“Go get it.” Without context those three words can mean so many different things. When Adam Pelech launched a puck towards the middle of the ice, those words came to embody the season that Mat Barzal is having so far.
During his first two seasons, Barzal was best defined as a playmaker. His speed and agility allowed him to create time and space for himself and teammates. He could stop on a dime, break a defender’s ankles and send the puck to a player wide open in the slot. Or, he could skate laps around the offensive zone and dizzy defenders until they lose all spacial awareness. These and other attributes led to 107 assists coming into 2019-2020.
Although much less common than assists, Barzal displayed his creativity with the way he scored goals as well. His soft hands allowed him to deke around defenders and goalies, opening up many places for him to shoot. He is also very patient around the net, a sign of maturity in a young player. He had 40 goals coming into this season.
However, this year has brought a change for the dynamic center. Barzal currently is on a nearly point-per-game pace. These statistics are nearly split between goals and assists. Last Saturday night, Barzal showcased the changes that helped cement his status as a top-line center in the NHL.
Just over a minute into the game, Barzal led a three on two rush with line mates Anders Lee and Josh Bailey. He raced to the left circle and stopped quickly, allowing his teammates to catch up. He zipped a pass directly to Bailey, who bumped it to the middle for Anders Lee’s sixth goal of the season.
On the play, Mat Barzal demonstrated his ability to drastically decrease his speed while handling the puck. He also was able to send a pass across the ice through multiple defenders sticks. The timing couldn’t be better. This was vintage Barzal, but he had more to show throughout the evening.
At multiple points during the game, the crowed marvelled at Barzal’s ability to stop and start while skating in circles. I could remember at least three times where he was able to use his elite footwork to fool defenders and create scoring opportunities.
His best display of skating came on an Adam Pelech pass. The puck was floating in the air. Barzal saw it and hopped on his horse, racing for the offensive zone. He started behind the defender. By the time the puck was on his stick, he was a yard ahead of him. Barzal was protected the puck at high speed creating separation between himself and the defender. Then, only feet from the goalie, elevated the puck into the roof of the net. It was Barzal’s 10th goal of the season, and it sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Barzal has shown that playmaking is not his only weapon. He is a terrific shooter too, and he has the goals to prove it. As Barzal’s game becomes more dynamic, he becomes harder to defend. Butch Goring mentioned on a broadcast that defenders have more trouble with dynamic forwards because they can’t be sure if they will pass or shoot.
If Mat Barzal continues on this trajectory, he will solidify his role as a first line center. His style of play is similar to both Connor McDavid’s and Sindey Crosby’s. His scoring output will have to improve to elevate him to that status, but is certainly one of the best forwards in the game today. The Islanders are lucky to have such a talent, and fans are luckier to watch him grow every single game.