Mathew Barzal signed an eight-year contract in the offseason and the expectation from general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello and the New York Islanders was for him to take a step forward and become a star. In his first year after signing the extension, he has continued to play at a high level but in an unconventional and unusual way.
To say that Barzal is having an odd season is an understatement. Through 17 games, he’s had 18 assists, making him a point-per-game player – but he is putting up this point production without scoring a goal. How unusual is this? Looking at the history of the NHL, few forwards have added 20 assists to their offense without scoring a goal. The last one to do so was Martin Erat in 2013-14 but it took him 50 games while Barzal is on pace to pass the 20-assist mark this week.
Diving deeper, in an 82-game season, Barzal could put himself in a rare category if he continues on this trajectory. Since 2000, there have been only two forwards that have distributed 50 assists or more in a season without scoring 10 goals, Jozef Stümpel in 2001-02 and Jakub Voracek in 2020-21.
This has left fans and the league overall, curious about Barzal. What is going on? Is he having a good season? What does this mean for the Islanders if he continues to be a playmaker but not a goal-scorer? The team is off to a great start this season, and their best player will have a lot to do with whether it can and will sustain success for the rest of the season.
Why Barzal Is Having This Type of Season
The line combinations play a significant role in the season Barzal is having. For most of it, the Islanders have played Oliver Wahlstrom on his wing and occasionally, have moved Kyle Palmieri or Zach Parise to his line as well. All three skaters are instinctive goal scorers with Wahlstrom notably using his effective shot to score five goals in 16 games played. Granted Josh Bailey has also seen significant time on the Barzal-led line and he is a pass-first player rather than a pure goal scorer. However, even Bailey has taken on more of a shooting role with three goals and only two assists.
Ultimately, his linemates have made Barzal the primary facilitator and an active passer in the offensive zone rather than a shoot-first player. It’s one of the reasons fans understandably were frustrated with the quiet offseason the Islanders had. They entered the summer with high hopes and the cap space to make a splash but failed to sign Johnny Gaudreau, who went to the Columbus Blue Jackets, or Nazem Kadri who signed a seven-year deal with the Calgary Flames late in the offseason.
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While Gaudreau wouldn’t have made Barzal a scorer, he would have added more firepower to the top line and complemented his overall production. Kadri, who has seven goals and seven assists with the Flames this season, would have made him a better goal scorer as he would center his line and provide open shots for Barzal on the wing. Both players would have come with a cost and it’s unclear if they would have made the Islanders better, but they both at minimum would have allowed one of their best players to have a more well-rounded season.
Aside from his linemates, Barzal has changed his mindset and style of play this season. He isn’t looking to find the back of the net rather, he’s looking for the open skater in the offensive zone and has mastered his passing ability as a result. Likewise, when he takes his shots, he’s often missing the target. His 44 shots on goal are the fourth-most on the roster but often they hit the goaltender and fail to find the back of the net, something that hasn’t been seen from the otherwise effective shooting center in the past. The combination has fueled more confidence in his passing ability and less in his shot, which has furthered his unusual season so far.
Is Barzal Having a Good Season?
In a way, this could be a career year for Barzal. He’s on pace to lead the league in assists and break his career highs in both assists (63) and points (85), both of which came in his rookie season when he won the Calder Trophy. Likewise, he can be the first player in Islanders history to record 80 assists in a season since Mike Bossy in 1981-82, and possibly shatter the franchise record set by Bryan Trottier in 1978-79, who had 87 assists that year. This might be wishful thinking, but Barzal is having a remarkable year as a facilitator for the offense. That being said, he eventually needs to start finding the back of the net for this season to be iconic and a historic one in Islanders’ history, rather than just a weird one that joins the list of unusual NHL records.
Assists are hockey’s unreliable narrator as a misleading or incomplete stat for measuring a player’s offensive production. Specifically, a player with a minimal number of goals but a surplus of assists might be more indicative of the supporting cast rather than the individual player. Aside from the statistical question mark, Barzal ultimately needs to become a more well-rounded player to allow the Islanders to maintain a potent offense, which is averaging 3.35 goals per game. If defenses aren’t respecting his shot or ability to put the puck into the back of the net, they can easily figure out the offense, especially when he is on the ice.
While the forecast looks grim if he can’t improve as a scorer, Barzal as a playmaker is what this offense needs. Brock Nelson is a complete forward who can both find the back of the net and create scoring chances but otherwise, the forward unit is filled with instinctive goal-scorers. Against the Flames, the Islanders overcame a 3-1 deficit largely because of Barzal’s ability to find open skaters, as his three-assist game helped lead the team to a 4-3 overtime victory.
The offense needs a player that can create scoring chances, and Barzal as a passer has been just that. His 0.9 offensive point share is fourth-most on the team while his 18 points are tied with Nelson for the most on the Islanders. The bottom line is that if the wins keep piling up it doesn’t matter how everyone is contributing, even if they are in unconventional ways.
What Does This Season Mean for Barzal & the Islanders?
If Barzal remains the primary playmaker for his line and the offense, he’ll continue to provide unprecedented value for the Islanders who look like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference to start the season. However, his style of play becomes problematic if opponents view him as a one-trick pony, someone who can’t beat them in a variety of ways. Teams that lack versatility in their offense are often the ones that are figured out, and the Islanders are one of the teams that might be off to a great start but could see a decline once teams adjust.
For head coach Lane Lambert and the Islanders, it’s about putting Barzal in situations to succeed but also allowing the offense to remain unpredictable and potent to play against. One way to do this is by putting him on a line with another distributor or having him play a different role on the power play, allowing him to shoot the puck more often. Similarly, Lambert can and should allow his top-line center to thrive as a pass-first player if defenses can’t stop it, and playing on the same line as the team’s best goal scorers would be the optimal approach with that in mind.
If Barzal remains the same type of player and the team is good but not great, it would make the trade deadline pivotal for the Islanders. Adding a forward will not only become crucial for his production but also for the Islanders, who will be looking for one piece to put them over the top. A lot can change from now until the deadline, but some teams that might look to rebuild are the Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues – and all three teams have forwards that can help the Islanders this season.
The Islanders are looking to compete for the Stanley Cup, and with an 11-6 record they have proven they can put together a remarkable season. A lot of the success, especially in the playoffs, will depend on Barzal’s production. The start of the season has been weird for him but effective regardless. However, how things play out as the season progresses will be pivotal as his style of play will either help or hurt the Islanders in their pursuit of a playoff spot.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.