The general consensus around the 2015 NHL entry draft is that there are five forward prospects who are a cut above the rest of the offensive talent available. While Seattle Thunderbirds center Mathew Barzal is clearly the fifth of those five players, he does merit inclusion among that group as a terrific two-way talent who's been on most scouts' radars for years and was poised to be a top-three pick in this draft were it not for a knee injury that derailed his season.
What do the scouts say?
By most accounts Barzal is an electric, do-it-all center whose explosive skating ability is, above all else, what makes him so effective at both ends of the ice. There's certainly a case to be made that, apart from Connor McDavid, Barzal is the best-skating forward in this class. Here's ESPN's Corey Pronman on the 6'0", 180-pound pivot whom he ranks 6th overall:
Barzal's combination of high-end skating ability and puck skills is predictably a treat to watch, like in this highlight where he uses a couple of quick crossovers to beat a Czech defenseman wide, circle the net and set up a teammate with a perfect centering pass:
Last Word On Sports ranked Barzal as their tenth-best draft-eligible prospect and had good things to say about his defensive game while explaining it could use some improvement:
Barzal can be a good two way player. He shows the hockey sense and anticipation to break up plays, create turnovers, and start the transition game. He also knows how to work down low to support his defence, and has shown a willingness to block shots. The issue here is that his effort level in his own zone is not always consistent. He has the skills to be good defensively, but must work to do so night in and night out going forward.
Central Scouting ranks Barzal 11th among North American prospects, ISS ranks him 8th and Bob McKenzie's final rankings had Barzal in the Sharks' spot at #9.
What do the stats say?
Despite a knee injury limiting him to just 44 regular season games and presumably throwing off his rhythm a bit, Barzal's age-adjusted points-per-game rate this season was 6th among players eligible for the 2015 draft after McDavid, Jack Eichel, Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and (somewhat surprisingly) projected second rounder Anthony Beauvillier. Scouts were probably hoping to see a bit more from Barzal before the season began, particularly considering his incredibly impressive draft-1 year where he nearly hit the point-per-game mark as a 16-year-old, but he still managed to have one of the most productive seasons among first-time eligible forwards this year in spite of the knee injury and being one of the younger players in the class.
Historically, WHL forwards who scored at a rate similar to Barzal's at the same age and with similar size went on to become regular NHLers 38% of the time which are better odds than that of other forwards ranked in Barzal's range like Lawson Crouse, Mikko Rantanen and Timo Meier. Some of Barzal's closest historical WHL comparables in terms of scoring, size and age include Jarome Iginla, Cam Neely and Jordan Eberle. That's not bad company to keep. Barzal was also in on 41% of Seattle's goals this season, which is one area in which he compares favorably to the pair of elite forwards ranked directly above him in Marner (who was in on 46% of London's goals) and Strome (39% of Erie's).
There is reason to believe, however, that Barzal's raw numbers this season might be overstating his actual offensive impact a bit. Much like Sharks 2014 first rounder Nikolay Goldobin last year, Barzal logged a metric crapton of minutes when he was in the lineup with CHLStats.com estimating Barzal played 29:30 a game for the 2014-15 Thunderbirds. That's more than any other forward, of any age, in the WHL this season. That's a good sign in the sense that Seattle's coaching staff clearly had an incredible amount of trust in the 17-year-old but it also means Barzal's per-minute scoring, particularly at even-strength, wasn't that impressive. There were 19 draft-eligible WHL forwards who averaged more even-strength points per 60 minutes than Barzal this season, although the British Columbia native was still top ten in overall points per 60; he was a monster on the power play.
Should the Sharks be interested?
Unless a blue-chip defender like Ivan Provorov or Zach Werenski was somehow also available, Barzal would be a terrific selection by the Sharks should he fall to 9th. While defense is arguably a more pressing need than center, San Jose's cupboard could use an infusion of elite talent at every position and they absolutely need to have an eye towards eventually replacing Joe Thornton, especially when picking higher than they have in nearly a decade.
It's highly unlikely Barzal will ever be an elite first-line center like Jumbo but he could certainly carve out a career as an excellent second line center to below-average top line pivot in the Logan Couture mold. Unfortunately it seems like a relatively safe bet the New Jersey Devils, desperate for young forward talent, will grab Barzal at #6 assuming the big four forward prospects are off the board by then.
What does he look like in action?
As with Pavel Zacha, Barzal's U18 highlights (featured at the end of this video) are mesmerizing.