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A Look at Mathew Barzal’s Defensive Play

Mathew Barzal is about as unpredictable without the puck as he is with it.

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Islanders
This guy has my puck for some reason.
Dennison Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

With the puck on his stick, Mathew Barzal makes magic happen. He’s a phenomenal skater and dynamic playmaker with transcendent offensive ability. Watching him skate circles around NHL teams is a sight unlike any other I’ve experienced as a hockey fan.

Things are different on the defensive side of the ice. Islanders head coach Barry Trotz has criticized his play away from the puck several times this season, and for good reason: Barzal is about as wild and unpredictable without the puck as he is with it. That is not a good thing.

Today, I’m gonna take a look at Barzal’s defensive play and speculate as to why Barry Trotz has taken issue with it. I will show you some plays which illustrate the bad habits I see most often from Barzal in the defensive zone: (1) his tendency to go puck-chasing, (2) wide turns and poor routes, and (3) risky decisions with the puck under pressure. I’ll then show you some of the good defensive plays Barzal makes on the strength of his raw ability and anticipation.

Let me also tell you what I’m not gonna do. I’m not gonna regurgitate a bunch of on-ice stats at you as far as what the Islanders are conceding when Barzal is on the ice. This is not an overall assessment of his game, nor is it a comparison to the team’s other forwards. Whatever criticisms are directed at his defensive play below, he’s still the team’s most dynamic forward and, on balance, his net contributions are quite clearly positive.

If you’re curious, you can check the numbers here and I will sum them up in one sentence: When Barzal’s on the ice, the rate of shots, scoring chances and goals the Islanders concede range from pretty bad to average, relative to the rest of the forwards on the team.

The numbers neither prove nor contradict what I see on tape: Mathew Barzal’s defensive lapses are pervasive, but they are correctable. Should he dedicate himself to improving his defensive game, he can become the truly dominant player he has the potential to be.

So let’s take a look at Mathew Barzal’s defensive play.

1. He gets fixated on the puck.

Barzal loves having the puck so much that when he doesn’t have it, he starts to get tunnel vision because he wants it back so badly. He watches and/or chases the puck around to the point that he will just completely disregard his defensive responsibilities at any moment.

Some of the time, this works: he’ll take himself out of position but his quickness and excellent anticipation will allow him to lift an opponent’s stick and snatch the biscuit away or intercept a pass. Although it’s an extremely faulty and inaccurate stat, he does lead the team in takeaways by a wide margin.

Other times, it doesn’t work and this leads to blown coverages and defensive breakdowns.

This is largely what I’m referring to when I call Barzal unpredictable on defense. While I can’t speak to the team’s exact d-zone strategy, Barzal’s behavior in the defensive zone differs significantly from the team’s other centers. He seems to rotate low to high and back indiscriminately, at times looking like a guy who’s doing whatever he wants to do. As a result, his linemates need to keep as much of an eye on Barzal as they do on their own guys.

2. Bad positioning, poor routes, wide turns.

This, to me, is the most glaring and frequent of Barzal’s bad habits on defense. Barzal takes the worst routes of any forward on the team in the defensive zone (well, second-worst at the moment). Good defensive hockey can be very tiring because it requires constant stopping and starting as you chase and/or react to the attacking team. It’s much easier to take a wide, circuitous turn than it is to stop and start.

In other words, Barzal conserves energy on defense. Many offensively-gifted players do, though ideally, you don’t want your center floating around like we see Barzal in the following plays.

This is pretty terrible right here. Barzal’s the first forward back on defense as the Capitals rush up ice. There’s some confusion between Barzal, Pelech and Mayfield as to who’s supposed to cover who, and with Mayfield just scrambling back from an offensive pinch, that confusion is somewhat understandable.

Barzal should nonetheless recognize the bottom line here: there are three Caps on the rush and Barzal is one of three Islanders back in position to defend against that rush. He needs to at least keep himself in the mix here, but he doesn’t. He goes on a nice, leisurely stroll around the top of the defensive zone. Washington doesn’t score but they get a dangerous chance because of all the open space Barzal’s wide turn allowed them.

This is a common theme I noticed while going through Barzal’s defensive zone shifts. Quite often, it will not have any immediate negative consequence. But let me tell you something: coaches absolutely hate this kind of thing. It’s a lazy shortcut, plain and simple.

Here’s some more from a shift against Tampa Bay. It starts with Barzal turning the puck over in the neutral zone which leads to Tampa getting some extended offensive zone time. During this time, Barzal spends close to a minute floating around aimlessly and indecisively before zoning out when help is needed along the boards right in front of him.

That’s kind of the opposite situation of one of the plays in the first section (at 0:25 in San Jose). There, the Islanders and Sharks were engaged in a 2-on-2 board battle behind the net when Barzal made the extremely poor decision to leave his man alone in front of the net to try to swoop in and steal the puck away. It almost cost the team dearly.

Here, the Islanders are outnumbered in a battle along the half-wall and yet Barzal shows no urgency to come in and help even things up. Tampa eventually scores thanks to some fantastic puck movement, but Barzal was involved in the turnover and subsequent breakdowns that made the goal possible.

3. Risky decision-making with puck in defensive zone.

One thing I’ve come to believe is you can’t truly tell how confident a player is in himself by watching him in the offensive zone. It’s what he does with the puck in the defensive zone, when he’s under pressure and the stakes are the highest, that reveals his true confidence level.

Case in point: Barzal’s offensive zone orbits are a sight to behold, but it’s the defensive zone orbits that tell me this must be the cockiest son of a bitch I have ever seen with the puck on his stick. Just take a look at some of these absurd plays from last season.

I can’t even wrap my head around the nerve you gotta have to even think about attempting some of this stuff. Now, this is one area where Barzal has made some strides in his second season. The kind of things he did with the puck in the defensive zone last year would make most coaches lose their shit. He’s gotten a bit better in that regard, but I’d venture to guess Barry Trotz would say he’s still taking a few too many risks with the puck.

Sometimes, he’ll try stick-handling through three checkers in his own zone instead of clearing it off the boards. He’ll attempt ridiculous, high-risk passes up the middle of the ice (a cardinal sin of hockey). He has no issue whatsoever moving the wrong direction, territorially, so as to not give up control of the puck. Here are some risky plays Barzal has made with the puck in his own zone this season:

I don’t think Barzal is consciously trying to induce a heart attack from his coach when he does stuff like this. I think this is just what supreme confidence looks like. I think Barzal finds it inconceivable that he’s ever at serious risk of having the puck taken away. Oftentimes, he’ll make these kinds of plays successfully, and he should of course be given a bit more leeway than your average player. But I’d bet Trotz would love to see him cut down the risk in his own zone.

4. The Good.

Barzal does make positive contributions in his own end, too. He has excellent speed and anticipation and he uses these skills to cut plays off, steal the puck away and transition to offense. Here are some plays that show the promise he has in the defensive zone.

Barzal has the attributes to become a dominant two-way player. Whether he actually ends up becoming one will depend on his commitment to playing within the team’s defensive structure. At this early stage in his career, it’s not yet in his nature to choose the most responsible option in his own zone. He knows what he’s capable of doing with the puck, but he needs to be more patient in not trying to force his way into getting it back.

It’s a process that will take some time, but fortunately the Islanders now have a head coach in place who appears intent on (and capable of) getting him there. Barry Trotz has been very hard on his young star, probably because he sees such considerable promise.

Mathew Barzal has a lot of work to do in the defensive zone to break the bad habits outlined above. If he commits himself to putting that work in, he will become a truly dominant two-way center.