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Mathew Barzal: The Video Game Player

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An in-depth look at what makes Mathew Barzal so good

NHL: New York Islanders at Ottawa Senators
From LA to NY, when defensemen see Mat Barzal, they pray.
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Everywhere I go, people come up to me and ask me about New York Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal.

Whether I’m in the market buying milk or at the gas station having a gasoline fight with my friends. They ask me, “Mat Barzal?” and I tell them, “no, I’m not Mat Barzal.” I let them know that Mat Barzal can no longer shop in the same market as the rest of us. “He's an NHL superstar,” I explain, “and NHL superstars have their own markets.” And they nod in agreement, these hypothetical people.

They ask me whether the hype is real. “It’s a great rookie class,” they say. They remind me of Clayton Keller in Arizona and Brock Boeser in Vancouver. These are “the Big 3,” they tell me. It’s a “three-horse race” for the Calder, they shout, incessantly. And I try to tell them that horses are vicious, untrustworthy beasts that should not be used for metaphorical purposes. But they don’t listen, these people; they aren’t real.

But if they were, this is what I’d tell them: there’s no “three-horse race” underway. Mathew Barzal will be the NHL Rookie of the Year. Them other guys are fine players - perennial All-Stars for the next decade-plus, no doubt. But Mat Barzal is on another level entirely. Below, I will elaborate as to why that is.


It’s impossible to overstate the impact the 20-year-old Barzal has had on the Islanders this season. I will nonetheless give it my best shot. The Isles (17-10-3) have earned six more wins and nine more points than they did through 30 games last season (11-13-6), thanks largely to an offense that has scored 28 more goals this time around.

In fact, the Islanders are scoring the second-most goals-per-game (3.5) in the entire league right now. This prolific offensive output can partly be attributed to improved production from the team’s best players. But the single-most important factor behind the Islanders’ improvement this season has been the impact of their dynamic rookie, Mat Barzal.

Barzal has single-handedly changed the entire complexion of the team's offensive attack, centering a potent second line alongside Andrew Ladd and Jordan Eberle, with whom he has developed exceptional chemistry (Barzal has assisted on eight of Eberle’s twelve goals this season, with seven of those being primary assists).

Since coach Doug Weight put that trio together in the 6-2 win in Nashville on Oct. 28, it has without question been one of the most dominant lines in the league. They’ve taken a ridiculous 59% of all shot attempts, and have scored 81% of all goals, that have occurred while they’ve been on the ice at even strength, per Corsica.

Barzal himself has put up 28 points (8 goals + 20 assists), which leads all rookies in a very strong first-year class. (Ed. note: His 28 points are now tied for the lead with Brock Boeser, after the Canucks rookie scored his 16th goal last night.) He’s already set one Islanders rookie record with his 5-assist game against Colorado. If he can hit 60 points this season - and he’s currently on pace for 79 - he’ll have scored the third-most points of any rookie in Islanders history, after Hall of Fame legends Bryan Trottier (95 points in 75-76) and Mike Bossy (91 points in 77-78).

With the first line of Tavares (3rd in goals), Lee (4th in goals) and Bailey (12th in points) producing at an elite level, the emergence of Barzal and the second line has elevated both the quality and depth of the offense.

Separately, watching Barzal skate with the puck is an experience unto itself. He is absolutely exhilarating. If I were assigning grades to the Islanders for a “First Quarter Report Card,” this is what it would look like:


It's worth taking a look at what it is Barzal does on the ice that makes him so dominant. And that's not an exaggeration; he is, even at this infantile stage of his career, already a dominant player.

He possesses several high-end skills like his puck-handling, passing and vision. But the undeniable foundation of Barzal's game is his blazing speed and superb skating ability.

Barzal’s got elite acceleration and straight-ahead speed, but what truly separates him - both figuratively (from other speedy players) and literally (from opposing defensemen) - is his lethal quickness and agility. You can see these attributes at work in the following videos, which I've broken up to reflect what I consider to be the three key components to Barzal’s game: (1) his ability to carry the puck up the ice and enter the zone; (2) his ability to create scoring opportunities in the offensive zone; and (3) his ability to draw penalties.

1. Mathew Barzal Carrying the Puck

So we know it’s far more advantageous for a hockey team to retain possession of the puck when (a) exiting the defensive zone (as opposed to clearing it out) and (b) entering the offensive zone (as opposed to dumping it in). Regarding the latter, carrying the puck in results in more than twice as much offense (shots and goals) as dumping it in.

But you can't just waltz into the zone with the puck simply because you want to; there’s this whole other team in the way trying to stop you. So it's important to consider the way through which a team can advance up the ice with possession.

The most common way to do this is as a unit, by executing the coach’s breakout/entry plays through good positioning, passing, support and communication. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Barzal prefers the other way. The you-wanna-get-shit-done-you-gotta-do-it-yourself way. And why not? The kid is a one-man zone entry machine. You may recall his impressive showing in this Neutral Zone Performance report 13 games into the season and I’ve no doubt we’ll see more of the same when we get those updated numbers.

So here’s some video of Barzal carrying the puck up the ice and gaining the offensive zone with possession, seemingly at will.

2. Mathew Barzal Creating Scoring Chances in the Offensive Zone

Question: what does Barzal do with the puck once he gains the offensive come?

Answer: whatever he damn well pleases.

In my twenty-plus years watching NHL hockey, I’ve never seen a player hold onto the puck and manipulate the defense like Mat Barzal. It’s just astounding to watch him pivot, spin and dangle his way around the zone. All due respect to Blake Comeau, COZO Artist, but he has been superseded by the BOZO: Barzal Offensive Zone Orbit.

Barzal’s got a variety of moves he uses to create space from defenders, draw extra help and create open passing lanes. He is simply masterful at this, and reminds me of Sidney Crosby with how he uses his strong edge work to escape pressure. Except he does so without slashing anyone’s fingers off or generally being a petulant asshole, which is fantastic.

Take it from someone far more qualified than me, though. Here’s how Tavares put it in this recent Barzal feature in The Athletic:

“It’s been fun to watch. It makes you wish you could do some of the things he can do. His ability to use his edges, just to be so hard to defend. Not only be able to change directions but also change speed and keep his feet, and then be able to draw defenders to him and find the open man; he’s brought us out of our seats quite a few times already.’’

And here’s Eberle from the same article:

"He creates so much with his speed and his quickness; he’s like a video-game player, he shifts right to left so quick and doesn’t really lose speed."

That last part there, to me, is the key. Plenty of great forwards can spin away from a defender to create space for themselves. But few of them are able to do so without losing speed. That is precisely what consistently amazes me about this kid. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether he’s at the end of a long shift; he plays with relentless effort every second he’s on the ice.

So here’s some video of Barzal at work in the offensive zone.


3. Mathew Barzal Drawing Penalties

Drawing penalties is a valuable NHL skill, and Mat Barzal has drawn 17 penalties this season, which is 3rd in the league and his +12 penalty differential (he has committed 5 penalties) is tops in the league. This aspect of his game has had a huge impact on the team; the Isles have scored six PP goals off the penalties he has drawn.

This is instructive as to how teams will try to defend the speedy Barzal moving forward. In one sense, he’s impossible to defend. Most of these penalties were committed by players who were in the process of getting burned by Barzal; they had no choice but to hook, hold or trip him to prevent a point-blank opportunity.

But not all of these penalties were taken out of necessity. Some were just players being overly physical with Barzal, like him getting cross-checked from behind into the boards or catching a high-stick to the face. And as the season has progressed, I’ve noticed him getting targeted with increasing frequency.

In a recent edition of Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts, Barzal credited a big hit he took from Kevin Bieksa (in the 3-2 loss in Anaheim on October 11th) as a turning point for him:

“[Kevin] Bieksa killed me. I was terrible at the time, and after that hit, I thought my game picked up. It woke me up. I proved to myself that I could take that kind of a hard hit. I felt, ‘OK, now let’s play.’ I’m like I was in junior. Before, I was too timid the way I handled the puck.

Here’s that hit Barzal was talking about:

Brendan Burke was right - that was a late hit. And while I’m glad Barzal was able to come away from it unscathed, and that it served to ignite him, I still cringe watching it. Not just because of how potentially dangerous this hit could’ve been, but also because it makes me think about what is likely to come moving forward.

Barjustments

As the season has progressed and Barzal has skated circles around one team after another, coaches have rightfully taken notice. Prior to the Islanders’ 5-2 win in St. Louis on November 11th, Burke mentioned that Blues head coach Mike Yeo brought up two names when talking about which Islanders were the focus of his team’s game plan: Tavares and Barzal. And it was quite apparent that the game plan for Barzal was to hit him at every conceivable opportunity, as you’ll see in the below video.

Barzal should get used to this. When a player is as dynamic with the puck as he is, a defenseman trying to stick with him on foot speed alone would be better off praying to the good lord for help. Teams have already started taking liberties with him, going out of their way to cross-check and slash Barzal well after he gets rid of the puck. It’s an attempt to intimidate him, to dissuade him from staying aggressive in trying to make plays.

I can’t exactly blame them. How else to contain a player who’s impossible to contain? This is just the natural progression of how teams respond to an emerging star. So the following video consists of both penalties Barzal has drawn, as well as some of the physical play that has been directed at him.

Not all of these hits are dirty or that big of a deal, I know, but taken together they start to paint a picture of how we can expect teams to treat the speedy Barzal.

As of now, it doesn’t appear as though it will be easy to take Barzal off his game in this manner. (Like at 1:20 into the video, after Alex Pietrangelo interferes with him and then gently bashes his head into the ice (way to be vigilant, NHL DOPS), Barzal gets up, irritated, and darts right into the Blues crease, taking a penalty and starting a scrum.) But teams will try anyway. They’ve gotta try something, after all.

So just keep your head up, Mat.


Well there you have it, folks. If you’re an Islanders fan, I hope these 15 minutes of Barzal highlights were like cat nip for you.

If you’re not an Islanders fan, I’m sure you still enjoyed this video, just a little bit less. Because Mat Barzal does not play for your team, and you know that your life will be worse off for it.

If you’re a Rangers fan, I’m not sure why you’re even here. You're not welcome here, and you should close out of this browser immediately. Seriously, just leave. This isn’t for you.

Anyway, don’t let the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Islanders - with the Belmont arena bid and JT’s impending free agency - obscure the most significant development surrounding this team in recent memory: the emergence of Mathew Barzal. The kid is a superstar on the rise, a video game player come to life. Don’t worry about all that other nonsense. Just sit back and appreciate what will no doubt be one of the most special rookie seasons in Islanders history.