When the 2014-2015 season began in October, Seattle Thunderbirds forward Mathew Barzal was in the discussion as a top five pick in the upcoming NHL season. Forced out for more than a third of the season due to a knee injury, Barzal has since been hampered more by his lack of a year-long resume than by his skill.
Due to Barzal's missed games, prospects like Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner were given the opportunity to run with it, and secure consensus top spots behind Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Noah Hanifin. To their credit, their breakout, near-record setting performances in Erie and London respectively did just that, and they've earned their praise.
When healthy, Barzal has also performed though. And while it wasn't at the 2 points per game pace Marner set, he also didn't have Max Domi or Christian Dvorak to help him along the way.
In Seattle, it was the Barzal show. He was the primary, and secondary scoring, finishing one point shy of 2015 draft-eligible teammate Ryan Gropp for the team's scoring lead in 23 less games.
Down the stretch, Barzal was among the WHL's best forwards and may have even matched his counterparts in the OHL. After returning from the knee injury, Barzal was held scoreless in his first four games.
On January 30, in Prince George, that changed and a 4-assist night propelled him into a mid-season form that never seemed to slow down, even as the playoffs - and then the U18s - rolled around.
In his final 24 regular season games, Barzal tallied 39 points and was held off the scoresheet just four times.
Out-matched against a superior Portland Winterhawks team armed with top prospects such as Nicolas Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand, Barzal continued to perform, far and away his team's best player in the series. He finished with four goals and eight points in six games.
While he didn't have the time afforded to some of the other top prospects in the draft, his progression and the way he became one of junior hockey's best players was nonetheless impressive.
And he peaked at just the right time.
After Seattle's first round exit, Barzal's best hockey was still to come, dominating at the U18s as Canada's leading scorer with 12 points in seven games, good for third in tournament scoring behind likely 2015 first rounder Jeremy Bracco and likely 2016 first overall selection Auston Matthews.
Barzal, a pass-first centre, was effective on every shift, and controlled the tournament's pace throughout, on route to a bronze medal.
His best asset, his brain, allows him to find his teammates where others wouldn't, anticipate plays on the defensive side of the puck to create chances for himself offensively, and out-think defenders while handling the puck off the rush, or in the offensive zone.
He's adept at handling, and distributing the puck, and while he doesn't have the size of a Dylan Strome, he's thicker and stronger than a Mitch Marner.
And while he doesn't possess a heavy shot, but he's mastered getting off a quick release, with a low kick. With his ever-improving skating, he also finds other ways to score or create and pounce on loose pucks in tight. His stride is fluid and he's got a low centre of gravity.
In today's NHL, the supremely gifted yet responsible centre is a rarity. Barzal has the complete two-way game, the offensive knack, and all the makings of a good, two-way set-up man.
Watch the way Barzal penetrates to the middle of the ice to draw attention before breaking to the outside to open up space in the slot for Roberts Lipsbergs here:
And again, with a similar move before using his speed to burst wide for another assist here:
And note his ability to find a teammate under pressure and in full stride cross-ice here:
There aren't three highlights that better demonstrate the way he plays, and if it weren't for bad luck and circumstances, he may have remained in the conversation for the top five.
According to some scouts and writers, all of Dave Morrison, Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter have been at Seattle games this season. This could potentially have been to scout teammates Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear, but in all likelihood it was to do some due diligence on one of the draft's best prospects.
Barzal was ranked #7 in my Final Top 60 Ranking for the 2015 NHL Draft with McKeen's Hockey.