TORONTO – When you take in all the grace and swiftness, the snap changes in direction, the curls and spins of a Mathew Barzal shift, well, then it makes perfect sense that he’s been training with a world champion ice dancer.
Only recently did the 2018 Calder Trophy winner — yeah, that’s right, we’re crowning him four months early — discover his Mr. Miyagi, a multi-medalled skating tutor who has molded the 20-year-old into arguably hockey’s most elusive force on two blades.
Fun fact: Barzal had never taken a power skating lesson until last year.
Funner fact: He took those lessons from Olympian Victor Kraatz, the German-born Vancouver resident who quietly switched from marketing to hockey coaching after a decorated figure-skating career for Canada.
“I’ve always been a pretty good skater. It’s been one of the better assets of my game from a young age, but the last two seasons I’ve really worked on my speed and gotten faster,” Barzal says of his summer edgework sessions with Kraatz.
“That took my game to the next level.”
Barzal’s level is reaching historic heights, as tracked by the stats and highlights retweeted on Kraatz’s proud Twitter timeline.
“In the first period, he starts taking the puck back a little, getting a little excited,” said coach Doug Weight, noticing Barzal’s desire to dangle and wheel.
“When you reboot him, he’ll get a little snarly with you. He gets pissed off. He wants the puck, and he does it. And he knows it. He controlled the game.”
The Vancouver native now has eight three-point games, three five-point games, and a 15-point cushion over Vancouver’s Brock Boeser for the rookie scoring race. Barzal’s 48 assists place him fifth league-wide in that category; his 65 points in 62 games rank him top-12.
Barzal is on pace to become the first 85-point rookie since Evgeni Malkin in 2006-07.
“That Barzal can really fly,” said Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner. “He seems to build his speed up the ice, coming 100 miles an hour.”
“It’s Mat Barzal! Oh my goodness!” squeals teammate Casey Cizikas, mimicking a high-pitched, star-struck Barzalmaniac. “In the flesh!”
Cizikas keeps the goof rolling as a cluster of media surround the star in the visitors’ dressing room.
“He got a new haircut! Oh, my God! How cute!”
Barzal musters a chuckle and shakes his head at the good-natured rookie chiding. “Great… funny guy.”
After years of drafting high, the Islanders unearthed a gem so bright, the franchises that passed on Barzal at picks 3 through 15 of the 2015 draft have been getting some flak. (We needn’t remind Bruins fans that Boston passed on him thrice.)
The second-line centre Barzal is swift to praise New York’s most complete superstar, No. 1 centre John Tavares.
“He’s the best leader in the NHL. I wouldn’t want another guy leading the way,” Barzal says. “He never takes anything for granted or goes soft in any practice. It’s amazing to see how hard he works.”
Barzal vows to apply a similar diligence to further sharpening his edgework, an advantage he believes is best used in transition, off turnovers. The secret lies in Barzal’s crossovers.
“Straight line, I don’t think I’m the fastest guy,” Barzal says, “but when I can build some speed and get momentum, that helps.”
Kraatz pushed his prized pupil to move his feet as fast as possible when crossing over. Don’t worry about striding with power; try to increase the number of steps. Tuck four crossovers into a turn instead of three.
“Once you give him room to make one or two crossovers, the race is over. It has a lot to do with his edges and how he uses them. The deception is, he doesn’t look like he’s really motoring that fast. He’s got that long, Mario Lemieux type of look-like-you’re-going-slow-but-you-blow-by-guys. His ability to change direction creates so much space for him to get set up and make a play,” says Cal Clutterbuck.
The NHL missed an opportunity by not inviting Barzal to the all-star game and pitting him and McDavid head-to-head in the faster skater contest.
Clutterbuck, Cizikas and the other Isles vets first noticed the freshman’s speed in training camp but chalked it up to a sluggish exhibition pace. Wait till the real season starts, they figured.
“Right at the start of the year, we were all like, ‘OK. I guess he can do this against the best in the world. Here we go,’ ” Clutterbuck says.
“For him, it’s just a question of being able to incorporate his linemates and use them to gain more space and opportunity.”
Barzal’s skating is the first attribute everyone mentions, but Weight praises his vision, his embracement of responsibility, his heavy, minutes, and the ability to “have the puck on his stick an uncanny amount of time.”
Sure, the Isles are working on Barzal’s defensive-zone exits and his in-game communication, but he’s proven to be a swift learner.
“I don’t know if I’m one of the fastest guys in the league right now,” Barzal demurs, “but I’d sure like to be one day.”