The ranking of NHL Draft prospects is anything but an exact science. There is a guru around every corner and each one has a (different) surefire list of where guys are going to be selected. While a lot of work undoubtedly goes into ranking these 17-year-old hockey players, unless that guru has unlimited frequent flyer miles, he or she can’t possibly see each player live. A lot of guesswork goes into it and sometimes guys fall and rise for mysterious reasons.
Take the case of Seattle Thunderbirds centre Mathew Barzal as an example.
Barzal was selected by Seattle with the number one pick of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft. The play-maker from Coquitlam, B.C., was often mentioned in the same breath as top prospect and OHL star Connor McDavid. Two years later Barzal’s name is still in the top 10, though much less prominent in what has become the “McDavid Draft,” despite the fact that he turned in an excellent rookie year in Seattle last season, scoring 14 goals to go with 40 assists in 59 games.
For Barzal, it really doesn’t matter. “I want to be a high pick this year, but I’m not paying too much attention to it,” he says. “I mean, if some guy’s got me 17 or 16 it’s not going to really faze me. Maybe that motivates me a little more but I don’t check it too much.”
Most of the media scouts covering the draft are located in the East, in places like Toronto or New York, and may pay less attention to the teams playing in the WHL. “It is what it is,” Barzal says. “I know at the end of the day that if you’re playing good hockey out here somebody’s going to recognize.”
Playing his best hockey is something Barzal has done at every level. Seattle drafted him after he scored an incredible 153 points in 51 games with the Burnaby Winter Club. The next year, playing major-midget hockey in Vancouver he led the BCMML in scoring with 103 points in only 34 games. He’s an excellent skater who always seems to have the puck and there may not be a player with better vision and passing ability in this draft class.
Despite the gaudy numbers he’s produced, Barzal continues to strive for improvement. “I think you have to get better at everything to get to the next level,” Barzal says. “Everyone’s faster, bigger and stronger so for me every day, I’ve got to work on something new.”
That work ethic has shown up this year in Seattle. Watching Barzal play this season you will see that he is skating with a stronger sense of confidence and more physical strength. Players who were able to separate him from the puck his rookie year now are stuck desperately hanging on for dear life as he powers past them. “I had a great summer, training hard back home. So I think that has paid some dividends,” he says. “I guess having a year experience, knowing how to use my body better and how to play against those bigger guys helps.”
Barzal is quick to point out that having to battle two of his bigger teammates in practice has helped him as well. Seattle deploys a couple of NHL-sized blueliners in Evan Wardley (six-foot-three, 218 lb.) and Jared Hauf (six-foot-five, 225 lb.) and they provide great training ground for Barzal’s offensive game.
Playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship is something that Barzal would love to do in the future, but he tries not to think too far ahead. He donned the Canadian sweater twice this past summer, scoring three goals for Canada’s bronze medal team at the U18 World Championship and seven points for Canada’s gold medal run at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in the Czech Republic.
“Anytime you can represent your country it’s something special and to get a gold and a bronze were real highlights of my career so far,” Barzal says. “Being a Canadian and watching them win the world juniors in the past, that’s special. If I can be a part of that someday it would be an honour.”
For a young player, trying to focus on his current team while dealing with the extra attention of being a prospect can be difficult. At a recent Seattle home game, 20 NHL scouts were in attendance. “You’ve just got to take it day-by-day,” says Barzal. “You can’t really look too much to the future or worry about the draft. You’ve just got to come humble to the rink every day and work your bag off.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not paying some attention to where he’s ranked. “If a prospect tells you he doesn’t care I think he might be lying because obviously I do care how high I go,” Barzal says with a smile.
Barzal is often compared to the Edmonton Oilers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who came through the same Burnaby Winter Club program. Barzal acknowledges some similarities in their games but points to another NHL star he likes to emulate. “I really like to watch Claude Giroux,” he says. “I think we have pretty similar characteristics on the ice. He’s a passer but he likes to score and he’s always there in the big moments.”
Giroux also kills penalties, something Barzal is being asked to do this year for the first time in his WHL career. “I think that really completes you as a player,” Barzal says. “I still can get better at it, I still have some things to learn. I’m a little bit rusty.”
He may feel rusty, but this week against Spokane Barzal turned in one of the prettier short-handed goals of the year:
Barzal grew up rooting for the Blackhawks and while he’ll be happy to be drafted by any NHL team, playing for Chicago would be a thrill. But what about the hometown Canucks? “Obviously that would be awesome too but they’ve had a big rivalry so maybe it’s a little bad for me to say that but I’ve been a big Chicago fan coming up.”