little too much to ask of a 21-year-old kid with just one full season in the NHL on his resume. But there’s nothing to suggest that he isn’t up to the task. And when the Islanders have the chance to extend his contract next summer (it creeps up pretty quickly, doesn’t it?) look for a franchise-altering eight-year deal that will keep him around until after the 2027-28 season.

After all, the Islanders aren’t about to let this one get away.

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