When Seattle snagged Mathew Barzal with the first overall choice in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, the T-Birds faithful breathed a collective sigh of relief. Barzal was the type of rare talent who would single-handedly be able to reverse the Thunderbirds' misfortunes after they had just completed their third straight losing season.
A native of Coquitlam, British Columbia, Barzal's first season was a personal success as he finished with 54 points in 59 games, the third-highest total for a 16-year-old in Thunderbirds history, trailing only Lindsay Vallis and Patrick Marleau. He was also an instrumental piece in helping Seattle reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007-2008.
"Most of my goals were hit and team success was what we expected," Barzal said, reflecting on his rookie season. "I thought we had a great season in the toughest division in the league. I thought we competed well against teams like Portland and Everett each and every night. We made a statement to the league that Seattle is going to be a good team for the next few years."
Prior to the season, Barzal stated that he hadn't set any personal goals in regards to the number of points he wanted to finish with or number of goals scored. Instead, his hope was that he'd become a more complete player. After dominating at the Bantam level with the Burnaby Winter Club and setting records at the Midget level with the Vancouver Northeast Chiefs, the offensive portion of the game has always come naturally to the 5-foot-11 center. However, Seattle general manager Russ Farwell and head coach Steve Konowalchuk both stated that they were going to work with Barzal to improve the other aspects of his game.
"I wanted to contribute on a nightly basis and be able to help out offensively," Barzal said. "I also felt like I really improved my defensive zone game and I think by the end of the season Coach had more faith in me, putting me out there for defensive zone draws late in the game. That was a big goal for me and I really think that I improved in that area."
From mid-December to mid-January, Barzal suffered his first major setback when he missed a month of time with a shoulder injury. To that point, he had 31 points in his first 32 WHL games. Even after his return, it didn't take long for Barzal to find his groove again, as he finished the season with 23 points in his final 27 games.
"The team treated it well and I also got some treatment in Vancouver," he said. "It's good now, and by the end of the season it had come around and was feeling good."
Even with Barzal completely healthy next season, after the shoulder bothered him for a good portion of the second half of the season, the Thunderbirds are going to have a number of offensive weapons to replace. With two of the team's top three scorers in Alex Delnov and Branden Troock already known to be leaving as well a few more who are sure not to be on the roster next year, Barzal is looking to take a major step forward offensively to replace some of the lost production.
"We're really going to miss those guys and have some holes to fill," said Barzal, the WHL's second-leading 16-year-old point scorer. "Delnov and Lipsbergs, who both scored a lot of goals, and then Branden Troock, who was one of the best players in the league in my opinion. Hopefully management can bring in two good imports and some of the younger guys will come in and make an impact, but I think a lot of it is going to ride on me and (Ryan) Gropp and (Justin) Hickman if he's back."
In addition to the improvements that Barzal expects of himself offensively, he also plans to assume a larger leadership role this season, both on and off the ice. Last year the team featured one 20-year-old in Mitch Elliot and 10 19-year-olds. Elliot has graduated and most of those 19-year-olds will be leaving as well, which will put more pressure on the younger players who have experience to step up and provide an example for the influx of rookies the team is sure to see.
"Guys like Justin Hickman, Russell Maxwell, and Evan Wardley – guys who lead by example on and off the ice, every game and every practice – really helped me in terms of knowing what it takes to be a leader," he said. "There's going to be more pressure on me this year but I'm excited and looking forward to it."
The upcoming season will serve as Barzal's final audition for NHL teams, as he's eligible to be drafted next summer. For years people have projected Barzal as one of the top picks in the 2015 draft, something that has surely remained in the back of his mind. Even though he understands the importance of the upcoming season in shaping his hockey future, the now 17-year-old has kept a level head when it comes to the draft.
"I like pressure and I think I play better with it, to be honest," Barzal said. "In those tough situations in the last 5 minutes of a game, whether it's tied or we're down, I love to be out there. I know there are high expectations this year and I'm looking forward to the challenge. I'm looking forward to a big year for me and a big year for the team. I can't wait to get back in August."
To accomplish his goals, Barzal has been working harder this summer than he ever has before. For a player of his caliber, there usually isn't much of an offseason. Almost immediately after the T-Birds fell to Kelowna in the second round of the playoffs, Barzal and teammate Ryan Gropp were named to Canada's U-18 World Championship roster. The two spent a couple of weeks in Finland playing against the top 17-and-under players in the world, where Barzal was one of only three 16-year-olds representing Canada.
"I took two and a half weeks off, which I think you really need coming off such a grueling season," he said of his brief hiatus from the ice. "I'm back into the on-ice stuff, working on my foot speed and getting stronger. I want to be stronger on the puck so I'm really working on that and getting faster."
With all of the young talent sure to be heading to Seattle full-time next year – Lane Pederson, Kaden Elder, Nolan Volcan, and likely one or two others – there is one name that Barzal is familiar with who won't be debuting in a T-Birds sweater in September.
Dante Fabbro, Seattle's first-round draft pick in the 2013 Bantam Draft, has been a good friend of Barzal's for years. The two were excellent playing together in training camp last year and showed a level of chemistry on the ice that can only come from a great relationship off the ice. When I spoke with Barzal last offseason about his relationship and excitement in potentially playing with his longtime friend, his enthusiasm was readily apparent as a smile took over his face.
Just a couple weeks ago Fabbro announced that he'd elected to sign with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League, allowing him to retain his college eligibility should he choose to go that route once he turns 18.
"It's definitely a disappointment," Barzal said of Fabbro's decision. "I thought he would have been great in Seattle, but all the best to him in Penticton. I'm sure he'll have a great year and who knows what happens the following year? We know what happened with Gropp, so maybe he'll change his mind.
"He's a great friend of mine and nothing will change in our friendship, but it's obviously a disappointment. I really think he would have benefited from playing with guys like Theodore, Smith, Wardley, and Hauf, but all the best to him and we'll be great friends no matter what."
Despite the absence of Fabbro, Barzal expects to build on his successful rookie campaign during his second season. Accompanied by the likes of Theodore, Gropp, Ethan Bear, and a host of other talented players, the Thunderbirds have the core in place to improve on last year's successful campaign, and Barzal will certainly be key to any improvements Seattle experiences.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.