Barzal and Horvat are Better Together

April 4, 2024
Posted in News
April 4, 2024 Ava Salti

Ava Salti breaks down why Barzal and Horvat belong on the same line

When Lou Lamoriello traded Anthony Beauvillier, Aatu Raty and a 2023 1st Round Pick to the Vancouver Canucks for Bo Horvat and immediately extended Horvat for eight years at an $8.5M AAV, some may have thought, “Did they pay too much?”

Those who were familiar with the Islanders last season knew that Horvat would inject the Islanders’ lineup with talent and accountability, two things that had come at a premium under Lane Lambert. 

However, the most common takeaway from the Horvat trade was what kind of damage he and Islanders star Mathew Barzal could do together. Barzal, who turns 27 at the end of May, had been the Islanders’ most talented forward since the departure of John Tavares.

His numbers, though, had not matched his talent. His breakout rookie year resulted in 85 points in 82 games and a Calder Trophy to match. The kid had not reached that point-per-game rate and had not hit 20 goals since that rookie year. 

That is, though, until this season. Barzal got hurt shortly after Horvat’s arrival last season, so he and Horvat did not get the chance to gel until this year. In 74 games, Barzal has 76 points, 23 of which are goals – surpassing his previous career high. The jump in Barzal’s game this year can be attributed to multiple things, the first being changes in coaching styles.

Barry Trotz implemented a notoriously structurally sound defensive system, leaving little room for offensive creativity, which Barzal is known for. With Lane Lambert’s seemingly “free-for-all” system, Barzal could execute his offensive instincts more often, fleeing the zone early to carry the puck in transition.

Patrick Roy seems to be a mixture of the two, encouraging fast, but smart hockey. It is also very important to note another vital reason for Barzal’s explosion: he moved to the wing to play with Horvat. Barzal is a passer, through and through. Playing the wing allows him to use his most dangerous asset – his speed and edgework – with another dangerous asset – his passing. 

“It is also very important to note another vital reason for Barzal’s explosion: he moved to the wing to play with Horvat.”

The explosion is not a one-sided affair, though. Horvat has also certainly reaped the benefits of the duo’s brilliance, potting 31 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Stefen Rosner found this gem of a stat, too: Of his 31 goals, 15 were at even-strength, and Barzal earned the primary assist on 10 of those 15 goals.

They even generate damage on the power-play, seen on Tuesday night when Barzal sent a backhand saucer pass to Horvat, who ripped it past Petr Mrazek to tie the game at 1. The goal resulted in an Islanders third-period comeback to grab a win over the Chicago Blackhawks. In a must-win game, the Islanders’ top duo showed up big time.

I decided to use the NHL’s newest statistical database – NHL Edge – to see if I could find any real “proof” as to why Barzal and Horvat mesh so flawlessly. I’m new to advanced stats in  hockey, but this new website makes them very easy to digest and understand. If you’ve ever wondered what the rectangle-shaped bump that sits above a player’s jersey nameplate is, it holds a tracking chip for the information provided by NHL Edge – I highly recommend looking around for yourself here. I focused on the way NHL Edge tracks players’ shots and players’ speed, two aspects of the game that are very relevant to both Horvat and Barzal and their aforementioned success.

To no one’s surprise, Barzal is in the 98th percentile rank (PR) for speed bursts over 20 mph, the 96th PR for top skating speed, and the 95th PR for skating distance (mi). For speed bursts from 18-20 mph, the league average (without goalies included) is 277 bursts; how many of those bursts for Barzal? 750. What’s even more impressive is that these speed numbers mainly track north-to-south speed, and some could argue that Barzal is an even better east-to-west skater (his quick turns and edgework) than straight on. 

Horvat also has some pretty impressive numbers, with some of his speed metrics surprising me. He’s in the 95th PR for speed bursts over 20 mph and the 91st PR for skating distance. Where Horvat’s tools really come into play is with his shot: he’s in the 95th PR for goals and 94th in shots on goal.

What’s interesting, though, is that specifically from the mid-range area of the ice (think of the bumper spot on the power-play extended towards the face-off dots), Horvat sits in the 97th PR and 96th PR for goals and shots on goal, respectively.

Horvat has the most success in that mid-range area of the ice, as his percentile ranks for goals and shots on goal from the high danger and long-range areas of the ice aren’t nearly as high. 

NHL Edge – Bo Horvat Shot Location

Barzal has unique speed and explosion ability that Horvat is able to read off of. Horvat’s not only able to read Barzal’s moves but he’s able to match them with speed bursts for himself. Guys like Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, and Hudson Fasching, who conceptually could work on Barzal’s wing, simply don’t have the speed to match his game.

Horvat is able to get up ice with Barzal and find gaps in the ice that only Barzal can see. It’s why we so often see Horvat park himself near either faceoff dot in the offensive zone (that mid-range area) and wait for Barzal to find him. And Barzal usually does – the numbers showed that.

For the most part, Barzal had been a mainstay on Horvat’s wing, and rightfully so. But after the Islanders’ six-game win streak ended with a loss to the LA Kings, Roy decided to spread out the talent, separating Barzal from Horvat and Brock Nelson. Barzal moved to center and the team failed to produce. In the 12 games since their six-game winning streak, the Islanders have scored two goals or less seven times, getting shut out three times.

On Monday, in the first period of a pivotal matchup with the Flyers, Roy decided the lack of offense was enough to put Barzal back on Horvat’s wing. The decision proved worthwhile, with Barzal springing Horvat to take a 2-1 lead on the way to a massive 4-3 overtime victory. The spark that Horvat and Barzal generate together is a monstrous one, and fans can only hope it leads the Islanders to a playoff berth.

Looking forward to an exciting finish to the season. We’ll always have you covered here at HNiNY, so make sure to subscribe on Twitch, Youtube, and your preferred podcast providers so you don’t miss a show. Make sure to follow @hockeynightny on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok for even more Islanders content. HNiNY has weekly episodes every Sunday at 8pm.

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(Photo of Barzal: Sammi Silber / THN)


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