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Mat Barzal: Trying To Get ‘Closer To The Net’, an Essential Adjustment

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New York Islanders, Mathew Barzal

There’s no question that if the New York Islanders’ offense is going to have more success this upcoming season, Mathew Barzal is going to need to be heavily involved.

Fresh off an eight-year extension, Mathew Barzal is undoubtedly the face of the New York Islanders franchise. Barzal’s strongest asset is his passing ability, and the New York Islanders are hoping that in a normal season, Zach Parise and Kyle Palmieri can get off to a strong start offensively and finish off the plays that Barzal will create on a nightly basis.

Although Barzal should not be relied upon to score thirty goals, in a new system under head coach Lane Lambert, we should see an uptick in his offensive production, in terms of scoring chances.

On Saturday night, in the New York Islanders’ preseason finale 3-1 win over the New York Rangers, Mat Barzal received the puck down low in the Rangers zone from Josh Bailey towards the left face-off circle end boards.

Rather than turn left towards the boards and pass the puck back to the point, which Barzal does more often than not, he went a different route. He used his sharp edges and peeled around the face-off dot towards the slot before he ripped a shot high bar-down glove side to beat Igor Shesterkin.

 

In that situation, with two Rangers collapsing in on him, Barzal was able to get a perfect shot on goal. And that is a play the New York Islanders would love to see more of this upcoming season.

“Well, we certainly are pushing, you know, we’re pushing for more shots,” Lane Lambert said postgame after I asked him about Barzal and his shooting. “You know, I thought we could have shot the puck a little more tonight. It was nice to see him [Barzal] shoot that puck, and obviously, you know, you see his edges. He’s tough to contain. So what I’m most happy about on that play was that he shot the puck.”

There was a chance for Barzal to get a strong shot on early in the second period, as again, he used those edges to escape the Rangers defenseman and had a prime shooting lane from inside the left circle. By the time he decided that shooting was the smarter decision in this situation, the Rangers’ defenseman was able to get his body in the shooting lane, and the chance went by the boards.

During the 2021-22 season, shooting the puck was not an issue for Mat Barzal.

He finished the season third on the team in the shot department, with 161 on the season, 2.21 shots per game. Over an 82-game span, as Barzal missed nine games with an ankle injury, he was on pace for 180 shots on goal, which would have been a career-high.

He did also miss 47 shots.

But again, it’s not the shot quantity that’s an issue, it’s the quality of the shots.

It’s about Barzal’s deciding when to shoot the puck and when to pass it off.

As a pass-first player, that’s Barzal’s bread and butter, and if he sees a teammate open, he usually finds a way to get the puck to them. But there are times when shooting the puck is the right decision rather than passing it, and that’s something that Barzal continues to work on.

At five-on-five play in 2021-22, Barzal created a team-high 58 individual high-danger chances, as well as a team-high 125 individual scoring chances. He finished with just 15 goals (along with 44 assists) in 73 games played. Although the lack of points on the season, 59, is not entirely his doing because players failed to bury the chances he created, Barzal has the ability and should have at least 20 to 25 goals this season, along with 50-plus assists.

Following Saturday’s win, Barzal was asked how he has been able to stay hot, with goals in two straight games. His answer is exactly what we had just discussed.

“I think just shooting. Yeah, just trying to get closer to the net,” Barzal said. “Trying to pick my spots a little better and lean into some shots.”

Every opponent in the NHL knows that Mat Barzal is a pass-first player and until Barzal shoots more in pass-option situations, that’s how they will play him. That being said, Barzal will be given a shooting lane or the time and space to create a shooting lane, as we saw on Saturday, and he has proven to have a  shot that can beat any netminder in the league.

Back in August, I spoke with Jon Goyens, the head coach of the Cape Breton Eagles (QMJHL), when there were talks about potentially moving Mat Barzal to the wing if a centerman was acquired in the offseason.

“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 during the interview.

Although this chat was about Barzal’s move to the wing, with Lane Lambert’s revamped, more aggressive system, what Goyens suggests should still hold true this upcoming season.

There’s no question Barzal needs to be more selfish with the puck and more determined to cut to the inside of the ice rather than to the boards. Lambert wants to see it, and Barzal understands that he can create more production that way, a need, especially on a New York Islanders team where the offense is the weakness.

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