Why did they keep him at all? Why didn’t he get a chance to really play? Did not playing him hurt his development? Why not play him nine games before making a decision?
They’re all valid questions and I understand the gut reaction of disappointment and confusion. But from my perspective, the Islanders got this right. My view comes from spending 10 years in the minor leagues (both the ECHL and AHL), while watching and talking to players at various stages of their development.
The window for players to learn the pro game comes at the end of the season in the American Hockey League instead of the beginning. While the AHL outlaws the assignment of teenagers for the full season, they allow them to join the team after the completion of their junior season. Sometimes they get a nice playoff run and play 15-plus games. Sometimes they get one game. Sometimes none at all. But all of them get a baptism into the pro game that helps them make the jump full time.
They all say that experience, however brief, was invaluable to their approach to their training and the following season. That’s why Michael Dal Colle played three games in Bridgeport at the end of last season. It all helps.
So what did Barzal get out of the last month?
LEARNING TO BE A PRO
Just because he didn’t play every night, doesn’t mean he didn’t get anything out of his time here. It’s the opposite. The life of a junior hockey player and a pro hockey player is very different. Living with a billet family and going to school, mixed in with practices and long bus trips, is a far cry from the life of an NHLer.
Barzal spent the last five weeks living the life of a full-time professional hockey player. For many kids coming out of the junior and college ranks, the hardest part of adjusting to the NHL is not on the ice. These kids – and let’s not forget they are kids – are living on their own and forced to take responsibility for their life and their development.
Gone are the curfews and people cooking them meals. Gone is the ability to treat hockey as anything less than a full-time focus. Living the life is an important part of being able to be ready on the ice and getting a taste of that will be extremely beneficial for Barzal.
This is why you see things like John Tavares move in with Doug Weight when he was 19. Learning the right way to do things from the start away from the rink is just as important as on the ice.
THE WEIGHT ROOM
Junior players have workout programs and trainers, but nothing like what the Islanders have at their disposal. One-on-one time with a strength coach and understanding what is expected of you can be eye-opening for a lot of young players in several different ways. It’s the reason rookie camp exists, so they can instill a lot of these values with their draft picks as soon as possible, but then they send them back to junior and hope for the best.
Included in the things they learn are nutrition and recovery. Nutrition is something that some young players take for granted early on but more and more, strength coaches in the pro game are tutoring players in that regard. I know of a number of strength coaches, in both the AHL and NHL, who will take the young guys to the grocery store and teach them what to shop for and even how to prepare it.
When a player like Mathew lives the life and sees how 37-year-old Jason Chimera has to take care of his body to make sure he can skate like a 27-year-old, it can make a much bigger impact than having a development coach tell you about it.
ON THE ICE
I know what you’re thinking, “But he didn’t even get a chance to play!” Playing in games is not the only way evaluate players. I know there is no substitute for game action but there’s also no reason to throw a guy into game action if he can’t handle his responsibilities in practice. Jack Capuano said early on that he wasn’t concerned about Barzal being able to create offensively. He knew he could do that. His concern was whether Barzal could play the 200-foot game and pull his weight in the defensive zone.
If Garth Snow, Capuano and the coaching staff felt he could have helped the team, he would have been in the lineup. No question. Everyone wants to win and they will dress the lineup they feel gives them the best chance to win every night. NHL games are not for developing players, that’s what the CHL and AHL are for.
Barzal had 88 points in 58 games last year in the WHL. Was he was better served playing 15 games in Seattle or practicing with Tavares for a month? Even without games, I’d say his development improved by sticking around.
HOW IS HE SUPPOSED TO DEVELOP PLAYING ANOTHER YEAR IN THE WHL?
While I do believe the AHL would be the best place for him, that isn’t an option because of his age. That’s not to say he can’t develop in the WHL. The task for Barzal is to take everything he learned with this experience and use it to better his game in Seattle. Put on a few pounds in the weight room, develop his all-around game and consistently perform on a nightly basis.
Also, do not overlook the fact that he will leave his WHL team next month and join Team Canada for the World Junior Championship. He was part of the team as a younger player last year, and while he missed their camp over the summer with a hip injury, he will be an integral part of that team in December.
WHAT ABOUT RUINING HIS CONFIDENCE?
He made an NHL roster out of training camp at 19 years old. I’m not sure what you were doing at 19 years old, but I was happy to be handing out flyers outside Penn Station as an intern for ESPN Radio. Forcing his way onto the roster – if only for a month – should give him tons of confidence headed back to Seattle.
When he shows up next season as a 20-year-old, his confidence in his ability to make the team again should be great. Even for a first-round pick, making the team at 20 years old is an impressive feat. There will be a lot more players from the 2015 draft playing in the AHL next year than in the NHL next year and there is nothing wrong with that.
If you want to see an example of this working look at the NHL’s current scoring leader 23-year-old Mark Scheifele from Winnipeg. He made the Jets TWICE out of training camp and was returned to Barrie each time (including after four games as a 19-year-old). He signed an eight-year contract extension with the Jets over the summer and wears an “A” on his jersey.
On the flip-side, the Vancouver Canucks assigned Jake Virtanen (their No. 6 overall pick from 2014) to the AHL’s Utica Comets today. He stuck last year as a 19-year-old and struggled through 55 games only to find himself in the AHL this season.
I am not saying that Barzal is going to turn into Scheifele or he would have turned into Virtanen if he stayed. All I am saying is this is the safest way to do it. This gives the best chance for one of the top prospects in the organization to succeed. While there are no guarantees this will help his game, I don’t believe it was hurt in any way.
Plus, the kid made a little bit of money to take the guys out to dinner when he gets back to Seattle.