Mathew Barzal headed into this season regarded as the Western Hockey League’s top 2015 NHL draft prospect. The Seattle Thunderbirds centre’s enticing blend of a smooth stride, elite vision and top-notch play-making abilities seemed to separate him from the rest of his WHL peers in 2013-14.
But with the regular-season portion of his sophomore year almost wrapped up, the Coquitlam, B.C., native is no longer considered the clear-cut best draft prospect in Western Canada. It is believed to be a tossup between him and Brandon Wheat Kings defender Ivan Provorov while Kelowna Rockets sniper Nick Merkley and Prince George Cougars star Jansen Harkins aren’t far behind in the rear-view mirror.
In addition to some consistency concerns, a major knee injury in December is a notable reason for why Barzal hasn’t solidified himself as the Dub’s best prospect. It kept him out of action for about a month in a crucial time of the year.
“It was tough those two first weeks when I was lying in bed doing nothing,” says Barzal, who has scored 12 goals and 48 points in 38 games this year. “Mentally it was tough to sit out when I really wanted to play. But I used that time to try to get better. I was working out and when I watched games I wasn’t just watching the game, I was looking for ways to improve. I noticed there’s sometimes more space than I thought in the neutral zone and opportunities to spin off guys that maybe you don’t see when you’re on the ice.”
Following a four-game transition period, Barzal has looked like he hasn’t skipped a beat in his return to Seattle’s lineup. He has clearly been his club’s top forward, notching five goals and 30 points in 18 contests.
“I’ve just had a team mindset with us fighting for a playoff spot,” says the 17-year-old playmaker on the biggest reason for his recent success. “I have been focused on the team and getting wins. It’s that time of the year when every game counts.”
The post-season will be a big opportunity for the 6-foot, 177-pound Barzal. A strong showing could embed his draft stock in the top 10 while a poor effort could do just the opposite. But like a true leader, he is concentrated on helping the 33-24-4-5 Thunderbirds go deep in the playoffs rather than his personal stats sheet.
“For my personal goals, it (the post-season) is a big opportunity for me, but I’m not focused on that because I’m focused on our team goals,” says Barzal, whom NHL Central Scouting Service ranked ninth among North American skaters in its midterm projection. “We have a good team and want to go far in the playoffs and eventually the Memorial Cup.”
Throughout the ups and downs of his season, Barzal has tried not to pay attention to the hoopla that comes with a draft year. He, along with three draft eligible teammates, has attempted to downplay the spotlight that surrounds him in an effort to focus on his team as a whole.
“I try not to think about rankings and the draft,” he says. “We all (Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear) take it light around the rink and focus on the team. We might give each other a shot when a ranking comes out, but we move on quickly and focus on the team.”
1. What attributes do you feel stand out about you the most on the ice?
“My skating and hockey IQ would be the most."
2. Do you have a favourite NHL player that you try to model your game after?
“He’s not my favourite player, but I like how (Philadelphia Flyers centre) Claude Grioux plays. I try to take parts of his game and play similar to him. I also like guys like (Sidney) Crosby and Patrick Kane.”
3. Do you have a favourite NHL team?
“I like the (Chicago) Blackhawks. With Kane and Toews there, I started cheering for them. I was a fan of the (Calgary) Flames until I was 10 and then became a Blackhawks fan.”
4. Is there an arena that you look forward to playing in on the road?
“I like playing in Everett (against the Silvertips at Xfinity Arena). It’s a cool atmosphere and we have a good rivalry between us. The barn is usually packed and it’s pretty loud in there.”
5. If you weren’t focused on hockey, what other sport would you pursue?
“I don’t think I have the size, but probably basketball because I’m a big fan. I’d probably be a point guard and try to dish out 10 dimes a game.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen