Insights and Observations: Mathew Barzal's position switch is causing some growing pains

Most teams are desperate for a bonafide number one center, so the New York Islanders decision to move Barzal to the wing is quite perplexing.

Welcome to 5 insights and observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.

This week we look at the Islanders moving a franchise center to the wing, the Maple Leafs trading defense for offense, the Bruins replacing franchise icons, the Canucks building off of a strong finish to last season, and some high-profile benchings.

Barzal's position change is not seeing results

There are few archetypes across the NHL more difficult to find than a top-end first-line center. They are almost never available on the unrestricted free agent market, and if an opportunity to acquire one via trade does present itself, it usually costs an arm and a leg, even if it is worth it.

The draft is generally the best way to bring a top-line center into the fold. Last year, 16 of the top 20 scoring centers in the league played for the team that drafted them (the other four were Tage Thompson, Mika Zibanejad, J.T. Miller, and John Tavares; the NHL lists Joe Pavelski as a center but he’s not).

All that is to say, when you draft a top pivot and he emerges as a top-line player, plus you sign him to a long-term extension, your franchise should generally be feeling pretty happy with itself — which brings us to the peculiar case of Mathew Barzal.

Mathew Barzal's transition to the wing has been as perplexing as it has been rocky for the 26-year-old. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
Mathew Barzal's transition to the wing has been as perplexing as it has been rocky for the 26-year-old. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the first year of his eight-year, $73.25 million contract, Barzal has rather quietly been moved to the wing to play on a line with the recently acquired, and extended, Bo Horvat. To call this an oddity would be to understate just how infrequently we see teams make decisions like this. Teams rarely, if ever, take good centers and move them to the wing.

If anything, teams are more likely to try wingers at center and hope that it works, with recent examples like Sam Bennett coming to mind. When players are moved from center to the wing, it is usually as they begin to age, as has been the case for Claude Giroux, Jamie Benn, and the aforementioned Pavelski. You need young legs to play down the middle.

What we’re seeing with Barzal is bordering on unprecedented. He has struggled in the faceoff circle his entire career with a 42.3 win percentage and had his worst faceoff percentage of his career at a paltry 35.6 percent last season.

The question, however, is what’s ultimately best for him to succeed? Barzal’s game is centered on speed and puck possession, with his exceptional ability to hold onto the puck for long stretches and set up his teammates as his calling card. So far this season, he has the worst possession numbers of his career and isn't controlling the middle of the ice to drive play.

On the wing, he is more free to release and shoot, and in the early going he’s averaging 3.73 shots per game, way above his career average of 2.31. That's a positive, but the results just haven't been there for the 26-year-old, who has just two goals. Barzal has just one 20+ goal season — though he's paced to have a couple more than that had he stayed healthy — and hasn’t exactly proven that he’s a true goal scorer. What he has established is that he’s an elite playmaker, and having more space in the middle of the ice to make plays helps him facilitate.

It’s early, but the Islanders are 29th in the league in goals per game. That’s not specifically because Barzal is on the wing but it’s taking a player, who is almost certainly their best forward, and moving him off of his natural position at a prime age right as his big-money deal kicks in. It’s something we rarely see in the league and worth monitoring moving forward.

Maple Leafs trading defensive structure for offensive firepower

The summer of 2023 brought plenty of change for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kyle Dubas went without an extension, Brad Treliving was hired in a shocking turn, and proceeded to sign a collection of players in an attempt to change the complexion of the team and add "snot".

Players that had spent multiple seasons with the Maple Leafs like Alex Kerfoot, Justin Holl and Michael Bunting were not retained, as the team signed Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, Ryan Reaves and John Klingberg to try to add different dimensions to the team.

Some of the moves were understandable, in theory. Toronto has struggled to score during the postseason for several seasons now as playoff games get tighter and more structured. Over the past six years, the Maple Leafs have been eliminated four times in Game 7’s and a Game 5 do or die, and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have combined for two assists in those games. If that dynamic duo is shut down, there's little in the way of answers from the rest of the roster because of how much offense is concentrated in the top-6, with mostly checkers comprising the bottom of Toronto's lineup.

Kerfoot had 13 points in 30 playoff games with the Maple Leafs and was regularly in their top six. Bunting had five points in 13 games — as well as a suspension — largely playing on their top line. Before he was traded at the deadline, Pierre Engvall played parts of four seasons with the Maple Leafs and in 17 playoff games was goalless. It’s a long list with little in the way of production.

What those players did bring was a commitment to defense. The Maple Leafs were seventh in the league in goals against per game last season, allowing 2.68 per game. So far this season? They are 28th, giving up 3.62 per game, basically a full goal more.

Sheldon Keefe acknowledged as much after their most recent game against Ottawa.

“Some of it is individual. Some of it is collective within the structure. Some of it is just being committed to it. We sit here and celebrate guys who score big numbers and score a ton. We don’t talk enough about what we give up. That is the reality. We have to prioritize keeping the puck out of our net.”

In that game, Ottawa scored to make it 4-3 with over 7 minutes left in the game, and the very next shift the Maple Leafs dumped the puck in with all three forwards high. It took one breakout pass to spring a full-ice 3-on-2, which Ottawa easily converted on for the insurance marker.


The game is within reach and, quite frankly, Toronto should feel pretty decent about any game where they are within a goal with a chance to pull the goalie and load up with the extra man advantage.

Instead, they are just giving away goals and struggling to adjust to adding a number of players, which also includes rookie Matthew Knies, who prioritize scoring, while moving on several players who are good at checking. Their injuries on defense have also hurt, as has the play of John Klingberg, but this is a team built from the top down, and forwards are leaving a runaway for teams to attack them defensively.

Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle making post-Bergeron life easy for Boston

Usually, when you lose your top two centers, both of which are franchise icons and one of which is your captain, while refusing to actively replace either externally, your team is going to get worse.

That is unless you are the Boston Bruins. The primary reason for their success this season has been their elite goaltending duo, their talented team defense, and exceptional star-power headlined by one of the best defensemen in the league in Charlie McAvoy and the elite David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand upfront. Contributions from those areas were all to be reasonably expected though, as the main question heading into the season was what would happen down the middle in the absence of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

To this point, the play of Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle needs to be highlighted. Rookie Matthew Poitras is grabbing headlines, which are earned, but he is effectively their third-line center. Zacha and Coyle, meanwhile largely carrying the mail here, particularly the former, who is averaging 19:24 per game, which would shatter his previous career high of 17:09. We have referenced this before in this space, but his shot is lethal. Watch this goal from last month, as Zacha comes down the wing in overtime against the Panthers and blows this puck past Sergei Bobrovsky:

The 6’4, 2016 5th overall draft pick has taken a long time to develop since being drafted by the Devils, bouncing between center and wing and effectively becoming a checker and penalty-killing specialist at times. Zacha has found a home in Boston, however, and his offensive game has steadily been growing, with an increased workload following thereafter.

As for Charlie Coyle, he has always been a workhorse and his minutes are in line with his career averages. Where he has been impacted is covering up for some of the tough defensive minutes Patrice Bergeron soaked up. Last season, Bergeron took 586 faceoffs in the defensive zone (7th in the league) to Coyle’s 420, while this season, nobody in the league has taken more defensive zone faceoffs than Coyle.

On the season, Coyle has played with Trent Frederic more than any other forward, but he has been moved around a to with significant time alongside Brad Marchand as well. There may not be a team with a stronger "next man up" mentality than the Boston Bruins, and though most thought their luck would dry up when they said goodbye to two icons in the same summer, it’s business as usual in Beantown at the top of the standings.

Canucks building on a strong foundation laid last season

After the Vancouver Canucks hired Rick Tocchet in January, they went 20-12-4 with a .611 points percentage the rest of the way, good enough for 13th in the league at that time. Fans were upset as local Vancouver product Conor Bedard was the prize of the draft, and that hot stretch effectively ended any hope of winning the draft lottery.

The Canucks meanwhile hoped to set a standard and introduce some accountability to a team sorely lacking in that department. It was important to them to finish the season strong and set a foundation to hit the ground running this season. Culture matters and the Canucks leadership group stressed that immediately. Vancouver traded their old captain, then immediately named their top two young players, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, assistant captains. It was out with the old guard and in with the new.

Now, I’m not going to argue that decision is a better path than winning the Bedard lottery, but only one team ultimately walks away with the first overall pick. That’s no accident — banking on lottery luck is an extremely risky proposition and if you don’t win the top selection, then what?

Vancouver already has a collection of young top-end players at each position, and it's difficult to ask them to tank, with Pettersson in particular making some noise about wanting to win. In fact, the Canucks even bought at the deadline when they went out and acquired Filip Hronek from the Red Wings for two draft picks.

It's early, but so far they have carried that positive momentum from the end of last year onwards. There's understandably some skepticism to be had given the host of reasons why their hot start is unsustainable, but their top players are legitimate stars, they are engaged and they are driving this team to its exceptional start. Pettersson leads the league in scoring, Hughes is leading all defensemen in scoring and in net, and Thatcher Demko leads all goalies in save percentage. Hronek, meanwhile, leads the team in time on ice per game and has 16 assists in 15 games. So much of this start is a result of the foundation they laid halfway through last season when they were well out of the playoffs.

Benching your stars works, sometimes

There was something poetic about watching Johnny Gaudreau get benched for the final 16+ minutes of the third period just days before Jonathan Huberdeau was benched for the entire third period in his game.

Both players are, of course, forever linked due to a whirlwind summer that started with Gaudreau leaving Calgary for Columbus and ended with Huberdeau (and Mackenzie Weegar) going to Calgary. Last season, Gaudreau was generally productive on a poor Columbus team, even if his goals per game output was tied for the second-lowest of his career.

This season, that production has cratered to start, but he’s still shooting a ton and at some point, he’s too talented to produce under .5 points per game. The bigger question mark is Huberdeau, who had the biggest single-season drop in production ever. In 2023 as a calendar year, he has just 36 points in 56 games and you can slice it any way you want, but in 12 games he’s -12 to start this season.

Huberdeau is also launching just 1.42 shots on net per game, which would be the lowest mark of his career, and he often looks like he lacks confidence when deciding to shoot or pass. A new head coach was supposed to be a fresh start, but to this point, it hasn’t made a difference.

That isn't to say benching your star can't work. In the third game of the Devils season, Lindy Ruff sat Timo Meier who had yet to produce anything on the scoresheet to that point. Since then, he has 9 points in 9 games.