The New York Islanders are at the beginning of a much needed, and arguably undeserved, break ahead of All-Star weekend. The only exception is Mathew Barzal, who may need the time away from the game more than anyone on the team. The lone Islanders’ representative at the All-Star weekend festivities, Barzal has had a tough start to the new year. The 22-year-old hasn’t dealt with much adversity in his two-and-a-half-season NHL career and has been presented with an opportunity for growth midway through the 2019-20 season. He’ll need to come back into the proverbial second half of the season with a fresh mindset and avoid the mistakes that have cost his team over the last month or so.
Turnovers Adding Up
There’s no denying Barzal is an elite talent in this league. From the first time he stepped on the ice with the Islanders, fans saw just how good he was. He led the team in points during his rookie season and, when John Tavares departed Long Island for Toronto, Islanders fans and the organization looked to him as the new face of the franchise for years to come. Last year, Barzal took a step back in his offensive production as a result of the more defensive-minded and team-oriented head coach Barry Trotz taking over. However, the team’s success — including the “we above me” attitude — appeared to make an impression on the young player and the rest of the team, leading to a sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
Turn the page to this season, one where the Islanders started out strong, and you’ll see some big differences in Barzal’s game. For the most part, he’s found a way to be a better defensive player while still continuing to be an offensive threat. He’s currently on pace for 70 points, eight more than last season’s total. However, since December, the Islanders haven’t been playing well. Around NHL “.500” is ok, but a continuation of this could easily see the team fall out of the playoff picture very quickly in a tight Metropolitan Division. With the team struggling, especially to score, Barzal appears to be trying to do more and, subsequently, too much.
Of note, Barzal leads the league in giveaways with 77 despite playing two or three fewer games than those around him. Now, for someone who has the puck as much as he does — his Corsi and Fenwick are above 50% at even strength — that’s understandable. To compare to another one of the league’s top players, David Pastrnak has 74 giveaways. The major difference here is that Pastrnak is a perennial 35-goal scorer who is one goal away from tying a career-best 38 goals in 14 fewer games this season. For Barzal and the Islanders, the giveaways make it even harder to create scoring chances, something the team struggles to generate in the first place.
These giveaways often occur when Barzal enters the zone, does the “Gretzky Curl,” and tries to find a trailer following up in the play. The main issue causing the turnovers to occur is that he’s forcing the play even when the off-side defender or third forward isn’t in position or is covered. Opposing defenders have also picked up on his play and are now beginning to close the gap quicker, forcing Barzal to get rid of the puck sooner than he wants.
The safe play, and probably one Trotz would prefer out of Barzal that the rest of the team uses, is to put the puck down low. It’s a low-percentage play, but it allows the Islanders to get in on the forecheck and cuts down on the opportunities for an odd-man-rush the other way. That doesn’t mean Barzal shouldn’t be making that pass at all, he just needs to adjust his game to increase the probability the puck gets to the intended recipient.
Following the loss to the Washington Capitals, a massive third-period collapse, Trotz mentioned in the pre-game in Carolina that, “We just have to change our mindset a little bit because our mindset has to be all team.” When Arthur Staple of The Athletic followed up with Trotz asking after Tuesday’s win against the New York Rangers if Barzal’s benching during that game was part of that sentiment, Trotz said: “That was a good example, exactly. One hundred percent today.” (From “Mathew Barzal Benched in last game before break, as ‘exhausted’ Islanders welcome the reset, The Athletic, 01/22/2020).
It’s tough to sit any player in a tight game, especially your best offensive talent during a rough stretch of the season. Though the benching was a culmination of mistakes over the course of a few games, including some questionable defensive plays during the loss to the Capitals, it showed Trotz wanted to not only set an example for the rest of the team, but for Barzal specifically.
Barzal now has a chance to enjoy himself in St. Louis followed by a break of nearly a week to refocus and come back refreshed. He should be feeling better having won the fastest skater competition last night, which he did in 13.175 seconds, a whole .003 seconds behind Dylan Larkin’s record time of 13.172 seconds he set in 2016.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.