Mat Barzal has been the offensive mainstay for the New York Islanders since his Calder Trophy-winning season in the 2017-2018 season, presented to the NHL’s top rookie. Barzal proved that his game is not only focused on offensive talent but that he can play the 200-foot defensive game with the help of his head coach, Barry Trotz. The 22-year-old Islanders’ center is undoubtedly the best forward, nonetheless player on the team, and he has proven this over the last three seasons, compiling 207 points in 234 games, and is widely regarded as one of the best young players in the NHL. He was near point-per-game in the 2019-2020 season, with 60 points in 68 games, even when playing with shuffled linemates for a portion of the season.
The expectations were soaring for Barzal for the 2019-2020 season, as he had just finished his first year under General Manager Lou Lamoriello, and new Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz. Both of them brought a defensive regime that was much needed for the Islanders, especially after a historically dreadful 2017-2018 season in which they allowed 296 goals, dead last in the NHL. He has proven that he can not only bring offense to the table, but he has shown that he can be one of the best defensive centers in the league with what he has learned over the last two seasons under Trotz’s defensive system. This was shown under the Islanders’ ten-game win streak, where Barzal played an important role to limit the opponents’ top scorers, which included Ryan O’Reilly, Nikita Kucherov, and Jonathan Huberdeau. His play contributed to the Islanders’ minuscule 1.70 goals-against average during the ten-game stretch.
As the Islanders were on fire during the first half of the season, Barzal was taking his offensive game to a new level we have not seen since the 2017-2018 season. He was ultimately rewarded for his marvelous two-way playing style, with his ice time emerging from 17:55 in the 2018-2019 season to 20:33 during the 2019-2020 season, prior to the NHL’s halt. Before the pause, Barzal had 60 points in 68 games. While he has found chemistry on the Islanders top line alongside Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle, he did not always find himself playing with consistent linemates, but he found a way to keep his game appreciable on a game to game basis, even when he was depended on heavily.
The dexterous center led all Islanders forwards in ice time with an imposing 20:03. As his game was developing and flourishing under Barry Trotz, he found success with Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee, cementing his spot with the trio on the team’s first line. Before the pause, Barzal was on pace to amass around 70-plus points, his highest since the 2017-2018 season. He is widely regarded as one of the best skaters in the NHL. Mat Barzal was Trotz’s most valuable forward during this season.
Even though Mat Barzal has been the most dynamic, creative player on the Islanders since his rookie campaign, he continued to struggle in the face-off circle, posting a 41.61% face-off percentage. He is known to be the center on the first line flanked by Eberle and Lee. However, most of the game nights end up having Lee center the line. This has hurt the team since December as the Islanders started the new year with a record of 10-13-7. The powerplay was losing faceoffs, which was often centered by Barzal even with the dilemma that his faceoff percentage was so low. This was one of the main reasons the Islanders traded for center Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline.
Another flaw in Barzal’s game is his poor discipline. He is on pace to have a career-high in PIM’s with 44 through 68 games. One example of his poor discipline was during a pivotal match for the Islanders, which as a result ended up in an overtime loss, and set the team back further from the playoff picture. Barzal, during a powerplay in the final frame of the game, received a four-minute double-minor at 19:36 of the third period, which ultimately ended the Islander powerplay, and carried over into overtime where Vincent Trocheck scored a power-play goal, his first as a Carolina Hurricane. This loss devastated the Islanders, who were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak.
During the Islanders game against their biggest rivals, the New York Rangers, Barzal was benched by Trotz during the third period for poor defensive play in a 4-2 win for the Islanders. According to Arthur Staple, “Trotz says Barzal benching was “100 percent” about putting individual play ahead of the team”. It is definitely crucial for a player and a coach to have a good relationship, especially with how talented Barzal is. He certainly has much to learn from the legendary coach, but hopefully Barzal does not take the punishment for bad actions, such as a benching, the wrong way.
Entering the Islanders 2019-2020 season, much was expected from Mat Barzal but not only offensively, but defensively. He had a slow start to the 2018-2019 season, with two goals in the opening 20 games, but he wasted no time to rack up the points at the beginning of the season. The skilled forward accumulated 22 points in the first 24 games, playing at a point-per-game pace. However, the numbers are definitely an understatement of what Barzal can actually accomplish, as he played tremendous in his defensive game this year. This year was a statement year for Barzal, who proved he can shut down any top player in the league at any given night.
The Moment of the Season:
In the nail-biting game against the defending Stanley Cup Champions St. Louis Blues, Barzal had the game-tying goal in the final seconds of the third period and assisted on Devon Toews’ overtime winner, which marked a two-goal comeback from the Islanders in the final six minutes of the third period. The first two periods of the game were brutal for the Islanders, who were coming off a 3-2 win against the Florida Panthers. They were not receiving any lucky bounces or quality scoring chances. As fans were leaving the building in the final five minutes, Brock Nelson set the stage for the Isles’ comeback. The momentum shifted in the Islanders’ favor, and in the last minute, Barzal took matters into his own hands, who earned the first star of the game.
Mat Barzal is the best player on the Islanders and it is not close. He is the star of the team and his grade reflects it. Hopefully, Lamoriello and the Islanders’ front office staff are able to lock Barzal up for the long-run this coming offseason.