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T-Birds’ Barzal should be favorite for WHL Most Valuable Player

Seattle's Mathew Barzal currently ranks second in the WHL in points per game with 1.93. (T-Birds photo)

The news of late surrounding Mathew Barzal has moved from his noteworthy accomplishments on the ice this season into far more dubious territory regarding his absence due to a so far unidentified illness.

With the mumps currently spreading around the Western Hockey League, Barzal left last Friday’s astronomically important contest versus the Everett Silvertips during the national anthem, skating to the locker room under his own power and remaining unheard from since.

The big question, of course, is whether or not Barzal has contracted the mumps, a question that as of today remains unconfirmed but has been acknowledged as a possibility.

Whatever the case may be and whenever Barzal should return, the argument remains that he should be in contention for the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy, awarded each season to the WHL’s Most Valuable Player.

If you look only at the league’s top scorers, the award appears to be Regina’s Sam Steel’s to lose as he boasts an impressive 124 points, with teammate Adam Brooks seven points behind him and Lethbridge’s Tyler Wong another 12 back of Brooks. But as we all know, points never tell the full story.

Barzal currently ranks 22nd in the league in points with 79 in 41 games. His 69 assists rank fourth overall, while his 10 goals have him tied for 168th in the league.

But if you look past point totals and start looking at averages, Barzal trails Steel by just .07 points per game, which ranks second in the league. Steel has played in 21 more games than Barzal, and if you extrapolate Barzal’s averages over 62 games, which would match Steel, then he’s sitting at right about 120 points on the year, putting him ahead of both Brooks and Wong.

One thing to keep in mind here is that Steel, Brooks and Wong all play for some of the WHL’s highest scoring teams. Regina’s 329 goals for ranks second in the WHL behind only Medicine Hat, while Lethbridge’s 264 ranks fifth. Seattle, with 242 goals scored, ranks ninth in the league. Steel has been a part of 37.6 percent of the Pats’ goals while Brooks has been a part of 35.5 percent. Wong has contributed to 39.7 percent of the Hurricanes’ scores.

Barzal has been in on 32.6 percent of Seattle’s goals, but has also missed over 40 percent of their games due to training camp, preseason and a brief regular season stint with the New York Islanders, World Junior Championships and his current illness. If Barzal had played in some 20 more games this year as the league’s three leading scorers have, his percentage contribution would be much, much higher.

In the games that Barzal has missed, Seattle has accumulated 95 goals. In games in which Barzal has played, Seattle has scored 147 goals. Barzal’s 79 points have contributed to an astonishing 53.7 percent of the T-Birds’ scores when he’s been in the lineup, which is probably the most telling statistic when making the case for Barzal’s overall value to Seattle. In addition, Seattle has averaged 3.39 goals with Barzal out of the lineup, a number that jumps to 3.59 when he does play.

Steel has missed six games this season during which the Pats have scored 25 goals. With Steel in the lineup, Regina has scored 304 goals, of which Steel has been in on 40.8 percent — over 10 percent less than Barzal. As Steel has only missed six games this season, there is not really a marked difference in the team’s total scoring output — the Pats average 4.84 goals per game this year overall, a number that is slightly less than the 4.90 goals Regina has averaged in the 62 games in which Steel has played.

Outside of the numbers, it’s a debate who is actually the most valuable player in the league — something that points, goals, assists, plus/minus, wins, losses and save percentage can’t really quantify.

Once again, I find it difficult to argue that there is a player who is single-handedly more valuable to his team. Without a doubt these teams would all look very different if Steel, Brooks or Wong weren’t a part of them, and all three are great players. But just take a look at Seattle’s record with Barzal in the lineup versus their record when he’s absent.

To date, the T-Birds are 44-19-4-2 with a .681 winning percentage. With Barzal out, they’re 14-12-1-1 and that winning percentage drops to .536. When he plays, Seattle is 30-7-3-1 and has a .780 winning percentage, marking a significant difference in team success when the Coquitlam, B.C. native is in the lineup.

Steel and Brooks center Regina’s top two lines, and their ability to put two of the best players in the league on separate lines means opponents can’t focus all of their time and defensive energy on just one of them. Neither Seattle nor Lethbridge would be near the top of their respective conferences if they were solely dependent on Barzal’s or Wong’s lines, but neither team has MVP candidates on two different lines that can take pressure off of each other.

In Wong’s case, it should be noted that his Hurricanes are in the same division as Kootenay, Calgary and Edmonton, who have allowed the three most goals in the league. Nineteen of Lethbridge’s 72 games come against those three teams, with six more against Red Deer (8th in the WHL in goals allowed). Outside of the MVP conversation, Wong does deserve loads of credit for sticking with a franchise that appeared doomed just a couple of years ago. He’s played for four different head coaches and never asked to be traded as so many of his former teammates did. He’s also the only one of the four players listed here that hasn’t been drafted by an NHL team.

Seattle, meanwhile, played 10 games this season against the league’s stingiest team by a longshot in the Everett Silvertips, and four more each against Kamloops, Prince George and Kelowna, all of whom have allowed fewer goals than any team in the East.

The knock on Barzal during his first couple of seasons was that his defensive game was not up to par, and for those who don’t get to see him frequently, some may continue to make that argument. All four players have very good plus/minus ratings, with Barzal’s ranking third at plus-32. It’s not a perfect indicator by any means of defensive ability, but it’s the best we can do when looking at just one statistic. Once again, if Barzal had played over 60 games, that rating is likely much higher, as his per game plus/minus is plus-.76, while Steel is second best at plus-.73 per game.

Seattle’s per game goals against averages don’t change much whether Barzal is in the lineup or not — they surrender 2.88 goals per game, a number that increases to 2.89 without Barzal and drops to 2.87 with him.

There’s also the related argument that Barzal does not play on the penalty kill. That has been true this season, though he did play quite a bit on the PK last year. Without Scott Eansor for the entire second half of the season, Seattle has been thinner up the middle than they ever thought they would be. This means Barzal is often double-shifting, playing between his usual wings Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, but also centering the team’s fourth line on many nights.

Barzal usually plays nearly the full two minutes of every power play, so expecting him to also take on penalty killing duties might be asking a bit too much of even Barzal considering he already plays some 25 minutes per night. Seattle ranks fourth on the penalty kill without Barzal, so why not let your best offensive player focus on scoring goals when others do a perfectly good job at killing penalties? If he did kill penalties, it’d probably be tough to have him center both power play units and two lines.

How about the argument that Barzal doesn’t score goals at nearly the same rate as the others on this list? It’s a fair contention — Barzal is without a doubt a distributor first, something that he himself has acknowledged. The bottom line here is that when he’s on the ice, he generally hasn’t needed to be the one putting the puck in the net. Watch him play and he draws multiple defenders toward him, opening up opportunities for his teammates on nearly every shift. When opponents try and defend him one-on-one, he often ends up on the WHL Plays of the Week. If there’s any doubt about his actual scoring ability, it’s not shared by the Seattle coaching staff, who always include him in shootouts and have seen him convert two of his three chances, also creating some highlight-reel moments in the process.

Last season’s Four Broncos winner was Moose Jaw’s Dryden Hunt, who actually finished second to Brooks in the overall points race while playing in all 72 games. Seattle has had three winners in their history, including Ryan Walter in 1977-78, Glen Goodall in 1989-90, and most recently, goaltender Cody Rudkowsky in 1998-99.

The 2016-17 season should give Seattle their fourth winner in Mat Barzal. Steel, Brooks and Wong have all had fantastic seasons and each is crucial to their team’s success, but for my money, the most valuable player in the Western Hockey League this season has been Seattle’s 19-year-old center.