Watch the Islanders for about five minutes and it will be easy to get mesmerized by the pure skill of Mathew Barzal. Watch them for five more minutes and you’ll notice his linemate and best friend Anthony Beauvillier alongside of him, benefitting from the dazzling skill Barzal has. Watch a full game and you may not even notice the “third wheel” on the line — Josh Bailey.
The irony to this is that despite the speed, skill, and youth of Barzal and Beauvillier, it is actually Josh Bailey and Mathew Barzal that are the true drivers of the line. Bailey, now a 29-year old vet in his 11th NHL season (seriously), flies under the radar. Mostly. There’s still a faction of the Islander fanbase that doesn’t appreciate him for what he is, perhaps a consequence of being the first pick of the Garth Snow rebuild. And maybe a consequence of being the player picked after the Isles traded down twice, passing on sexier names like Nikita Filatov, Colin Wilson, and Cody Hodgson.
Two of those players are out of the league already. Bailey, on the other hand, is currently on pace for a 62-point season, a pretty nice follow to his 71-point All-Star campaign in 2017-18 and his 56-point breakout in 2016-17.
History lesson aside, how Bailey is performing now is ultimately what matters, and the results are quite good. In fact, relative to Beauvillier and the team at large, he performs better than team-average in all shot based metrics.
The chart above focuses on relative shot metrics. In other words, when Bailey is on the ice, the Islanders will net 2.41% more shot attempts versus when he is off the ice. If you continue down the line, you can see similarly strong results (especially for scoring chances, at 6.52%). Beauvillier, to his credit, also has pretty strong results — though his high danger chance relative rate does fall below team average.
What this tells us, generally, is that the Islanders have two pretty effective players who are both offensively talented and - yes - have the benefit of playing with one of the game’s brightest young stars. What this does not tell us is who is actually driving the play on that line.
In that sense, Barzal is obvious. He passes every form of “test” imaginable, both from a metrics perspective and from simply watching him play. He lifts players up around him and in turn, puts the Islanders in a situation where they - as a team - are more likely to succeed. But, his effectiveness is not isolated.
As good as Barzal is, the data shows that he’s not lifting entire lines by himself. And if you watch the Islanders, you might see that to be true and that Anthony Beauvillier is the yin to his yang. But the truth is that’s not the case. It’s actually Josh Bailey that is providing the support Barzal needs for that line to be as productive as they’ve been.
We can use With-Or-Without-You metrics (WOWY) to bear this out. Using NHL’s shift data, sites like Natural Stat Trick are able to not only show a singular player’s shot rates, but we can also see them in pairs - or even trios.
Let’s first take a look at the Barzal line at large compared to the Islanders team.
We can see pretty clearly that the Islanders are a much better team when the Barzal line is on the ice from both an overall shot attempt perspective and from a scoring chance perspective. I don’t think this is an overly surprising take.
Let’s break this down even further by looking at how Barzal-Beauvillier perform vs. Barzal-Bailey:
This is where things get interesting. Barzal has played over 100 minutes with both Beauvillier and Bailey separately, which is a decent enough sample size. The results are dramatically different, with his shot metrics while playing with Bailey and not Beauvillier almost seismically better versus when he plays with Beauvillier and not Bailey.
Most notably within the chart here is how well Barzal and Bailey work within quality chances - both scoring chances and high danger chances. As a full line, the trio runs at about 54.8% scoring chances and 51.9% high danger chances. With just Bailey, Barzal is at 61.5% scoring chances and 62.5% high danger chances. There’s a clear impact there that’s worth further exploration.
Finally, let’s take a look at how Josh Bailey and Mat Barzal perform with and without each other, agnostic of any other linemates:
We can see a pretty symbiotic relationship between Bailey and Barzal here. Both players have better metrics while playing with each other (380 minutes) than when they play away from each other (180 minutes) in both overall shot attempts and scoring chances.
So, ultimately, we can conclude a few things from this data.
The first is the simple fact that this provides more clear insight as to how strong of a player Mat Barzal is, outside of just his point production.
But more importantly, we can also conclude that Josh Bailey is pushing Barzal to be a better player. As a highly intelligent player with strong awareness and anticipation, he’s able to play effectively with Barzal, which in turn is making both of their games better — as well as the Islanders’ overall game. That sort of thing ultimately leads to more production (which we have seen, especially from Barzal), which we know leads to wins.
Josh Bailey may stay under the radar, but he’s playing a huge part in the transformation of the Islanders and in the evolution of Mathew Barzal.
All data for this piece is from Natural Stat Trick
Quick Glossary of Terms:
CF% = Corsi For Percentage (percent of shot attempts the Islanders take when a player is on the ice)
SCF% = Scoring Chance For Percentage (percent of scoring chances the Islanders take when a player is on the ice)
HDCF% = High Danger Chances For Percentage (percent of high danger attempts the Islanders take when a player is on the ice)