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Barzal’s rookie brilliance could be important part of Islanders’ pitch to Tavares

Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal is on pace to join exclusive company in the post-lockout era with his excellent performance this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if his play is part of the reason John Tavares decides to stick around.

It didn’t go unnoticed. On the heels of a two-point game against the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders rookie standout Mat Barzal took the ice Saturday at Madison Square Garden and proceeded to put a five-spot up on the rival New York Rangers. It started with an assist six minutes into the contest, continued with two goals in roughly four minutes in the second frame and was capped off by a pair of assists, less than three minutes apart, to cap off what was a 7-2 blowout victory for the Islanders.

In and of itself, the five-point outing was notable not only because it was a five-point night, but because it made Barzal one of only five rookies in the post-expansion era to have multiple five-point games. But beyond that remarkable bit of trivia, the points vaulted Barzal into the rookie scoring lead, overtaking Vancouver Canucks freshman standout Brock Boeser. And Monday night in Montreal, Barzal added to that lead with another goal and three points — his seventh, eight and ninth points in his past three games — to stretch the gap over Boeser to seven.

But Barzal’s scoring feats aren’t only impressive in that they’ve put him into the rookie scoring lead, nor are they impressive alone in that they’ve earned him a spot among rookies who’ve had prolific single outings. Barzal’s performance is also outstanding in the sense that it has put him in position to close out this campaign in with his name alongside Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

In the post-lockout era, the league has seen a number of high-scoring rookies come through the ranks, 18 of which have eclipsed the 60-point plateau. At 65 points, the list thins out, cut in half to nine skaters. Increasing the threshold to 70 points whittles the list of high-scoring freshmen to six, with Patrick Kane cut out from the group when the best-of-the-best are limited to 75 points. But only three rookies in the decade-plus since the NHL’s lost season have managed to go above and beyond the 82-point mark, the most legitimate point-per-outing mark, and that list is comprised of Crosby, Ovechkin and Malkin. Crosby and Ovechkin hit 102 and 106 points, respectively in their debuts during the 2005-06 season. Malkin, meanwhile, is the the most recent rookie to average at least a point for every game on the schedule, firing home 33 goals and 85 points in 2006-07.

Over the past 11 seasons, others have flirted with the mark, of course. In 2007-08, Kane had 72 points and Nicklas Backstrom managed 69 points. In 2015-16, Artemi Panarin flirted with the 80-point plateau, notching 77 in 80 games. Auston Matthews came close to 70 points last season, too, finishing with 40 goals and 69 points across a full slate. But, again, not since Malkin has a freshman hit the 82-point mark. But it appears he — as well as Crosby and Ovechkin — are set to have some company.

Thanks in part to his recent run of three goals and nine points in three games, Barzal has puffed up his respective totals, boasting 16 goals and 47 points through 45 games with the Islanders. And if continues on this pace, he’s set to finish the year with 29 goals — he’d be the 15th rookie in the post-lockout era to score as many — and 85 points. On top of that, he’d be one of only five freshmen in post-lockout history to play half a season while maintaining a point-per-game pace greater than 1.00. That’s a list that currently includes only Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin and Connor McDavid. How’s that for a Murderer’s Row?

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There’s no doubt, too, that the Islanders are overjoyed by Barzal’s performance, one that absolutely justifies their decision last season to send the current rookie standout back to major junior for one more season. His effectiveness has given them another weapon in their arsenal, a third or fourth lethal option up front that has helped pace New York’s offense to the second-best goals-per-game rate in the league. But Barzal’s performance might give the Islanders another cause for celebration: it could be a factor in retaining the services of superstar captain John Tavares.

A lot has been made of Tavares’ pending unrestricted free agency, and not without reason. He’s undoubtedly among the few truly elite offensive stars in the sport, a game-changer in every sense of the word. And because of that, every aspect of the Islanders, from their overall success to the new arena deal, has been under the microscope this season as the team seeks to retain Tavares. But Barzal’s rise as a No. 2 center in New York could offer Tavares his best reason to stay, because for the first time since his arrival in the NHL, the Islanders appear as though they could have a 1-2 punch down the middle commensurate with some of the league’s best. In a way — and some, especially those who are fans of the divisional-rival Penguins, may bristle at the suggestion — there’s a chance for Barzal to be the Malkin to Tavares’ Crosby.

It may seem a bold comparison, but from a pure production point of view, it’s difficult to overlook Barzal’s performance this season and suggest he won’t be able to continue to contribute at this rate as he progresses and matures as a player. And when you add that type of offensive acumen to the brilliance Tavares possesses on a nightly basis, you have a duo down the middle that can go head to head with any in the league and put up points in bunches. That’s clear already, too, because it’s not as if the Islanders’ offensive success this season is some sort of coincidence.

And when it comes to long-term success, having a 1-2 punch down the middle is as important — some might even suggest more so — than anything else. There’s a reason why the Crosby and Malkin-led Penguins have been as consistently successful as they have over the past decade. There’s a reason why the Edmonton Oilers shelled out big money to both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, whom they hope can be a quality second-line center in due time. There’s a reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning are among the top teams in the league while running Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, not to mention Brayden Point, as the centers of their top-six. 

It’s no doubt safe to suggest a player as smart as Tavares recognizes that, too, and realizes the potential the Islanders could have with him in his prime and Barzal looking every bit the stud second-line pivot this early in his career. And maybe, along with the arena, a potential post-season berth and signs of a team heading in the right direction, Barzal’s excellent rookie campaign can be the final piece of the puzzle that keeps Tavares an Islander for the foreseeable future.

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