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The Shark is Circling: How Mathew Barzal Causes Defensive Breakdowns

How one memorable play in Ottawa demonstrates the Islanders forward’s mastery

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Anaheim Ducks v New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal traveling at the speed of light.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

“The shark is circling.”

These words were uttered by New York Islanders play-by-play announcer Brendan Burke during the first period of the team’s 5-3 loss to Minnesota on February 19th. And you know damn well who he was talking about because there is only one player about whom these words could possibly have been spoken: Mathew Barzal.

When Barzal gets going on one of his “tours” (as Burke likes to call them) around the offensive zone, it is truly a site to behold. With his unparalleled speed, agility and puck control, Barzal is capable of doing things on NHL ice that only a very small handful of players can even dream of pulling off.

This consists largely of what has come to be known around here as the BOZO: Barzal Offensive Zone Orbit. See the following examples:

(YouTube Link)

It is in this context I have come to realize the paradox of Mathew Barzal. On the one hand, he’s a great example for young hockey players to emulate. His skating technique, puck-handling and passing are at the high end of high-end. When he gets those crossovers going, it looks like some kind of computer-generated display of how to perfectly do skating drills in practice. The way he protects the puck with his body and arm, the way he always has his head up ready to capitalize on an opening - his fundamental skills are textbook.

On the other hand, Barzal’s a poor example for young hockey players to emulate. Here, I speak of his decision-making during actual games. Barzal holds onto the puck about as long as any player I’ve ever seen. And for him, that’s fine. He does things he’s capable of doing, and I wouldn’t want him to do otherwise. But there’s not a single coach out there who would actually teach a young player to weave in and out of opposing checkers in front of his own net, for example.

Barzal makes it look so easy when he’s flying around, it gives those around him the mistaken impression that they, too, can hold onto the puck and do what he does. Unfortunately, when other players try doing Mat Barzal things, they’re very likely to end in disaster.

This is why MSG Networks should strongly consider putting a “do not try this at home” warning on the screen every time Barzal gets the puck in open ice.

Today, we’re going to look back at one particularly memorable play from the Islanders’ 2-1 win in Ottawa way back in November. Though Barzal would only notch a secondary assist on this Jordan Eberle goal, it was one of the more spectacular (of the many) secondary assists he’s earned this season.

On this play, Ottawa reminds me of a basketball team that plays great defense for the first 20 seconds of the shot clock but commits one mistake at the last moment which results in a breakdown and points allowed.

It starts when Barzal collects the puck in his own zone, builds up speed through center ice and enters the offensive zone. Once again, I find it difficult to overstate just how tremendous an impact Barzal has on the game with this sort of one-man territorial advance he regularly pulls off so effortlessly.

As Barzal crosses the blue line, Erik Karlsson (one of the best-skating defensemen in the league) sags off him, so as not to get burned to the outside. Once Barzal takes it behind the net, Karlsson hands him off to the first Senators forward back (the F1), #15 Smith, who actually does a very good job sticking with Barzal as he completes his full orbit around the offensive zone.

The Sens as a team are in good position as Barzal cuts back at the left half-wall.

As is the norm when playing transition defense, the second forward back for Ottawa (the F2), #17 Thompson, plays as the strong-side winger; he’s responsible for Nick Leddy at the left point and sealing off Barzal. The F3 is #40 Dumont; as the weak-side winger, he’s at the top of the circle ready to provide support in the slot if needed while also keeping an eye on Boychuk at the right point.

The Sens’ breakdown occurs when Barzal and Leddy criss-cross up high, causing Smith and Thompson to collide. Once that occurs, Ottawa’s LD Claesson has no choice but to switch out onto the pinching Leddy. In so doing, he leaves his man, Eberle, open in the slot.

This requires that another Senator switch onto Eberle, and with Karlsson now occupied by Ladd in front, this responsibility falls on the F3, Dumont. But by the time he realizes what's going on, it's too late. Eberle slickly pulls it to his backhand and leaves Sens goalie Craig Anderson looking like a user-controlled goalie in NHL 18 EASHL mode (at least when I’m the user).

Obviously, it looks pretty bad when two players on the same team crash into each other while playing defense. But I think this collision was more of a freak accident than it was a mistake by either Smith or Thompson. It’s easy for me to say that they should have communicated better or been more aware of what was going on around them, but how feasible was that, really?

Both Smith and Thompson were completely preoccupied with their respective marks. Smith was doing all he possibly could to stick with Barzal, while Thompson had to deal with Leddy pinching in. This looks to me like an unfortunate (for Ottawa) and close-to-unavoidable result of the immense pressure Barzal's speed put on the Sens defense. The threat that he posed was so great, it demanded the complete and undivided attention of the Sens involved, Smith and Thompson, such that they were oblivious their paths were about to cross.

I’m of course not saying Ottawa played this perfectly. Two teammates crashing into each other is, definitively, not perfect. I’m only saying that I think this had way more to do with Barzal’s brilliance and masterful manipulation than it had to do with any blatant failure by the Senators. In fact, although the Smith/Thompson collision was the proximate cause of Eberle’s goal, I thought Dumont’s was the more preventable mistake.

There’s been a league-wide shift in the defensive zone responsibilities of wingers over the last number of years. No longer can wingers zone out and concern themselves only with their point man. They play much lower in the zone to provide support to their defensemen and center down low and in the slot, to cut off the top and create more traffic in the high-danger area of the ice.

The entire reason the weak-side winger sags so low nowadays is to provide support for just this sort of situation. To stay aware of what’s going on and help out if necessary. Dumont does realize he needs to help on Claesson’s man (Eberle), but it’s a second too late, and that second made a difference here.

Still, if I’m allocating responsibility for this goal, I’d give at least 80% of it to Barzal, around 10% to Leddy and Eberle for finishing the play off, and maybe 10% to Ottawa’s defense.

It takes a complete, coordinated, perfect, team-wide effort to defend against this kind of explosive speed and relentless aggression. That’s why I really can’t pin that much blame on Ottawa’s defense here. They’re just one of many teams that failed to stop an unstoppable player.

So there you have it, folks.

Looking back, I think this was one of the first moments the NHL media up north started to take notice of how special a player Mathew Barzal is. It was his first game up in Canada and in it, he skated circles around the Senators.

When he’s called up to accept the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year on June 20 in Las Vegas, I will think back to this unforgettable play in Ottawa.

Until next time.