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NHL on NBCSN: Mathew Barzal is heating up, and so are Islanders

Wayne Gretzky recalls his time with Doc Emrick and how he made each player and team a priority through his welcoming personality and interactions. Doc Emrick: The Voice of Hockey debuts on Feb. 21 at 5 p.m. on NBC.

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Heading into Monday’s game against the Sabres, Mathew Barzal and the Islanders have been really heating up. Maybe most importantly, it seems like they’re doing so in a way that keeps Barry Trotz happy.

With a 4-2 win against the Bruins, the Islanders pushed their current point streak to six games (3-0-3). They seemed to do it the “right way” too; so to speak. Barry Trotz labeled the win as “an Islanders-style playoff game.”

When one envisions how the Isles might win playoff games, they indeed might picture this. The Islanders pulled off some smothering defense, while Mathew Barzal put an exclamation point on a career-best eight-game point streak (4G, 6A for 10 points) with a pretty game-winner.

For the Islanders, the dream is to strike the right balance between stingy defense and Barzal’s scoring. From the sound of things, they’ve been striking that balance more often than not lately.

Trotz, Islanders happy with Barzal’s maturation

As crucial as it is to score, Trotz demands a lot from all Islanders players, so it’s not surprising that Barzal gets his greatest praise for some of the smaller things.

“Mathew’s one of those guys, the really high skilled guys with that tremendous speed like (Nathan) Mackinnon, (Connor) McDavid. When they give it up and get it back, they’re almost unstoppable.” Trotz said earlier in February, via Arthur Staple of the Athletic (sub required). “That’s where Mathew’s game has grown the most. And he’ll still take you on one-on-one. That’s the biggest growth, the offensive stuff without the puck.”

No doubt about it, Barzal’s been one of the leading puck-toters in the NHL. Via The Point Hockey, Barzal led the NHL in offensive zone time with the puck per game (1:19) and only trailed Connor McDavid (527) in zone entries (512) last season.


It’s fair to ask just how much the Islanders should ask Barzal to change that about his game.

On one hand, you’d want the puck on his stick more often than not. He’s one of the game’s most brilliant playmakers, and can boost others thanks to all of the attention he receives.

On the other hand, as great a shooter as Barzal is, he does lean toward passing. If he’s burning all of that time and energy looking for passing opportunities, then maybe it makes things too predictable. Perhaps it buys time for defenses to close in on Barzal, and those who could pose one-timer threats?

By the underlying numbers, bigger-picture parts of Barzal’s game haven’t changed that much during this young Islanders season.

Luckily, that’s good news. So far, in 2020-21, Barzal continues to create more offense than he allows. Consider his mostly positive RAPM chart, via Evolving Hockey:


Compare that with a broader look at his previous three seasons, and you’ll see that Barzal’s brought far more to the table on offense than he’s taken away on defense for quite some time:


Aside from hoping that Barzal’s power-play chances pick back up, the Islanders’ main message should probably be to ask the young star to keep doing what he’s been doing.

[2020-21 NHL on NBC TV SCHEDULE]

Still, even if the actual difference is subtle, it’s really most important that Trotz is pleased with Barzal’s progress. Whether it might be mostly stylistic, or if Barzal’s play away from the puck has truly become that much more dynamic.

Really, whatever keeps Barzal from getting benched like other dynamic players. Frankly, it’s likely never been easy for the Islanders to justify benching Barzal, but it’s only becoming less fathomable as he continues to solidify himself as a no-brainer NHL star.

NBC Sports will premiere Doc Emrick – The Voice of Hockey, Presented by Discover – detailing the illustrious career of U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member and eight-time Sports Emmy Award winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick – on Sunday, February 21 at 2 p.m. ET on NBC, leading into coverage of the NHL outdoor game at Lake Tahoe featuring the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.