Mathew Barzal couldn’t wait to practice again. Yes, practice.
He left home to get to New York despite not having a contract so he’d be ready for the start of the season, then watched as Islanders teammates enjoyed the first few days of training camp without him.
“I love the game, and I was anxious,” he said. “I wanted to get out with the boys.”
Barzal finally got that opportunity Saturday after agreeing to a $21 million, three-year contract. It ended some anxious times for Islanders fans five days before the season opener against the rival Rangers, even though Barzal and team brass weren’t worried about the NHL’s most prominent unsigned restricted free agent.
The 23-year-old star forward said there was “never any frustration” about negotiations. General manager Lou Lamoriello voiced confidence a deal would get done in time. It’s short enough that Barzal will still be a year away from unrestricted free agency when it expires but long enough to cover some of his prime years.
“This is nothing that my agent or Lou or really the league has had to deal with,” Barzal said. “It’s unfortunate times, but at the end of the day, I think both sides came to a deal that we were happy on and it’s what fits right now. Now we just turn the page and next three years try to win a Stanley Cup.”
Barzal led the Islanders with 60 points on 19 goals and 41 assists in 68 games last season. The 2015 first-round pick had 17 points in 22 playoff games during their run to the Eastern Conference final and has become New York’s best offensive player.
“He’s the cornerstone of our team here a little bit,” captain Anders Lee said. “He’s one of those guys that can really change the game on a dime.”
Knowing he’ll be getting many more dimes than before on a contract that counts $7 million against the salary cap through 2023, Barzal understands expectations on him will be higher. But he doesn’t feel the weight of excessive pressure.
“When you’re prepared for something and ready to go, pressure, I don’t really find that there’s too much,” Barzal said. “Now being paid a substantial amount, I know consistency’s a huge thing. There’s no nights off.”
Barzal was a major focal point for the eventual Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the bubble playoffs and was held without a goal for the entire series. He still wound up with four points in six games and got a taste of a deep postseason run to improve from.
“The more experience he can have when the game is on the line, the series is on the line and all that, those are the experiences you tend to grow from,” coach Barry Trotz said.