EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — While Islanders management will more likely than not remain non-committal about the poorly-kept secret, Mathew Barzal is in his first training camp and preseason of his career working as a right-winger rather than a center — a position he had played exclusively since he was 10 or 11 years old.
Such was the decision when Bo Horvat was acquired back in January — the All-Star center taking the mantle as the Islanders’ first-line center from Barzal.
“Me and [head coach Lane Lambert] and [general manager Lou Lamoriello] have an open dialogue,” Barzal told amNewYork. “So when Bo came in, they wanted me on the wing. Lane’s the coach and I trust him and Lou on what’s best for the team.”
The duo worked together for just seven regular-season games before Barzal went down with an injury that kept him out until the playoffs. Horvat scored three goals in those seven games while Barzal posted two goals and six assists (eight points) during that stretch. Following Barzal’s injury, Horvat scored just four times in the final 23 games of the season.
They’ve been inseparable through the early portions of camp and in the preseason. They were on the same line during the team’s first two scrimmages on Monday and Tuesday and they’re expected to be together for their exhibition matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night at UBS Arena.
“Hopefully we can rekindle what we had,” Horvat said. “That was a lot of fun to play with him when he was healthy. I’m looking forward to both of us getting a camp under our belts and hitting the ground running.”
While Barzal’s preparation work during the offseason hasn’t changed physically, there is a new mental aspect in moving to wing that he’ll be adjusting to.
“Just knowing that there’s going to have to be a little more grinding on the walls,” he began. “You play in a little more traffic with the D-men on you rather than just flying up the middle.”
Given his elite skating and agility, the 26-year-old still has the ability to open up space to make plays. He flashed a peek of just that during Tuesday’s scrimmage when — although the competition is significantly weaker in such a situation — he wove his way around the right face-off circle and drove to the net for a close-range chance. That’s something he didn’t do often at center.
— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) September 26, 2023
Barzal scored four goals in the first two scrimmages while he and Horvat laid waste to an opposition comprised of NHL hopefuls — results that always should provide a grain of salt.
But the Islanders’ playoff chances this season will mostly rely on his and Horvat’s ability to generate an offensive attach that has often been the Islanders’ Achilles heel.
“I’m trying to get it that way,” Barzal said of building a natural relationship with Horvat. “It’s nice to get some reps, so hopefully we keep building.”