A year ago the NHL gurus were busy assembling their lists of Calder Trophy candidates. While a few of the experts reasonably placed Mathew Barzal near the top for Calder odds, many writers inexplicably left the talented center off their list of 10 or 15 rookies. Some did so even after he demonstrated blazing speed and slick hands in pre-season games for the Islanders.
This September many of the same skeptics— and also some who favored Barzal last year for the Calder— doubt whether the wunderkind will be able to repeat his historic performance, after he became the fifth youngest NHL forward since 1970 to finish a season top-5 in assists, behind Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Mario Lemieux.
Will Barzal’s performance take a hit his second NHL season as his role changes, largely due to the vacancy created by John Tavares? Let’s take a look at five reasons Barzal may have a sophomore slump and five reasons he may not.
Yes: Tougher Competition
Barzal will likely face better opponents, as more coaches will opt to play their best all-around players against the Barzal line. This will certainly create more difficulty for the young center, especially when matched up against the game’s elites, including McDavid, Crosby, and Patrice Bergeron. Note that the Barzal line did enjoy some success in power-vs-power matchups last season, such as February 22nd in Toronto when Beauvillier-Barzal-Eberle took on Hyman-Matthews-Nylander, outscoring the Leafs’ top line three to zero at 5v5.
No: Possibility of Better Linemates
Barzal was fortunate to play 840 minutes of 5v5 with Jordan Eberle on his right wing this past season, but he also spent significant time with non-elite linemates: 420 minutes with Andrew Ladd and 160 minutes with Josh Bailey. This upcoming season Barzal very well could settle full-time with Eberle on his right and one of Anthony Beauvillier or Anders Lee on his left. Either left winger ought to be an upgrade from a production standpoint. In general strength-of-teammates far outweighs effect of strength-of-competition, largely because it is more consistent.
Of course, since Eberle and Lee are impending UFAs Barzal very well may see one or even both of his linemates traded mid-season.
Yes: Calder Curse
Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Gabriel Landeskog each had trouble duplicating the impressive numbers of their Calder seasons. Maybe it would have been better for Barzal if Brock Boeser won the trophy.
No: There is no Calder Curse
Curses are rubbish. Auston Matthews’s points-per-game increased considerably his sophomore season, from 69 points in 82 games to 63 points in 62 games.
Yes: Power play without Tavares
John Tavares is one of the best power play weapons in the league. Without Tavares, Barzal will not be as effective on the power play. He won’t have Tavares as a passing option, and without Tavares opposing PK units will be able to close down Barzal’s time-space.
No: Barzal’s Power Play Production Wasn’t Crazy Last Season
The majority of Barzal’s exceptional production came at 5v5. Sixteen NHL forwards scored 30+ power play points, whereas Barzal tallied 27. A repeat performance on the power play is manageable for Barzal. He may score closer to 20, but he also may reach 30.
The loss of Tavares will be a blow to NYI’s power play, but Eberle is more than capable of stepping in, with his hands, shot, and play-making skill. Barzal still has one of the league’s elite net-front forwards, in Lee. The first unit may also receive a boost from the shooting ability of Ryan Pulock, if he is promoted, or even the hands of Jan Kovar, who surpassed the point-per-game mark three of his five KHL seasons, combining well with elite linemate Sergei Mozyakin.
No: More TOI at 5v5
More time-on-ice means more opportunity to produce offensively. Barzal passed Tavares in terms of 5v5 ice time per-game the second half of the season. He led NHL forwards in 5v5 assists in the second half: 25 for Barzal, 22 for McDavid, 20 for Steven Stamkos. More ice time at 5v5 means more production.
Yes: More TOI at 5v5
More ice time doesn’t always mean more production. Barzal’s line struggled in second of back-to-back games down the stretch: (score/venue adjusted, via Natural Stat Trick)
28% CF v DET February 9th
31% CF @ CAR February 16th (CAR was 2nd of B2B as well)
40% CF @ PIT March 3rd
41% CF @ OTT March 27th (OTT was 2nd of B2B as well)
With Barzal’s dependence on high-tempo puck carrying, adding another minute or two of 5v5 time per game is sure to affect the quality of his performance. His scoring rate at 5v5 will take a major hit.
Yes: The Weight of C1
We don’t know how Barzal will react to the added responsibility of being the main star of the Islanders. Mentally and psychologically it will take its toll as the season progresses, especially if the team struggles to stay in the playoff race.
Skeptics rightly point out that we cannot predict how Barzal will respond to a heavier role, but they largely ignore the possibility that the young pivot improves from 2017-18 to 2018-19. The majority of NHL centers develop substantially from age 20 to age 23. While progress isn’t typically linear, it is very possible his game advances from age 20 to age 21. Consider that in 2016-17 Barzal was sent back to the WHL because he wasn’t quite ready to play top-6 minutes for NYI, even as a C2 behind Tavares. A year later he is scoring above a point-per-game pace and looks better than some C1s around the NHL. It was an incredible gain for a 16-month period.
In fact, over the course of this past season Barzal showed improvement in different areas of his game. Despite appearing exhausted at times late in the season, he managed 48 points his last 41 games, a 96-point pace over 82. The beginning of last season he was scoreless in his first five games while lined up with Ladd and Bailey at 5v5, before he was promoted to the first power play unit and deployed with Eberle for 5v5. This season he will start in a primary scoring role.
What do you all think? Will Mathew Barzal suffer a sophomore slump?