Mat Barzal moving to the wing was a topic of discussion this offseason, if the Islanders were to land Nazem Kadri.
Kadri joined the Calgary Flames instead, but that conversation is back.
Moving a player out of position is never ideal, but Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello isn’t concerned when moving a center around.
“We’ve got some versatility with our centers,” Lamoriello said. “But I’ve always said that if you had a choice of adding too many wings or too many centers, there’s not even a question of what the answer is.”
“Centers can always adapt, but wingers can’t adapt to center ice.”
NYI Hockey Now chatted with Jon Goyens, head coach of the Cape Breton Eagles (QMJHL) this past summer about what it takes for a player to switch positions, the importance of hockey parents not subjecting their children to just one forward position, and if Mat Barzal could benefit from a positional change.
There is this belief that players can play one forward position their whole life and then, at the NHL level, switch in a blink of an eye and still be as effective.
There are players that can certainly do it, but as Goyens points out, given his role in player development, the main issue begins at a young age.
“Stop pigeon-holing guys into one spot on the ice,” Goyens said. “Everybody always says, ‘Oh, my son’s a natural born center,’ and I always say, ‘Listen, I still consider myself a new dad. My son’s five and a half. Nowhere on his birth certificate was I able to check that box. I didn’t see it anywhere in any DNA report. So your son or daughter should be able to play the sport’.”
“And if they end up as a forward, left, right, middle, doesn’t matter what hand they shoot [with], as they move up the ranks, if they get into ‘elite hockey’ and then eventually pro hockey, you don’t want to be pigeon-holed because this conversation ends up happening way too often.”
There are players around the NHL that have played both the center position and the wing throughout their career and have not seen a drop-off in performance. Look no further than the two-time Stanley Cup champion and captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steven Stamkos.
“You look at Stamkos. [He’s] had the ability to play both, right? I think we need to see more players like that,” Goyens said.
Although face-off numbers aren’t everything, Mat Barzal has won just 35.9 percent of his draws, while Horvat has won 56 percent.
“A lot of times, as a centerman, the faceoff part is just a starting point, right? Because on back checks, again, depending on what your concepts and structure are as a team, whoever’s back first might have to play down low. That could be a left-wing or right-wing or all that type of stuff,” Goyens said. “I think if, and I’ll say this, if a player feels so much out of sorts because here he or she is going to be moved to the wing, then that might speak to maybe a lack of a willingness, hockey awareness.”
“And then you find people that are a little bit more rigid in their ways and not as adaptable as we maybe thought.”
On the Mathew Barzal front, Goyens believed that a positional move could greatly benefit Barzal’s production.
“The higher you are in our zone, the closer you are to their zone,” Goyens said. “You know if a d-man, if he’s up on the blue [line] or near his d-man…and he’s [Barzal] facing the other way, he’s [Barzal] facing the offensive zone and the defenseman is facing him, we’ll he’s [Barzal] is winning that race 10 out of 10, 12 out of 10.”
We’ve seen Barzal catch defenseman napping or just with his raw speed and shiftiness blow by the opposition. Flashback to his between-the-legs goal against the Buffalo Sabres, which came after he made a strong move around now-Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, as the perfect example of what Goyens just explained.
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“So I think it’ll [the position change] open Barzal up to be a little bit more selfish on rushes and maybe stop hesitating and peeling off,” Goyens said. “I think it’s going to put him in a situation to have more breakaways, more odd-man situations.”
Goyens brings up a critical point there.
On most rushes, Barzal does have a tendency to pull up along the boards and either hit the high guy coming in if it’s an odd-man rush or pass the puck back to his defenseman to start an offensive-zone cycle.
Or, as we see often, Barzal then uses his skating ability to circle the offensive zone before dishing the puck to a teammate or making a play toward goal.
Is it a lack of confidence in his shot, or is it the fact that he, given his game, just has a pass-first mentality?
We have seen Barzal shoot the puck, albeit not at a high rate in 2022-23, so it seems that it’s the latter.
In general, whether Barzal is on the wing or is playing center, he needs to elevate his shooting percentage, which sits at 9.7 percent, the second-lowest of his career if it stays like that.
Former head coach Barry Trotz, who was fired this past summer, tried to get Barzal to be more than just a playmaker. Despite only scoring 15 goals in 2021-22, a career-low, Barzal registered 161 shots on goal in 73 games (2.20 shots per game), which ranked third on the New York Islanders.
In 51 games in 2022-23, Barzal has 124 shots, averaging 2.43 per game.
Mat Barzal entered the break with just one goal over his last 11 games, with two points. NYI Hockey Now asked Lambert, following the Islanders 2-1 overtime win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Jan. 28, about what he liked from Barzal without the puck on his stick.
“I thought he competed hard,” Lambert said. “From my standpoint, he’s battling. When he doesn’t have the puck, he’s tracking pucks all the way back into our zone.”
“Those are positive signs. He continues to get better and better.”
Could the defensive responsibility of being a centerman, especially in a season where he is getting back and making plays without the puck, be impacting Mat Barzal’s offense?
“Playing that ‘200-foot’ game can sometimes take away from a guy like Barzal, with his abilities,” Goyens said. “And I’d like to see him have a shoot-first mentality more, especially on entries, and I think playing high up in the defensive zone will help them through that transition and be more of a threat off the rush.”
“Because again, I think sometimes, with his skill set, he’s limited himself because he’s always looking for that pass.”