Mat Barzal has been Canada’s best player in the 2017 World Junior tournament, and it hasn’t really been close. The 2015 1st pick of the New York Islanders has been an offensive threat every shift, wrecking havoc on teams. Barzal will undoubtedly be an NHL player, and I’d be willing to bet, a darn good one. In his draft year, he possessed one of the highest offensive skill sets, along with McDavid and Marner (both in the NHL). One of the differences between a good player and a great player is the ability to make his teammates better. Barzal, does that, in spades. Here’s how:
Speed Through the Zones
Barzal carries incredible speed through the zones. Watch how he uses crossovers and powerful acceleration strides to effectively move through the zones. Once he hits the offensive zone, he uses his agility to stop & create a chance on goal.
He gives the puck to Chabot in the defensive zone, and immediately accelerates, making himself a viable target for a pass in the neutral zone. When Chabot continues with the puck, Barzal hits the line at full speed, causing the Russian defender to back off. The defender has to respect Chabot, and Barzal uses his speed to create a passing lane. Barzal’s speed and agility creates a 2 on 1 with Raddysh. The Russian defender takes away the passing lane, but Barzal stops quickly and drives the puck to the net. All of this was created by the give & go in the defensive zone, the quick acceleration through the neutral zone and the passing lane he creates by attacking the line with speed.
Creating Space on Zone Entries
Earlier I mentioned that great players create space for their teammates. One of Barzal’s best skills is his ability to gain the offensive zone and create opportunities for his team. This is something that Patrick Kane is well known for, as he will drive into the zone, curl towards the boards and create.
Again, Barzal uses his speed through the neutral zone (4 strides) to back the defenders off. All 4 defenders continue to back in as Barzal gains the zone. With great edge work, Barzal stops up giving the far-side winger (Raddysh) enough time to get to boards. Using the space he’s created & with all eyes him, Barzal rings the puck around Raddysh below the goal line. The defenders do not have time to reset, the puck is moved from low to high in the slot to Joseph (11), and a quality scoring chance generated.
The attack the line with speed & pull-up technique is used on the power play by many NHL teams. The man advantage forces teams to back off the attacking player. However, for a player to do this consistently at even strength, takes an elite skill set. In doing this, Barzal creates space for himself & teammates that leads to a quality scoring chance for his team. On that zone entry, Barzal created a chance for Joseph, but earlier in the period, he created one for himself.
Barzal attacks the line with speed, forcing the Slovaks to close in on him. His speed causes the 2 D-men to back in way too far, leaving the Canadian players unmarked. Barzal effectively spins off his defender on the wall, and uses a pass fake across to create 4ft of space. With that space, he makes a right turn to protect the puck. The streaking Canadian forward draws one defender, and Barzal uses the space he’s created to drive down the wall. Normally, Barzal would drove to the net or behind it. However, he loses balance and makes a great backhand pass from his knees to Raddysh, in front.
Two separate plays, both resulting in a Canadian chance. The plays are very different, as Barzal holds the puck on one entry, and creates space for himself using agility and puck skill. When Barzal entered the zone again, the Slovaks had to respect his skill & back off more to protect the lanes to the net. This allowed him to use the ring-around play, eventually leading to a chance off the low-high play.
Finding the Quiet Area & Quick Release
This play starts with another great zone entry (are you seeing a trend?). Barzal attacks the line with speed again & turns back towards the blue line. He protects the puck as he comes off the wall and makes a pass through the defender to create a scoring chance for his teammate. When the puck is recovered, Barzal covers for the pinching D, skates to a quiet area of the ice and creates an available passing lane. The puck moves from below the goal line to him in the high slot, and Barzal uses a quick release to score.
A couple of skills are on display here. The first, the skill on the controlled zone entry. The second, ability to find the quiet area once he moves the puck. A lot of NHLers get great scoring opportunities by finding “quiet” areas and creating passing lanes in the offensive zones. The third, his shot. Barzal receives and releases the puck in the same motion, very accurately, as the puck goes off the post and in. A shot like this will force defenders to respect it, meaning more space for his teammates. As defenders close on him, Barzal will be able to use his puck skill and passing to create quality chances for his teammates.
Using Puck Skill & Passing to Set Up Teammates
Apart from his speed through the zones, Barzal’s puck skill allows him to create many quality opportunities. His ability to protect the puck in tight areas or 1v1 situations is one of the best in his draft class.
Barzal picks up the puck, recognizes there is no clear lane to the net, and turns towards the blue line. He makes a quick through the stick maneuver to get the puck to his backhand and as a right-handed shot, moving right to left, he is able to use his lower body to shield the puck from the defender. The puck handle allows the play to stay onside, an elite play with great poise. As he drags the puck down to the circle, both defenders follow him, one falls trying to regain position & Barzal puts the puck to an area for Chabot to drag and shoot. Raddysh is in front, available to screen & tip.
An area where puck protection and passing is particularly important is the power play. Canada’s PP scored 3 times against Russia, and Brazil was an integral part of its success.
Barzal recovers the puck & moves it back to Chabot. Barzal positions his feet & stick for a one-timer, throwing off the Russia PK. Once Barzal gets the puck, he makes a quick studded step, freezing the top 2 Russians. Strome (19)sneaks down the side & Barzal feeds the puck through 3 players on the tee for Strome, who is able to one-time it to the back of the net. The little studder handle allows Barzal to find a passing lane to Strome, instead of firing the puck through defenders on the first opportunity.
Canada, on the PP again vs. Slovakia, nearly converts on another Barzal to Strome chance. This time, Barzal gains the zone with control, uses his puck skill to back the defenders off and spins to the far wall. Strome, very quietly sneaks down the wall unnoticed by the Slovaks. However, watch as Barzal turns: he sees Strome going down the wall and intensifies him as a threat. The spin gives Barzal the space he needs to read the play, and find the passing lane. He fakes the shot, freezing the goaltender, leaving Strome a yawning cage. While Canada didn’t convert, the combination of zone entry, identification of passing lane, shot fake, and pass makes Barzal very dangerous.
What it Means
Barzal’s combination of speed, puck skill and ability to create open space and chances for his teammates makes him a very dangerous offensive threat. He is particularly good at settling the play down once the zone has been gained and creating an opportunity, for himself or his teammates. His speed will allow him to generate off the rush, while his puck skill will make him very difficult to deal with for defenders. Barzal should be a legitimate top 6 forward in the NHL, and if you can find him wingers who retrieve pucks and can finish, that has the makings of a dangerous line. His zone entries will make him a PP stalwart, and expect him to create chances off of them, similar to that of Patrick Kane & Johnny Gaudreau. Barzal has plenty of high end tools in his toolbox; the Islanders have a really good one in their ranks, and it won’t be long before he’s up making an impact, either.