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Mat Barzal and the Islanders Are Ready to Bounce Back

The star center wants to turn the page after an uncharacteristically dismal season: "It just seemed like everything went wrong."
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After two straight runs to the Eastern Conference final, the New York Islanders crashed out of the playoff picture early last season. Injuries, Covid woes and a long opening road trip while the team waited for their brand-new arena to open all conspired against the Isles and New York won just five of its first 20 games.

The roster didn't change much in the off-season, though coach Barry Trotz was fired and replaced by former associate coach Lane Lambert. Nevertheless, star center Mat Barzal believes the Isles already have a winning identity - it just needs a slight tweak.

"Our team is built on defensive structure," he said. "We've had success with that, now it's about finding a balance of maybe a little more offense, but still having that defensive mindset, that backbone and structure that wins you games. Barry did an amazing job over the years on those 'layers of support.' Lane is great, he knows the players and he understands the game up and down. We all have a good relationship with him so it should be an easy transition."

The Isles play in an absolutely deadly Metropolitan Division, but it's also fair to look at everything the team went through last season and deem it a blip on the radar. The one notable addition to the roster this summer came via trade with Montreal when the Islanders landed physical, dynamic defenseman Alexander Romanov, who brings another dimension to a blueline that already returns shutdown masters Ryan Pulock and Matt Pelech, plus rising star Noah Dobson.

At 22, Dobson is just entering his prime years as an NHLer and his 51-point breakout campaign last year bodes well for the mobile blueliner.

"Dobber's great," Barzal said. "He's an underrated skater. He can break the puck out on his own, get up the ice, he's got an underrated shot and really good instincts. Put those together with a 6-foot-4 frame, he's getting more bite in his game - he's a cornerstone for our franchise."

Barzal himself will be pretty crucial to any success the team has this year, too. While he hasn't found his way back to the 85 points he rang up as a rookie en route to the Calder Trophy in 2018, he has led the Islanders in scoring all five years he has played for them (though Brock Nelson did tie him last season). Pundits will say the awesome skater and stickhandler probably has at least 90 points in him, if not more, but under GM Lou Lamoriello, Barzal has taken on a team-first mentality.

"I still need to backcheck hard and play hard defensively," he said. "It's not like I'm going to be skating around, run-and-gun, not stopping on pucks. That's just not winning hockey at the end of the day. I've learned through Barry and Lou that the way to win is to play the right way."

And to be fair, the Islanders Way had been pretty effective up until last season, when roster issues played a big part in the early collapse. Needless to say, it was tough for the team to stomach and the mission this fall is obvious.

"We know we have to get off to a hot start," Barzal said. "The seasons before that, we were always in a good position halfway through the year. We were in a terrible position last year, behind the eight ball after 15 games. When you have a good first 30-40 games, you can afford a spill. Last year we couldn't and every loss was so heartbreaking, the mountain was so much higher to climb. It just seemed like everything went wrong."

In early skates with his team, Barzal saw that the excitement was back and that has him optimistic for the 2022-23 campaign. It won't be an easy path back to the post-season, but opponents must also remember how little fun it was to play against New York when the Islanders were healthy. So something's gotta give this year and if the Isles succeed, Barzal is going to play a major role.

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