When it comes to talking about which player the Leafs should draft with the 4th overall pick this June, most of the debate has centered around three players: Noah Hanifin, Mitchell Marner, and Dylan Strome. These guys above all else serve as the consensus for who the Leafs logically should add to their organization. And while it’s maybe a little unlikely that someone outside of this group gets drafted by Toronto at 4, there’s certainly a case to be made in favor of someone else. After all, most of the guys projected in this range are considered to have similar upside. Maybe the guys beneath Hanifin, Marner, and Strome are considered a little bit less of a sure thing, but if the upside is the same then other players deserve to be a part of the conversation as well. Yesterday we talked about Ivan Provorov as one of the guys who might belong in that mix. Today, we’ll be talking about another player that is making a strong case to be considered among the draft’s elite: Mathew Barzal.
But why exactly does Barzal belong in the conversation at 4? Let me explain:
HE’S A CENTER
Admittedly, this isn’t the greatest reason to draft Barzal. I’m of the popular belief that teams should lean heavily towards, if not rely completely, on simply drafting the best player available when it’s their turn to pick. But if ever you could make an argument for some leniency, it would be when you are picking in the top 5 and virtually all of the guys considered in that range are viewed as “sure things”.
While the Leafs have needs at virtually every position, center is and has long been their biggest need. I think most would agree that outside of Nazem Kadri, the team lacks another player that projects as a top-six center now or in the future. The team has holes on the wing and on defense as well, but not holes that are this big. If the Leafs are going to become a good team this is a need that will need to be addressed at some point. Now might be the perfect time to meet that need.
Yes, Dylan Strome is a center too. And while the likes of Leafs top prospect William Nylander or the draft-eligible Mitch Marner are mainly wingers and project as such in the NHL, they have played some center in the past too. So this argument isn’t exclusive to Barzal. But hey, he’s got the likes of Noah Hanifin and Ivan Provorov beat.
HE PASSES THE NUMBERS TEST
Here’s what you need to know about Mathew Barzal’s underlying numbers:
- He averaged 1.30 points per game this season for Seattle. That’s really good. Admittedly though there’s a big gap between Barzal and the likes of Marner and Strome. Marner averaged 2.00 points per game for the London Knights this season, while Strome put up an average of 1.91 points per game in Erie. However, Dylan Strome averaged 1.45 points per game when Connor McDavid wasn’t in the Erie lineup this season. That’s still not as “low” as Barzal’s numbers, but the discrepancy certainly becomes a lot smaller. Also, Strome played on a team that averaged 4.87 goals per game this season while Marner’s Knights averaged 4.25 goals per game. Barzal’s Thunderbirds, though, averaged just 3.03 goals per game. In other words, yeah Barzal’s numbers are worse than Strome and Marner but he was also playing on a team with a lot less goal-scoring talent.
- That last point is reflected in the fact that, when in the lineup, Marner was in on 46% of his team’s goals, Barzal was in on 41% of his team’s goals, and Strome was in on 39% of his team’s goals. Here we see a much smaller discrepancy in numbers, with Barzal even beating out Dylan Strome.
- Barzal had 12 points in just 7 games for Canada at the World Under-18s this past April. His 1.71 points per game average comes in tied for 3rd in the entire tournament (beaten out by two other highly touted prospects in Auston Mathews and Jeremy Bracco). That mark would have come in 3rd in last year’s tournament as well, beaten out only by William Nylander and Kevin Fiala, two other blue chip prospects. All things considered, that’s pretty good company to be in.
HE PASSES THE EYE TEST
Barzal is a center, but so is Strome. And Marner has some experience down the middle too. Likewise, Barzal has good numbers. But at best, it only puts him in the same category as guys like Strome and Marner.
In other words, Barzal’s position or his numbers really don’t separate him from the pack.
Where the strongest argument in favor of Barzal lies though, and perhaps the one category that he is a real standout in, is the eye test.
I know for some of you a red flag immediately goes up when you see or hear the words “eye test”. Usually, passing the eye test implies a player doesn’t pass the numbers test. Barzal passes both tests though, and that’s when you know you have a good player on your hands.
Barzal’s skating, puck-handling, and passing are high-end in their own right, but what really makes Barzal a tantalizing player is how these three skills work in harmony. Barzal is the sort of player that will carry the puck out of his own zone over the other team’s blueline and use his explosive skating and dynamic puck-handling to wait for a passing lane to open up. The second it does, Barzal puts the puck on the tape of someone else for a prime scoring opportunity. In a lot of ways, this is similar to how Mitch Marner plays.
Barzal especially separates himself from Strome in this way. Barzal, and Marner for that matter, are a lot more dynamic than Strome and seem to assert their dominance a lot more when on the ice. Skating is one of the big knock’s on Strome, and while he’s a good puck-handler, passer, and shooter, he doesn’t approach the game in a way that makes him stand out in the same way. He can also be inconsistent at even strength. Barzal doesn’t have this problem.
If you’re trying to think of an NHL equivalent to Barzal, some have compared him to players like Matt Duchene and Claude Giroux. I don’t know if that that’s entirely fair because Barzal is his own player, but there are some similarities.
Here’s a really good “cheat sheet” video of Barzal which shows off his skill by looking at each of his shifts rather than isolated highlights. If you haven’t seen Barzal play in-game, this is a good video to get you up to speed on his playing style: