How the Barzal-Eberle combo is setting the Islanders up for success

Islanders forward Matthew Barzal blew by Rick Nash and slipped it by Henrik Lundqvist for his first career NHL goal.

With one blockbuster trade made already this season, the rumour mill around the NHL will build up again, although it may be some time before we see another impactful move. But it’s never too early to start looking ahead, so who will be the next big domino to fall?

The most logical candidate for us to look at now is John Tavares, and his impending free agent status. As was the case with Steven Stamkos a few summers ago, it’s rare that a player of this caliber can potentially become available to the rest of the league.

Tavares is a star talent who tends to fly under the radar and get overlooked in conversations about the best players in the game. Maybe it’s because he’s not the flashiest player, or that he plays on New York’s less glamourous franchise. Eventually he’ll get mentioned in there, but he’s usually not the first player who comes to mind.

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The New York Islanders’ objective heading into this season was clearly defined and revolved entirely around Tavares. While they aren’t among the top contenders for the Stanley Cup, the Isles needed to give Tavares tangible proof the franchise is positioned as one that could have a chance while he’s still in his prime.

If they’re going to do that, they have to surround their superstar with the right cast of complementary players, which they’ve had a spotty record of in recent years. They certainly need some of their recent draft picks gathered from years of losing to realize their potential and become useful contributors.

This is what’s made Mathew Barzal’s development this season a godsend for the Islanders. He’s taken the league by storm after spending his two post-draft years in the WHL and getting a two-game taste of the NHL lasts season. While it’s wise to temper expectations for younger players, it’s hard to not let your imagination run wild watching Barzal play opposing defenders this season.

Those skills have made him a fixture atop the Islanders lineup, and left the team with no other choice but to hand him the keys to his own top-six line well ahead of schedule. After starting the campaign slowly going scoreless in his first five games, Barzal now has 17 points in his past 13. That tear has vaulted him directly into the Calder Trophy discussion alongside Clayton Keller, and has also put him on another list featuring the most efficient point producers the NHL has to offer right now:

Player Points Primary Points Points/Hour Primary Points/Hour
Nikita Kucherov 18 16 3.86 3.43
Jack Eichel 12 12 2.69 2.69
Auston Matthews 12 10 3.17 2.64
Nico Hischier 9 9 2.63 2.63
Jaden Schwartz 16 12 3.47 2.60
Mathew Barzal 10 9 2.85 2.57
Steven Stamkos 14 11 3.27 2.57
Sean Couturier 12 11 2.76 2.53
John Tavares 12 10 3.01 2.50
Taylor Hall 11 10 2.72 2.47
Alex Ovechkin 12 11 2.66 2.44
Patrick Kane 13 11 2.88 2.43

(via Corsica, during five-on-five situations, and updated prior to Thursday night’s slate of games)

The biggest beneficiary of Barzal’s sudden emergence as a devastating playmaker has been Jordan Eberle, who has been a spectacular fit next to him on the second line after a cameo on Tavares’ wing to start the year.

In one of the least surprising developments in recent memory, it turns out that Eberle’s uncharacteristic offensive struggles in Edmonton last season were a product of poor puck luck, and not a sign that he’d suddenly forgot how to play hockey.

While the reasons for highlighting Eberle as a bounceback candidate were rather obvious, it’s still truly remarkable how closely his season is mirroring his career averages prior to last year’s blip on the radar. From 2010 to 2016 Eberle averaged 28 goals per 82 games played, converting just north of 14 per cent of his shots into goals. This is nearly identical to the rate at which he’s chugging along at again now:

Season Goals/82 Games Shooting %
2010-2011 21.4 11.4
2011-2012 35.7 18.9
2012-2013 27.3 12.0
2013-2014 28.7 14.0
2014-2015 24.3 13.1
2015-2016 29.7 14.5
2016-2017 17.3 8.7
2017-2018 28.9 14.3

There’s actually a valuable takeaway to be gleaned from this beyond the ‘I told you so’ shot at the Edmonton Oilers. One of the most common pushbacks analysts get from readers is that the material with which we’re working is too superficial and barebones to accurately evaluate the moves teams are making — that teams are utilizing superior proprietary metrics to what’s floating around the public sphere to rationalize their decisions with information we don’t have access to.

While there certainly may be some merit to that in certain instances, there’s also something to be said for employing a sound understanding of basic hockey concepts such as shooting percentage and its variability from one year to the next.

As much as teams are getting smarter in their decision-making processes, it’s still far from infallible. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see teams still making the grave mistake of throwing money at a player who’s coming off a percentage-driven career year, nor would we see them cut bait on others who had unfortunately unlucky years.

The Oilers loss has been the Islanders gain here, with the latter taking advantage of the opportunity to buy Eberle stock when his value was as low as it was ever going to be. Him and Barzal have been dynamite together since being put together a couple of weeks ago. It’s still a relatively small sample, but in the ~86 minutes the two have played together at 5-on-5, the Islanders have controlled a sparkling 62.6 per cent of shot attempts, 64.6 per cent of the shots on goal, and have outscored opponents 6-1.

Most importantly, it’s finally given the Islanders a legitimate secondary scoring threat behind Tavares and his line. That kind of 1-2 punch is something the Isles have craved for much of Tavares’ time with the team, particularly since Frans Nielsen walked in free agency and left the team with a hole down the middle.

There’s still a number of other things for the Islanders to sort out before we have reason to start taking them seriously as a team that could not only make the playoffs, but actually do some damage there. Particularly given their surroundings in having to navigate their way through a brutally unforgiving Metropolitan Division.

But for the first time in a long time, there’s some substance to their team beneath their top line and a reason to get excited to watch them beyond just Tavares’ greatness. That not only increases their odds of making something out of this season, but also of getting to build something even greater around Tavares in the years to come.