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How Mathew Barzal Drives the Islanders’ Powerplay

Limiting Barzal’s time to the second unit is tangibly hurting shot generation

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New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Disclaimer: This is going to be a fairly visual post, and we are dealing with some small sample sizes. All data is through last Saturday’s game against Carolina. However, given the Islanders continued to struggle against Washington, these trends are noticeable and continuing.

Two weeks ago, some news came out of Islanders practice. Barry Trotz decided to jumble his powerplay lines, which left Mathew Barzal on the team’s second unit. Trotz essentially claimed there would not be a first unit or a second unit, but would mix and match depending on who was playing better. As we can see below, that’s more or less been in the case - at least in terms of flattening player deployment.

Data Through November 25

There’s been a pretty even distribution across the board of player time-on-ice per game on the powerplay since the changes. That’s benefitted Ryan Pulock, Brock Nelson, and Cal Clutterbuck. It’s impacted Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle.

A recent study in The Athletic by Dom Luszczyszyn shows that teams benefit more by using their first powerplay unit more often. And as we know, PP1 units are generally made up of the best 5-man offensive construction a team has to offer. That has not been the case since the new powerplay lines debuted for the Islanders, so what have the impacts of a new flattened deployment been?

Data Through November 25

The short answer: not great. Through Saturday’s game, the team has scored more goals per hour. However, that appears to be more of a function of shooting 37.5% on high danger chances over the timeframe versus 20% before the switch than anything else. In all shot generation views, the Islanders are generating less with their new flattened deployment than when they were overloading their top unit.

Specifically, we can hone in on Mathew Barzal as to why that is. Barzal has his faults. He’s still a very young player who can be a little reckless with the puck, which can be especially dangerous given his pass-first mentality. But we can notice some clear patterns if we take a look at each powerplay unit’s scoring chance generation rates before changes were made.

Data Through November 25

Now, let’s take the same players and look at their scoring chances rates after the changes as compared to prior.

Data Through November 25

There’s a pretty striking trend here. When players are on the ice with Mathew Barzal on the powerplay, they are way more likely to produce more scoring chances. And it’s not just scoring chances, if we look at differentials across all attempt types grouped by powerplay unit, we can clearly see differences for everyone but one player - Mathew Barzal.

Data Through November 25

At the end of the day, the key metrics on the powerplay are related to the rate generation of shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances. The more chances you’re generating, the greater the likelihood is that the team will score more goals. When we look at the above, the outcome here is pretty clear.

The Islanders’ long-term success on the powerplay - even when they are not directly scoring goals - is coming when Barzal is driving the ship. So, what’s the solution?

Right before Trotz switched the powerplay deployment, I had tweeted the Islanders should be using Barzal as much as possible on the powerplay. Obviously, this was prior to the recent understanding of his impact there, but stylistically it made sense to me due to his ability to carry the puck into the zone, and his ability to create space for his linemates.

Knowing what we know now, this would be where the Islanders could start solutioning the issue. As noted above, the most successful powerplays are overloads of the team’s best offensive units. The Islanders may want to consider reapplying that to their unit deployment, even if it comes at the expense of their secondary unit.

How the team wants to balance the other three spots (assuming Anders Lee is a given) between Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, Nick Leddy, and Ryan Pulock can certainly be based on trends, chemistry, handedness, and style. But as long as Mathew Barzal is getting the bulk of minutes while on the PP, the data is clear that the Islanders will be in a better position to succeed.