Mathew Barzal is a Vancouver native who currently plays as a center for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. Standing at 6 feet and weighing just over 180 pounds, he has good size for his age, and will most likely gain a little more weight as he enters his 20s and becomes a full time NHL player. There is a very good chance that he does indeed become an NHL regular; he has been dominant so far in his career, and projects to go in the first round of this year's draft. Central Scouting has him as the 11th best North American skater entering this draft, while Future Considerations has him as the 9th best prospect available.
Of course, the New Jersey Devils have a pick better than #9 or #11. They have #6. So the question here is whether Barzal is good value at the 6th pick, whether the Devils should maybe look to trade back a few picks to grab him, or whether they should look to stay put and select one of the higher ranked forwards out there. Let's see.
Who is Mathew Barzal?
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Barzal has to date been an excellent all-around pivot. First and foremost, he is a playmaker. He consistently produces considerably more assists than he does goals, setting his teammates up for high percentage opportunities. This past season, he had only 12 goals, but had an impressive 45 assists in 44 games played for Seattle. Of those 45 assists, 26 were primary assists. The season prior he had 40 assists to go along with 14 goals in 59 games played. For that year, 24 were primary assists. Those are good numbers, and the fact that over 50% of his assists are primary is a good sign. It means that more often than not he is the one directly generating the offense.
Furthermore, while he has been a point-per-game player, Barzal also plays a two-way game, and is not afraid to get dirty in his own end to prevent goals. Although not the best indicator of this, his +/- has been positive in his two seasons in the WHL. Seattle was fairly good this year, going 38-25-4-5, good for 4th in their conference, and Barzal was a quality +13. He also had an even strength goals for percentage of 60% this season, which is excellent. It means that when he was out on the ice, 6 out of every 10 goals were scored by Seattle. Playing a solid two-way game helps boost ESGF%.
The possession numbers are harder to pin down, as CHLstats.com only keeps Fenwick Close stats for the entire team, not specific players. This season, the Thunderbirds were barely positive with a 50.417% Fenwick Close. Last season, however, they were definitively in the red at 47.13%. This can be seen both ways. On the negative side, Barzal may not be a driver of possession, as his team as a whole is not really driving possession forward. On the positive, Seattle progressed in a big way from last season to this one, and Barzal may have played an important part in that as a prominent center on the team. At the very least, I would say that he is most likely not a possession black hole, as two-way centers who generate offense tend to do at least fairly well with possession.
Finally, the scariest proposition about drafting Barzal has been his injury history. This season, he only played 44 out of 72 regular season games for Seattle. He missed a bunch of games due to a fractured kneecap. Last season, he played 59 out of a potential 72 games. That is a combined 41 missed games over the past two seasons, which is significant time missed. The hope obviously is that these injuries do not indicate Barzal is injury prone, just that he sustained some freak injuries in the tough WHL. But nonetheless, the injury concern is something that the Devils or any team will have to investigate before drafting him, and it could mean that he slips a little bit in the first round.
What Others Have Said About Barzal
Being a first round prospect, most scouts and analysts have had nothing but positive things to say about Mathew. At Elite Prospects, Rafik Soliman wrote:
"Mathew Barzal is an offensive forward with very good skating abilities. Has tremendous puck-handling and is poised with the puck, while looking for the perfect pass-option using his strong vision. Owns an excellent wrist shot with a remarkable release. Barzal reads the plays well, looking for interceptions and is not afraid to block shots, playing a reliable two-way game."
From a first round center, this is what you want to see. Excellent skater, passer, puck-handler, wrist shot, quick release, and plays a good defensive game to boot. What else is there to say? The only thing of note, in my opinion, is the fact that he looks for the perfect pass. While it did not matter this year as the Devils were bad, the previous two seasons saw the Devils look for the perfect pass too often instead of just throwing the puck on net. There were so many times on breakaways where people like Patrik Elias or Travis Zajac would make one pass too many, squandering a good chance. While New Jersey does need quality forwards of all kinds, the team especially needs scorers. Barzal has shown he can do that, but that he prefers to pass.
Hockey's Future has a decent recap of his career up to this point, with a paragraph detailing each year of his development that you can check out. In the talent analysis section, the website says:
"Barzal is definitely more of a playmaker than a goal scorer at this stage of his development, with his playmaking skills being high-end. Also at an elite level is his skating as Barzal has quickness and acceleration as good as any player in the 2015 draft pool... He is definitely a student of the game, and has a good on-ice hockey IQ. There is a lot to suggest that Barzal is a high-end prospect."
The one thing that Hockey's Future adds is the mention that Barzal has a high hockey IQ. I think that this is an important trait to have, especially for someone projected to be a top 6 center. He needs to be able to understand the game, and where his teammates will be on the ice and where the opposition will be. This will help him generate offense and make plays. Having top end speed also helps in this matter.
Future Considerations, who has Barzal as the 9th best incoming prospect, had this to say about the Canadian:
"A smart, creative player with a wide, strong, fluid stride...plays a 200-foot game...makes good decisions with the puck...has decent strength, and looks bigger than listed...shows flashes of dominating offensive skills, but need to do so with more consistency...not overly physical, but will engage in contact for the puck"
Again, basically all good things, and things that we have read already. The only area of concern that this website mentions is a little lack of consistency with his offensive production. That is something that could very well come with age, but if he continues to produce over a point per game, it becomes easier to accept some inconsistent play.
Over at the Hockey Writers, Shawn Reznik projects Barzal to go somewhere between picks 11 and 15, and says this about him:
"While many see Barzal as having a lot of offensive upside, I see him as a premier two-way center who can be used at equally on the powerplay, as well as the penalty kill. It's quite difficult to find players who are as gifted defensively as they are on the scoresheet."
This was just a short summary of what Reznik had to say. Check out the entire article if you have the time. I just thought it good to really highlight the fact that he plays a strong two-way game. I know many of you reading this will not be particularly excited about that as it brings to mind someone like Travis Zajac, but that is not the worst thing either. If Barzal turns out to have Zajac's two-way game plus the ability to produce a good amount of points, he would be a valuable commodity.
Given that Barzal is a Canadian and a first round prospect, there is a lot out there to digest if you are interested. Stanley Cup of Chowder did a prospect profile on him back in April. Defending Big D also did one recently. Plus, here is more from Dobber Sports, Last Word on Sports, and Draft Site (who predicts that he will be taken 8th overall by Columbus).
A Little Video
Again, given as Barzal is both Canadian and a first round prospect, there are way more videos available than if he were, say, a mid-round prospect from Scandinavia. The first one is solely a highlight video of him doing some pretty awesome things:
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The next video is also highlights, these coming from the U18 championships this past year. Mathew is #14 here. I really feel like these highlights showcase his playmaking ability as described above. In some plays he clearly holds the puck and looks to set up his teammates for the perfect goal instead of just firing away himself.
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More highlights still to come, this video looking at his first season with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Mathew wears #13 with Seattle.
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Here is something a little different. Instead of just looking at his goals and assists, this video tracks all of his shifts from a specific game. In this way, you can see how he plays on any given shift, not just one where he scores. This can give the viewer a better idea of how he likes to play. The game here is between Seattle and the Spokane Chiefs which took place on 10/24/14. Again, Barzal is #13, wearing the blue jersey.
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When I first began looking into Mathew Barzal, I figured that he would be a top flight prospect. However, given that almost everyone projects him to be taken after the Devils pick, I expected to write in my conclusion that I would not want him in a Devils uniform as that means either the Devils reached or they traded back. While I get the benefits of trading back a few picks in the first round (other picks later in draft), I want the Devils to take the best forward available at #6. The team needs it.
However, after doing all my research and writing this up, my conclusion is somewhat different. I think Barzal has a chance to be something special. He is extremely quick, intelligent, and plays well anywhere on the ice. He might not be projected to go as high as #6, but he could easily end up better than whomever the Devils do take at #6, provided that he can remain relatively healthy throughout his career.
The question, though, is whether or not he is a good fit for New Jersey. At first, I originally thought no, as the Devils desperately need goal scorers, not distributors, but I am not sold on that thought anymore. Barzal can score, and has the ability to pot 20+ goals. However, he finds it more productive on the ice to set up his teammates. At this point, the Devils honestly need everything. They need goal scorers, but they also need offensive playmakers, and Mathew is certainly that. He also plays center, a position of need. Yes right wing may be a bigger position of need, but who on the Devils is a top 6 pivot? Some will say Zajac, and I believe that to be true, but who else? Adam Henrique is listed as a center on the Devils website, but he plays well on the wing too, and regardless, I'm not sure I would bill him as a top line center. Patrik Elias is also billed as a center, but perhaps plays better on the wing. He is also 39 years old.
To this effect, I think Barzal would be a solid choice for New Jersey. He fills a huge need up the middle, especially if he becomes a top 6 center like he is projected to become. He also provides a great spark of offense while still maintaining defensive responsibility, something the Devils value. The problem arises with when to take him. The Devils have the #6 pick. If the projections are right, the Devils may be able to grab him a few picks later. Do they trade back a couple picks, get a little extra in return, and then take the Thunderbird? Is a trade like that even going to be available? Or do the Devils value him highly enough to just take him at #6? What if he is available at the 6th pick, but someone like Mitch Marner falls to them? How do you pass him up? I don't think you can. Therefore, I guess what I am saying is that I would be extremely pleased if the Devils take Barzal, but given the team's draft position versus Barzal's ranking and projection, I think that the odds are somewhat against New Jersey drafting him. I hope that I am wrong though, as Barzal would be a great pick.
Now that you have heard my opinion, what do you think about Barzal? Is he someone the Devils should be looking to take with the #6 pick? Or do you think that he is too much of a reach at that position? If so, do you think the Devils should look to trade back a few picks to grab him, or should they play it safe and take the best available forward on their board at #6? Does his injury history scare you away, or do you think that he is better than his projections but that his injury history makes him a better value pick? Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.