Islanders: Analyzing Mathew Barzal’s Evolving Play-Style

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - MARCH 06: Mathew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders scores at 3:51 of the second period against Carter Hutton #40 of the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Coliseum on March 06, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - MARCH 06: Mathew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders scores at 3:51 of the second period against Carter Hutton #40 of the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Coliseum on March 06, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Shortly after the New York Islanders defeated the Buffalo Sabres by a score of 5-2 on Sunday, NBC’s coverage of NHL hockey shifted to Chicago for a Central Division matchup between the Blackhawks and Lightning.

Being as it was “Hockey Day in America”, NBC rolled a feature about Patrick Kane, the undisputed face of U.S.A. Hockey for the last decade. Three current NHL’ers appeared in the Kane feature: Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, and Dylan Larkin. Three American forwards who watched and molded their games after Kane’s in their formative years.

Mathew Barzal also grew up idolizing Kane. Back in his Calder Trophy-winning rookie season of 2017-18, Barzal remarked he couldn’t believe Kane even knew his name.

Of all the players who grew up dreaming of playing like Kane, Barzal might just be the closest to mirroring 88’s play. Through his first few NHL seasons he’s just been missing that goal-scorer’s instinct that Kane has brought for years now. But, is that changing? Is Barzal adding a goal-scoring element to his game? The numbers seem to indicate that he is. Not to mention Saturday’s ridiculous through-the-legs tally.

Barzal Evolving: The Islanders 1C’s Shifting Play-Style

Patrick Kane didn’t enter the NHL as a major goal-scoring threat at the pro level. Kane scored only 21 goals in his 2007-08 rookie campaign. It took him three seasons to score 30, and he wouldn’t hit that mark again until 2015-16 thanks to the 2012-13 NHL lockout that cut that season nearly in half.

Barzal recorded 22 goals in his 2017-18 rookie campaign, and likely would’ve had at least that last season too if the Coronavirus pandemic hadn’t cut the Islanders regular season short by 14 games. He’s sitting on nine goals through 25 games in 2020-21, a 31-goal pace in a normal 82-game NHL regular season.

What is influencing this growth in Barzal’s game? There are two factors I want to talk about here, and we’ll go through them and their impacts individually.

The first is about quantity. Barzal is shooting more often. In fact, he’s shooting at a rate of 9.72 iFF/60 according to iFF/60 stands for Individual Fenwick For per 60 minutes, for those unaware that means Barzal is shooting at a rate of almost 10 unblocked shot attempts for every 60 minutes he plays at 5v5, the highest rate of his NHL career.

So we know he’s shooting more, but why is that? Well, one reason is because he’s carrying into or receiving the puck in high percentage areas. Barzal has recorded at least one shot attempt from the inner slot in every Islanders game dating back to February 8, according to Natural Stat Trick’s Individual Event Maps.

He’s a confident player right now, just look at that dazzling goal of the year candidate from Saturday’s game. That confidence could partially be enabling him to shoot more too.

Getting the puck in those areas doesn’t always mean a player shoots it, but Barzal has been shooting, and he’s been shooting from other areas too. We’ve seen him score off the rush, shoot from the circles. Generally speaking, Barzal is shooting more in all situations, but the effects at 5v5 have been most-noticeably improved.

The other factor at play when we look at Barzal’s 2020-21 goal-scoring is his elevated S%, or Shooting Percentage, in all situations. It currently sits at 13.6%, which isn’t super high, especially considering all the high-danger looks Barzy has gotten over the last month. But, it is elevated above his career average 11.6%.

An elevated shooting percentage can be an indicator of a player getting some puck luck, or having an unsustainable level of shooting success that is due for regression. The Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad shot at 19.7% in 2019-20, it was the first season he’d posted a S% higher than 13.3% and it was 7.1% higher than his current career average. It was his first 40-goal season.

Auston Matthews is shooting at 18.6% in 2020-21, which is high. But that isn’t necessarily indicative of luck or impending regression, because he has a career average S% of 15.9%. In this particular case, I’d say the shooting performance has more to do with an elite shot and strong shot selection, which we’ve seen from Matthews since his rookie season.

Judging Barzal’s shooting in this same way, it isn’t far-fetched to think he could maintain, or even improve his S% throughout the remainder of 2020-21. That becomes especially possible when we consider Barzal has scored only one power-play goal, and is undershooting his ixG on the man advantage.

We are seeing a shift in Mathew Barzal’s game as he evolves from more of a pure passer to a player confident enough in his shot to look off a teammate. We saw the same shift in Patrick Kane early in his NHL career.

And yes, one look at Kane’s Elite Prospects page can tell you he was a great shooter at every level he ever played at before reaching the NHL. But, once he got to the bigs it took him some time to adjust. He eventually did, and in doing so he didn’t necessarily become the league’s premier sniper, but he added another layer to his game that made him an even greater threat offensively.

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The numbers tell us Barzal is growing more confident and willing to use his shot too, and he’s finding the right places to do it from. The results, the best goal-scoring pace of his career, speak for themselves. Only time will tell if Barzal can consistently add that extra dimension to his game. But, if he can, wow is it gonna be fun to watch his prime seasons.