EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Mathew Barzal had appeared on the left wing of the first line in random spurts throughout the preseason before starting at that spot during the Islanders’ exhibition finale against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 6.
This was just the latest move for the 26-year-old, who spent most of the last six years as New York’s first-line center before moving to right wing when Bo Horvat was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks in January — and it was all his doing. Just two days before the start of the regular season on Thursday, though, Barzal practiced on the left wing with Horvat and Simon Holmstrom — the most premeditated suggestion that he could be shifting once more before the start of the 2023-24 campaign.
“It kind of came sporadically,” Barzal said. “I was playing on the right a little bit and… I find it a little tougher, to be honest, as a right-handed guy on the right wing. Your stick is always exposed to them. It’s just a little different.
“So I asked [head coach Lane Lambert] if I can hop on the other side and he said yeah, go ahead, switch it up. Two shifts later, Holmstrom was on the right and he just zipped a pass over to Bo, who ended up burying it and that was because we were on our off sides and we could make that play.”
In theory, the move makes sense. Holmstrom, who was recalled from Bridgeport on Thursday and is expected to join Barzal and Horvat on the first line, is a natural right-winger whose best move is a cut toward the slot while on his forehand (left-handed). Asking him to start the season on his off-wing when there’s still an abundance of developing to do provides a further incline to his already-steep NHL hill.
“He’s smart, big, has silky hands, a good shot,” Barzal said of Holmstrom. “He’s got a little bit of everything and then the more he gets comfortable out there winning battles, once he gets comfortable using his size a little more, he’s going to catch some people off guard.”
The more versatile Barzal is capable of making plays on any portion of the ice, but he’s shown an affinity to flash a plus shot from the left side while working on the power play throughout training camp. Plus, it’s more natural for a left-winger to be a right-hander, anyway, as he’s able to stay on his forehand more often while getting to, as he describes it, “cross over to my backhand.”
“My delay game helps my rush game because I’m still more dangerous on that side versus you getting a little bit closed off on the other side. Your stick is on the wall. This one’s in the middle, you can get a little more creative”
It’s something that some of the best NHL wingers do, as Barzal referenced the likes of New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin and Boston Bruins sniper David Pastrnak as two talents who thrive playing on their off sides.
“If you ask any player, they’re going to tell you that it’s easier to cross over,” Barzal said. “That way you can generate a little more speed coming off that side. So I’m hoping that translates for me.”