New York Islanders’ centerman Mat Barzal is one of the best skaters and puck handlers in the entire National Hockey League.
But what has limited Mat Barzal’s ability to gain superstar status is that he is has been more of a one-dimensional player. Over his short stint in the NHL, he has been hesitant to shoot the puck and, at times, holds onto the puck too long before dishing it off.
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After signing his three-year, $21 million extension six days ago, the 23-year old said he was looking to take his game to the next level. Head Coach Barry Trotz followed up by saying that he would do all he could to get the best out of his top player each night.
What we saw from Barzal in the season-opening 4-0 victory over the New York Rangers is the type of play that will get him to superstar status if he can consistently play to that level.
Whether he was drawing penalties, scoring highlight-reel goals, or picking pockets, he was just brilliant.
A dynamic puck-handler, Barzal has had a history of making magical plays, so it does not come as much of a shock anymore when he does something like this:
But, over his tenure, we have become accustomed to seeing him turn the puck over, resulting in penalties. In 68 contests last season, he turned the puck over 103 times, which calculates out to 1.5 giveaways per game. On the flip side, he recorded 70 takeaways in those 68 games (1.03 per game). With 44 penalty minutes last season, he would have broken his career-high (46 PIM) if the team was able to play their last 12 games.
And yes, while Barzal did find himself in the box last night for high-sticking, he indeed made up for it. He drew two penalties, failing to commit even a single turnover.
More importantly, his feet were moving when he did not have the puck on his stick, leading to a beautiful steal and a glorious scoring opportunity.
Last year, the emphasis was on Mat Barzal shooting the puck more, as he was becoming too predictable in the offensive zone. He very rarely reared away from his script, making a few moves before dishing the puck off. The shots last year were coming at a higher rate, and if the regular season continued, Barzal would have set a new career-high in shots and potentially goals.
With 171 shots in 68 games (2.5 per game), Barzal was on pace to record over 200 shots (~206) in a season for the first time in his four-year career. Based on his shooting percentage last year of 11.1%, he would have come extremely close to matching the 22 goals he scored in his Calder- winning season.
In this first game, Barzal shot the puck five times. Even with the extra minutes due to the abundance of power-play opportunities (7:44 PP TOI), all of his five shots came via five-on-five play. That is something the team needs to see more often because it keeps the opposing defensemen guessing.
In his 20:32 minutes of ice time, Barzal put up a CF% of 70.0, which goes to show just how his night went last night. A player is deemed elite with a number close to 60%. Again, just one game, but something to keep an eye on.
This stellar opening night performance came against a New York Rangers team that just was all out of sorts. But Mat Barzal took advantage and made them pay, and that’s the hallmark of a true elite player in the NHL.