Neutral Zone Defense may be the death of the injured Islanders.

Quick little post here and before I begin, let me say that the game was a lot closer than the SOG total looked through 2 periods, with the key difference being the Isles missing the net constantly while the Caps got their unblocked shots on net.  So the following is not suggesting the Isles were dominated (they actually were in Game 2, by contrast).

Game 5 showcased a major problem with the loss of Lubomir Visnovsky (and then later Calvin de Haan), one which is talked about little when talking about Lubo’s skillset.  That problem is this:  without Visnovsky, the Isles’ ability to prevent opponents from entering the zone with speed, via carry-in instead of dump-in, was greatly diminished.

Why was this?  Well, part of this is a failure of coaching – players are often taught to be conservative – when facing a rushing opponent with even numbers, they are taught to back off and try to prevent them from getting a shot off in the Defensive Zone, or to block any shots they take.  The issue is that this is a flawed strategy – it allows the opponent into your own zone in the first place!  A more effective strategy is to actually try to challenge at or before the line and prevent the carry-in.  Alex Ovechkin’s release is so fast that backing up likely gives him the very room he needs to get a shot off, even if it’s not the best shot he can get.  But if you prevent Ovechkin from getting INTO the zone, he can’t shoot at all.

Better players are more willing to challenge – they know their skill can cover for them if they fail and trust themselves to accomplish their goal.  Lesser players are less willing – hence Brian Strait or Andrew MacDonald’s tendency to back up.  (Travis Hamonic does this as well, take of that what you will).  Visnovsky, Leddy and to a lesser extent Boychuk all are strong at this skill, as has been Calvin de Haan at times (although less so in these playoffs).

Without Visnovsky and without de Haan, you suddenly have two pairs who are scared to challenge and let the Caps come in on the rush.  As you saw, that is incredibly dangerous.

Can this be fixed?  Well, back in the WHL Final last year, Griffin Reinhart was the best on his team at breaking up opposing carry-ins.  He hasn’t been good at it in the limited sample so far, but maybe he can regain that skill at the NHL level.  Ryan Pulock’s style would seem to possibly be like that of Visnovsky (at least from descriptions) so maybe he can do it.  Regardless, if the team doesn’t do that, they’re going to need some good shooting and poor goaltending from Holtby to carry through.  Not what I want to bet on at this point.

The Isles don’t need vengeance. They need More Speed.

We now pray for the health of Lubomir Visnovsky.  In all honesty, it seemed likely he may have been concussed in game 3 but played through it due to a combination of a warrior mentality and the fact that this may be his last shot at the cup.  After game 4 and Tom Wilson (not to mention a boarding by Ovechkin), we fear the worst.  It’s possible he’s done for the playoffs, and maybe for his career.

If Visnovsky is out, this leaves the Isles at a crossroads.  The team is already short one right defenseman – Travis Hamonic – and is playing its worst D man on his off side as a result.  The team now has lost two, which gives them very few options.  It’s remaining healthy D practicing with the team are now:

Matt Donovan (a left handed stick who plays RD like Visnovsky)
Matt Carkner (Natural Right D)
Griffin Reinhart (Left D)
Ryan Pulock (Natural Right D)
Scott Mayfield (Natural Right D)

The temptation is probably high for the team to play Reinhart, Mayfield, or Carkner (probably Reinhart or Carkner), to add size to the lineup.  Carkner even plays Right-D.  After all, the Caps won that game while being incredibly physical – and the itch to enact vengeance for Lubo is only natural.

But that temptation is the path to further disaster.  The Isles have basically outplayed the Caps for 3/4 games this series.  How?  By outskating the Caps.  By using their speed and skill to skate around the Caps and pelt Holtby and Grubauer with shots.  This has worked.  And if not for some insane goaltending by Holtby, this series would be at 3-1.

Switching to a slower, bigger approach could possibly work – but it would be going away from what we know HAS worked.  That is by definition not smart – going for the two birds in the bush instead of the bird in the hand.  The Isles should attempt to keep with the speed lineup as much as possible.

To start: Lubo should be replaced by either Pulock or Donovan.  Donovan hasn’t played that well when in this year, and Pulock has no NHL experience, but both are experienced puck handlers who could play Right D in at least a facsimile of Lubo.  Pulock would even add to the power play that is hurt without Lubo and has so far proven toothless.

In addition, if Grabovski is concussion-symptom free, the team should insert him immediately (for Kennedy).  This will increase the time the Isles have in the offensive zone and add a better shooter than Kennedy to the lineup to capitalize on this, and suddenly will make the third line lethal.

The Isles can get vengeance still:  By winning.  Turning away from what has actually won to get vengeance in Game 5 might only give the Caps the last laugh.

Postseason Thoughts: Isles 2, Caps 1 – Score and Playoff Effects in this series.

Sorry for the long absence from this blog.  I’ll be adding short posts hopefully throughout the playoffs.

A pretty basic hockey analytics concept is that of “Score Effects.”  Basically, when teams go up, they start playing more defensively and pull back, resulting in less offensive presence as the team focuses on holding a lead.  Incidentally, this results in more shots against than playing normally (although the idea is that in theory, you allow worse off shots*).  And teams that are losing naturally take more shots as a result (and as a result of them being more desperate).

*Some work I’ve done suggests this doesn’t actually work.

None of score effects is particularly surprising to any hockey fan – especially Islanders fans, who have seen the team sit back on third period leads constantly this season (and past seasons).

The Capitals exhibit this score effect pattern as well, although their pattern is pretty….well extreme:

The above graph shows the Capitals’ shots for and against in different score situations, courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath on twitter).  The Caps are better than average by a little bit when the score is tied or within 1 goal (or up 2 goals), but during these situations, their numbers are pretty normal.

But when the Caps are down 2, they go INSANE.  The average team takes around 5 more shots per 60 minutes when down 2 than when tied – the Caps instead take nearly 15! more shots per 60.

So why does this matter?  Well Arik Parnass (@arikparnass on twitter) suggested in a Hockey Prospectus article recently (and his presentation at the DC Hockey Analytics Convention) that these effects also are felt in the playoffs based upon a team’s standing in a series – if a team is down in games, they act closer to if they’re down a goal in a hockey game and take more shots and if they’re up, they do the reverse.

I wonder if the Caps-Isles series has been a prime example of that – the Isles have dominated both games where the series was tied (games 1 and game 3), but were dominated themselves the game in which they had a 1-0 series lead (don’t let the score confuse you, that game was dominated by Washington).  And Washington is normally extremely affected by being down – is that why they were such a better team in game 2?

Well game 4 puts the Caps back in that situation.  If this is the case, the Isles better be ready, as a much better Caps team is about to come out of the gate.

Midseason Individual Islander Review: Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk

Nick Leddy

Leddy WOWYs

The chart above really tells the story with Nick Leddy. That’s a WOWY chart – with or without you – showing how each players’ possession #s (corsi) are affected by playing with Leddy on the ice. And as should be immediately apparent: EVERYONE is MASSIVELY improved by playing with Leddy. This pattern holds true whether or not Johnny Boychuk is on leddy’s right side, although Boychuk has been the best D Partner for Leddy this year. The end result is that whatever metric you choose: whether it be simple possession metrics such as corsi or fenwick, or context-adjusted regression based measures such as Steve Burtch’s dCorsi or Domenic Galamini’s usage-adjusted corsi, Leddy has been the best Isles’ D man at driving play and one of the best in the ENTIRE NHL.

And Nick Leddy is only TWENTY THREE. He’s younger than fellow “kids” Anders Lee and Matt Donovan and the same age as Brock Nelson and Calvin de Haan. Hockey players tend to peak earlier than most people think, around age 25, and Leddy ISN’T EVEN THERE YET. It’s possible he could get even better. And if he doesn’t, well, this is a pretty amazing place he’s at already.

Leddy is an RFA after this year, coming off his second contract already somehow – victim of the Hawks being cheap and going for a bridge contract instead of a long term one after his ELC. So he’s going to get paid and paid long term. Fortunately, RFAs don’t get offer sheets, so the odds of the Isles’ losing him is null. The only hope here is that the contract is for a long time – 7 years or the max 8 would be fitting for him – you hang on to elite D-Men, and Leddy has been one this year.

*For More info about why Leddy is great, check out my 34 game neutral zone data recap at Lighthouse Hockey HERE:  http://www.lighthousehockey.com/2014/12/26/7449417/new-york-islanders-neutral-zone-analysis-2014-34-games  .You’ll note Leddy is the Isles’ best neutral zone D Man, an elite puck-carrier through the neutral zone and excellent at defending entries as well.

Johnny Boychuk

It’s a bit harder to statistically evaluate Johnny Boychuk than Leddy – Leddy has played a good number of games without Boychuk as his D-partner due to injury, so we have a way of seeing how well Leddy has played without Boychuk’s assistance. The reverse is not true: Boychuk has played 558 minutes at 5-on-5 this year, and only 59 of them have been without Leddy alongside him (10.5%) – so pay no attention to Boychuk’s poor #s without Leddy on the chart above, they’re a pretty small sample. So while we know Leddy is still clearly the Isles best D man without Boychuk (excluding Boychuk himself), we can’t tell how much of Boychuk’s also excellent possession numbers are just the benefit of playing on Leddy’s right side. He certainly LOOKS good, but statistically it’s hard to tell.

Individually, Boychuk’s offensive output really isn’t that spectacular, despite his hot start – so basically when we said that the Isles weren’t getting a great offensive D man in Boychuk, that appears to be true. Boychuk is 3rd amongst the D in points per 60 at 5-on-5, and his power play #s aren’t really that spectacular honestly (and the on-ice #s on the PP basically have him equivalent to Leddy and Lubo in that regard). That said, Leddy does have his best numbers with Boychuk than without and Boychuk certainly isn’t harming that pair.

And Boychuk, unlike Leddy, isnt young. He’s 31 years old, well past his prime at this point and only getting further away. He’s unlikely to develop much further and is likely to decline over the next few years.

So where do you go from here with Boychuk? The Isles have expressed interest in an extension naturally, but strip away his great reputation and how he physically looks, is it worth it? That’s a tough question. You’re essentially paying for maintaining the status quo of the Leddy-Boychuk pairing, which is certainly worth it if it can continue. But Boychuk himself should get worse over the next few years, and almost certainly will be not living up to his next deal 4-5 years down the line, (and he’s almost certain to get 5+ years).

If you could get a Cody Franson, who’s a younger player with clear possession driving skills and offensive talent for cheaper, I’d prefer that of course. Still, there’s something to be said about a bird in the hand – barring an unlikely trade for a guy like Franson (arguably better than Boychuk) or Jeff Petry (who’s closer to Boychuk in statistical profile albeit without the same reputation) – the ability to negotiate with Boychuk NOW without any other suitors is very appealing. If this sounds wishy-washy, it is. Overpaying for the status quo is hard to stomach, especially when you know itll get worse. But the status quo is really really good…(this is why, contrary to what would happen, I’d try and get Leddy’s deal done first, but the opposite will happen).

Announcing Midseason Individual Islander Reviews!

Since we’re now over halfway through the season, I’m going to start doing quick reviews of the players who have played for the Islanders in meaningful minutes this season (sorry Matt Carkner). The goal of these reviews is to look at the fancystats of each Isles’ player, as well as the conventional metrics when appropriate, to see who has been doing well, where each player can improve if at all, and what should these players’ futures be on the Isles for years to come.

For expediency, we’re going to do this line by line and pair by pair, rather than focusing upon each individual.

Don’t Panic Part 2: It’s still not really time to worry about the goaltending.

The Islanders blew a 3-0 lead to Buffalo last night.  Let’s be clear about this – the Isles lost because of goaltending.  Yes, two of the three shots were scoring chances, but a good goalie has to make at least one of those saves and the Sabres actually had more of those chances in the first period – they just couldn’t get by Poulin (Moulson had 2 of those alone, naturally). And of course, the Girgenson shorty was awful.  The Isles outplayed the Sabres that period, but Enroth and Poulin made it look the reverse.

That said, it’s really still not time to worry about the goaltending.  The Isles, after a meh first period, outplayed the Sabres as you would expect the final two periods, resulting in significant outshooting despite multiple Sabres power plays.  If you play like that, you can get slightly inferior goaltending and still win a lot of games.

Now most opponents aren’t the Sabres, so it’ll be hard to do that vs everyone, but the Isles have managed to do so anyhow.  And to be honest, even a Poulin/Johnson tandem probably isn’t going to give you horrible horrible goaltending.

No, I’m not kidding with that statement.  Poulin looked bad yesterday, but he was stupidly playing the day after playing in the AHL, which means he was not only Kevin Poulin in the NHL, but Kevin Poulin with a .010 or more penalty to his SV% – a huge drop not indicative of his talent.  My Marcel projection system last offseason had Poulin projected as a .905 goalie – that’s a bad goalie, but allowing one more goal per 100 shots than an average goalie isn’t going to kill the Isles every game (it’ll hurt once every 3 or 4).  And Johnson is a career .913 goalie – applying Marcel principles and remembering his AHL #s, he’s probably also around the .905-.907 range.

These are bad numbers, but they aren’t epicly bad.  And if you allow 27.8 Shots against per game (5th best in the league!) it won’t burn you that often, and this O can easily make up for it.

And then of course odds are Halak isn’t out long term given he was skating yesterday.  So yeah, it’s really not time to worry about the goaltending, and again, STOP PANICKING.

Neutral Zone Analysis: 2014-2015 Season: Game 34 vs Montreal

G34

This game was a tale of 3 stretches, which the #s above don’t make clear. In the first period, the Islanders were close to dominant in the neutral zone – entries were 23-17 Isles, but the Habs only had one carry-in to the Isles 9. By the 10 minute mark of the second period however, not only were the Islanders now trailing, but the Habs had nearly evened the neutral zone #s.

And then the Habs decided to defensive shell. HARD. For the remaining 30 minutes, the Isles were as dominant in the neutral zone as they had been all year, rivaling the game vs the Flyers. In the final 20, entries were 37-20 Isles, with 18 of those Isles entries by carry-in (to the Habs 6). That is ridiculously dominant and basically reflected the Habs’ reliance on Carry Price.

Unfortunately, Carey Price succeeded. Oh well – odds are he won’t if the Habs do this in the next meeting of these teams.