The NHL’s New Puck Possession King

The NHL’s New Puck Possession King

Preaching puck possession is something you’ll hear a lot of coaches do. Easier said than done. It takes a high level of skill to play keep away from a bunch of NHL’ers in the attacking end. For the past couple of years, no player has done a better job of that than Patrick Kane. Not anymore.

In his rookie season, Mathew Barzal led the league in offensive zone puck possession – in total and per game.

Barzal had the puck on his stick for an average of 1:12 per game, narrowly edging out Kane for the league lead.

 

Kane led the league in 2016-17 (1:12) and in 2015-16 (1:08) thanks to his ability to dangle defenders foolish enough to challenge him one-on-one. However, last season Barzal burst onto the scene with an impressive display of elusiveness and edgework. 

A month into the season it was clear that  big things were coming from Barzal. After being held without a point in his first 5 games, Barzal finished the month of October with 7 points in 12 games. He also ranked top-10 in offensive zone puck possession and top-5 at even-strength. The other guys in that top 5? Artemi Panarin, Kane, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. That’s when I got the feeling bigger and better was coming quick for this kid.  (4:30 of video)

A couple of games later, Barzal put up 5 assists against the Avalanche. By the end of the calendar year, he was a shade under a point-per-game with 36 in 38. 

When the calendar flipped to 2018, Barzal continued his dominance, leading the league in assists with 40. In June, he was named Rookie of the Year after posting 85 points and finishing 14th in the overall point race.

Barzal’s ability to turn on a dime and explode out of those turns creates lanes for him to produce offence and played a significant role in his production. However, there are other elements of his game beyond what he does in the offensive zone that should have Islanders fans excited. 

Barzal’s high-end skating ability is also seen in his ability to transition the puck. 

Barzal led the league skating the puck out of the defensive zone….

….and ranked top 5 skating it into the offensive zone.

There are only a handful of players who have shown they can skate the puck and own it in the offensive zone at the rate Barzal did last season – they typically average a point per game or more, which Barzal did. 

Now, the million dollar question – With John Tavares out of the mix, can Barzal maintain this pace next season as the Islanders number one center, facing the toughest completion, night-in and night-out?

Of the Islanders 12 most used forwards last season, Tavares faced the toughest competition. There wasn’t a big gap in terms of strength of competition between Islanders forwards which indicates that Head Coach, Doug Weight was pretty comfortable rolling four lines. 

Barzal’s puck possession skills and skating ability are already elite. What he does in this sophomore season, with increased responsibility, will give us an indication if he’s ready to be anointed a top center in the NHL. The sky is the limit for Barzal and I’d be surprised if he’s anything less than terrific this season.

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)