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Moving Barzal to the Wing? Coach Jon Goyens Weighs In

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Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
New York Islanders forward Mathew Barzal warming up before a game on Mar. 24 against the Detroit Red Wings at UBS Arena (Photo-via New York Islanders Instagram)

On Wednesday, NYI Hockey Now dove into head coach Lane Lambert’s potential positional decisions if and when Nazem Kadri joins the New York Islanders.

The two likely scenarios are that Brock Nelson or Mathew Barzal would be moved from center to the wing.

I threw out a Twitter poll on Wednesday to see which of the two the New York Islanders faithful would rather see switch positions.

Well, the results are in, and the winner was Mathew Barzal.

For those that chose Mathew Barzal, this story will back up your claim. For those that chose Brock Nelson, maybe this story will change your opinion–maybe not.

I chatted with Jon Goyens, head coach of the Cape Breton Eagles (QMJHL) 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 Mathew 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.

As for Nazem Kadri joining the New York Islanders and the positional realignment that will come with that move, Goyens explains how it’s not just one area of the game that changes for the player that’s moving positions.

“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 believes 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 Mathew 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.

“So I think it’ll [the position change] opens 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 so it seems that it’s the latter.

In general, whether Mathew Barzal is on the wing or is playing center, he needs to elevate his shooting percentage.

Former head coach Barry Trotz, who was fired earlier this 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.

The problem was his shooting percentage sat at just 9.3%, the lowest mark of Barzal’s career.

Could the defensive responsibility of being a centerman, especially in a season where the Islanders struggled to keep the puck out of the net, impact Barzal’s lack of offensive production?

“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.”

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