Hearing New York Islanders fans talk about Mathew Barzal, you’d think he is solely responsible for the Islanders getting shut out twice in Pittsburgh. Wait, what’s this? They didn’t get shut out? Well, certainly he’s the one responsible for the Islanders being down two games to nothing. Wait, they aren’t down 2-0? Let me get this straight….
The Islanders went into Pittsburgh and with their backup goalie beat the Pittsburgh Penguins? And then after Semyon Varlamov gave up one of the worst goals you’ll ever see, the Islanders rallied and almost won the 2nd game. Before we move on, Islander fans, do me a favor. Breathe. The Penguins are a good team – they are much improved over the version we saw two years ago. Did any of us expect to sweep them? …. again?
Now, onto Barzal. Because this is a problem, but I’ll tell you why it’s not his fault. In fact, I’ll argue he’s playing exactly like Barry Trotz wants him to.
With Leo Komarov on Barzal’s wing, the Isles “first” line has essentially become their 3rd line. Opposing defenses can focus on Barzal and make it extremely difficult for them to produce offensively. It’s incredibly difficult to score goals in the NHL playoffs and nearly impossible if you put a 4th liner on the first line. I’m just not sure what Islander fans expect.
Imagine you’re the Penguins coaches and you remember this play…
Barzal is the only player on the Islanders who can beat you on his own. But, if Islander fans expect this from him on a nightly basis, he’s going to disappoint. I’ll go one step further. I think having Komarov on Barzal’s line is dangerous to his development. To his credit, he’s handled it very well, but there’s got to be a temptation for him to try and do too much on his own and not use his teammates. This is what ridiculously talented teenagers do and it works because they’re so much better than everyone else, but this doesn’t work in the NHL (especially in the playoffs) – If you want to have success, you need to use your teammates.
Look at all the other top centers in the league – who are on their wings? I’m not going to sit here and tell you Barzal is Nathan Mackinnon, but Mackinnon gets to play with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. If we want to see Barzal fulfill his potential, he can’t play exclusively with Komarov.
This is not meant to be a “Let’s bash Leo” article – Leo has been fantastic. His penalty killing, tenacity, and defense have made us forget about his 3 million dollar salary (for now) … That said, he has his limitations offensively. Leo has one goal. One.
If you’re putting together a game plan to play against the Islanders, specifically Barzal, Trotz has made it too easy. Mark/focus on Barzal 1st, 2nd, and maybe Eberle a little – but no need to worry about Leo because he’s not the type of player you need to worry about.
Let me use a football analogy. Bill Belichick was so good at not letting the opposing team’s best player beat them. If you were going to beat the Patriots, it wasn’t going to be (fill in the blank) …. We see NFL coaches move their best pass-rusher around to avoid double teams, move their best wide receiver around to avoid a specific cornerback – while that exact analogy doesn’t work for hockey, I do think there are things Trotz can do to get Barzal going.
And let’s make no mistake. He needs to. I think the Islanders will beat Pittsburgh regardless, but their ceiling is quite low unless one of the best playmakers in the NHL is making plays.
How do we do this?
First off, let’s play him more…. Barzal is averaging 19:19 of time on the ice in the playoffs. In contrast – he played 20:16 per game last season. (He had 17 points in 22 playoff games last year) Not only is this not enough time on the ice for the Islanders best offensive weapon, but most of this time is with Leo on his wing.
Almost all the top playmakers in the gameplay over 20 minutes a game (and none of them have a 4th liner on their wing) Barzal is a horse. He’s got lungs for days…
If Trotz is going play to him with Leo, you need to ALSO use him in other ways and get him on the ice when he can utilize his unique skill set and his teammates can capitalize on them. Give him players who he can pass, players who can finish, players that demand the opposing team’s attention so they can’t focus entirely on Barzal.
When the Islanders have an offensive-zone faceoff, why not double shift Barzal occasionally with the Nelson and Pageau line?
On the much-maligned power play, Barzal needs to be on the ice for as much of it as possible. Haven’t we all seen enough of the Nick Leddy to Josh Bailey to Leddy paddy cake passing display? What I’m proposing will give Trotz agita, but he needs to start trusting the kids more if this team is going to reach its potential.
Put Barzal in the QB spot. Let him run the PP from up top. There have been many examples of successful power plays where a forward was up top running the show. Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim did this for years. To those of you who argue that Barzal would be a defensive liability up top, I can understand your concern, but I’ll point to Quinn Hughes who is masterful at QB’ing the PP and can’t play a lick of defense.
I’ll use a sports analogy again – think of Barzal like a point guard in basketball. Up top with all of his options available. With his ability to penetrate and pass, he’d give the opposing team’s fits. Put Kyle Palmieri, Oliver Wahlstrom, and maybe Ryan Pulock in the ‘Ovi’ spot for one-timers. Lefty-shots, Anthony Beauvillier, and Nelson would be on the other side ready for their one-timers. Barzal is the guy who can give the perfect pass. If opposing teams take that away, Barzal can find Pageau or Eberle down low. With his ability to penetrate and dish like a point guard, he could be really effective on the power play.
This is from the last game of the season and it was a 4 on 3 PP, but you can get a glimpse into what I’m thinking. Notice how Barzal rotates up top, and immediately pressures the penalty killers forcing them to focus on him. He does what he does best, creating space and finding an open man. This time it’s a Wahlstrom one-timer.
The Islanders have an elite player in Mathew Barzal – we’ve all seen it. It’s time for Barry Trotz to start using him like one.
Follow David on Twitter @Tuckonsports