The Islanders probably got worse this off-season, but that will change if mega prospect Matt Barzal makes the team and centers a scoring line.
The Islanders and GM Garth Snow made splashy moves in free agency this off-season. But did this team actually improve? Doubtful.
Snow inked left winger Andrew Ladd to a seven-year, $38.5-million deal and brought back right winger P-A Parenteau on a one-year, $1.25-million pact. That seemingly solidified the Isles’ new top line. John Tavares got his wingers for 2016-17. Most projected depth charts, including our own in the THN Yearbook and Pool Guide, minted that trio as the No. 1 unit. But what exactly did the Isles get in Ladd and Parenteau? Ladd turns 31 in December and is fresh off his least productive season six years, with 25 goals and 46 points in 78 games. Playing with Tavares should spike Ladd back into high-end numbers, but he just signed a seven-year deal when he’s nearing the end of his prime. Parenteau is a handy 20-goal guy but is 33. The Isles can’t expect the Parenteau of old, who lit it up during his prime years playing with Tavares.
Jason Chimera is among the NHL’s biggest, strongest, fastest checkers, so he made for a fine depth signing leaving the Washington Capitals. He’s an upgrade over the departed Matt Martin and makes what was already the league’s best checking line, with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, even better.
But the Isles’ key losses outweigh what they added this summer. Frans Nielsen is a crucial two-way forward. He can play center or the wing, power play or penalty kill, and Snow did not replace the Dane’s skill set. Worse yet: Kyle Okposo left in free agency to sign with the Buffalo Sabres. He’s almost three years younger than Ladd and about five years younger than Parenteau. Okposo is one of the game’s best power forwards, and he’s in his prime.
So while the Isles don’t look significantly worse on paper than they did last year, it’s tough to argue they’ve improved. They seem to have mildly downgraded their roster, which is concerning for a team that couldn’t escape Round 2 of the playoffs.
Unless Matt Barzal does something about it. He’s the wild card that could change the face of this Islanders season.
Barzal, 19, isn’t a sure thing, but his skill set suggests a snow-capped ceiling. He’s been an elite playmaker in major junior with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. He’s the type of high-IQ puck distributor who makes others around him better and can post huge point totals. When he first burst on the scene, we speculated in the THN office that Barzal would be a slam-dunk top-10 draft pick a couple years down the road. So you can’t blame Snow for tripping over himself to trade up and pick Barzal 16th overall in 2015, when the Boston Bruins inexplicably passed on him despite having the 13th, 14th and 15th selections.
Barzal’s skills were impressive enough that he flirted with making the Islanders last fall. But a packed depth chart prevented that, and he was returned to junior before even getting a nine-game trial. The truth, though, is Barzal wasn’t physically ready. Even he knew that, as he explained Tuesday at the NHL Players’ Association’s Upper Deck Rookie Showcase in Toronto. “I’ve been in the gym lots,” he said.
“I’ve been working out really hard all summer trying to put on some size, because you go to the next level, and everyone’s so big and strong. On ice, I’ve been working on my skating, working on my skill. My shot for sure was an eye opener at last year’s camp, just seeing how hard everyone shoots. I was definitely lacking in that area, so I worked on that a lot this summer.
“As a rookie coming in, everyone’s so big, and you’ve been watching these guys since you were four and five years old. Am I intimidated? I don’t think I’m intimidated, but it’s different when you’re playing against guys that are so good and guys you’ve been growing up idolizing.”
Helping ease that transition from fan to teammate: veteran Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic, which is no surprise given his reputation as a beloved dressing-room guy. He and Barzal struck up a friendship at camp last year, and the two stayed in touch throughout the season. Barzal describes Hamonic as a great person, down to earth, someone he can talk to about anything. Usually, they text. Sometimes they mix in a few healthy chirps, reminiscing about their on-ice battles last year at camp.
Barzal is humble. Is there a such thing as too humble? Does he believe he belongs? His play in 2015-16 suggests as much. He exploded for a career-best 27 goals and 88 points in 58 games with Seattle. He’s still junior eligible but doesn’t have much more room to grow in The Dub. He clocked in at 13th overall among all prospects according to our scouting panel in Future Watch 2016. Standing eye to eye with Barzal, it also appears he’s filling out that six-foot, 182-pound frame. He’s visibly bulkier.
And if his summer work has paid off, he has a chance to make some real noise in Brooklyn this season. He has quite a depth-chart opportunity. Tavares holds down the first-line center gig, and Cizikas is locked in as the fourth-line pivot, but the No. 2 and No. 3 jobs are in flux after Nielsen’s departure, especially with Mikhail Grabovski still dealing with concussion symptoms. The Isles have plenty of swingman forwards who play center and wing at different times, from Brock Nelson to Ryan Strome, but Barzal’s passing skills and vision suit him ideally to a center job on a scoring line. Several projected Isles depth charts have tossed out the idea of Barzal playing as high as the second unit. It makes sense. He’s not built to be a checker. With his skill set, he works as a scoring center or doesn’t make the team.
Barzal will thus be one of the most important Islander players, if not the most important, to watch during camp and the pre-season. If he’s indeed gotten his body ready, he has the ability to change the Islanders lineup, inject it with some real offensive creativity and even challenge for the Calder Trophy. If he doesn’t, this team probably takes a step backward. That’s why Barzal matters so much in 2016-17.
“Just because I had a good camp last year doesn’t mean that I’m going to get anything given to me,” Barzal said. “I’ve got to go in with a humble mindset and try to make the team.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin