When the Islanders acquired Bo Horvat at the trade deadline last season, it created a logjam with five centers on the team. The immediate decision was to play Mat Barzal with Horvat, and the duo created instant chemistry – until Barzal missed the final 23 games of the regular season due to injury, before returning for the playoffs.
As Islanders training camp moves into its second week, the plan is to keep Barzal and Horvat together, with Barzal moving to wing - and so far, it looks like he’s getting comfortable in his new position.
“Trying to get it that way,” Barzal said after scoring two goals in the Islanders’ Blue/White Scrimmage on Tuesday. “It’s nice getting some reps, so hopefully keep building.”
Players in any sport can be creatures of habit when it comes to getting ready for a season. But, because Barzal had an inkling during the off-season that he was going to remain on the top line with Horvat but switch positions to wing, one can wonder: did that change the way that he prepared for the season?
So far, no, as Barzal has gone about his business without any changes to way he prepares.
“It’s just the same,” said Barzal, who finished last season with 14 goals and 37 assists in 58 games. “It’s more of a mindset than anything. Just knowing that I’m just going to have to be a little more grind on the walls and playing in a little bit more traffic with the (defensemen) usually right on you instead of just flying up the middle.”
Because Barzal and Horvat played in the scrimmage, they did not skate in Tuesday night’s pre-season opener against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, but they could be in the lineup on Wednesday night when the Islanders host the Philadelphia Flyers at UBS Arena.
During Tuesday’s scrimmage, Simon Holmstrom joined Barzal and Horvat on the top line, with all three players finding the back of the net at least once in Blue’s 7-5 win over the White team. The trio showed some really nice chemistry, and it will be interesting to see if that continues against the Flyers if that line stays together.
“(Holmstrom) is great,” said Barzal. “He’s skilled. He’s smart. He’s got a good shot. He’s big. He’s a good player.”
Moving from his customary center position was not something that was just thrown at Barzal – it was something that President/General Manager Lou Lamoriello and Head Coach Lane Lambert discussed with him when Horvat was acquired last season.
There were no secrets and no sugarcoating anything. The Islanders’ brass told Barzal what the plan was.
“Me, Lane and Lou have open dialogue,” said Barzal. “When Bo came in, they just wanted me on the wing. Lane is the coach…I trust him and Lou and wanting what’s best for the team, so I’ll try to do my best to play wing.”
And so far, so good for Barzal on the wing with Horvat in the middle of the Islanders’ top line. Changing positions, even for a team’s franchise player, can be a challenge and an adjustment, but it sure appears that Barzal is embracing it as tries to help the Islanders compete for a Stanley Cup.