Evaluating the Opening Night Lines and Pairs

The season begins for the Islanders on Friday, and we now know both the 23 man roster and the expected lines and D-Pairs for that game (barring injury).  Now these lines may not really mean anything – if the team starts out flat, I would be unsurprised if they change by the 2nd period (although D-Pairings tend to be more constant) Friday!  Barring a 2-0 start, there’s certainly a pretty good chance that by game 3 vs the Rangers, these lines are completely mixed up – it’s what Cappy does, and it’s what a lot of teams do early (Seriously, check out the line combo data set at ProgressiveHockey: http://www.progressivehockey.com/p/blog-page.html – you’ll see how commonly line combos are mixed up by teams and how few stay together for a decent period).

That said, we have line combos, hockey is coming up, so let’s take a look at them to see if they are likely to succeed, or if a remix is appropriate.  We’ll be focusing upon prior years possession #s when analyzing these lines.

Line 1:  Cory Conacher-John Tavares-Kyle Okposo
2013-2014: Cory Conacher +0.4% Relative corsi, John Tavares +0.9% Relative Corsi, Kyle Okposo +1.8% Relative Corsi

The Isles top line struggled to outpossess opponents, despite scoring dominance.  It was a surprise for John Tavares, who had always previously been a very plus possession player with some favorable minutes.  Tavares’ “new” line this year features Okposo (a barely plus possession player when away from Frans Nielsen for his career) and Cory Conacher, who’s basically always been scratch in possession in favorable minutes.

In short, Tavares has been given two guys who are at most slightly positive in possession to help him, which probably won’t result in a dominant possession line.  Still, if JT returns to normal, this should be a plus possession line, and of course any line with Tavares will be a threat to maximize that possession.

Line 2: Ryan Strome-Mikhail Grabovski-Brock Nelson
2013-2014: Ryan Strome +3.9% Relative Corsi, Mikhail Grabovski +3.8%, Brock Nelson +4.1%

By contrast, Line 2 is a combination of three players who put ups terrific possession numbers last year.  It’s not clear who is centering this line (Probably Grabovski, but Staple reported they were switching off in practice), but whoever it is, this is one line that should be dominant possession wise.  Neither of these three was given cushy minutes last year, and all three helped their teams to some level of dominance.  And now they’re all together.

Oh and all three guys could score 20 goals too (maybe 15 for Nelson).  But really, this strikes me as the best line the Isles’ are putting out on opening night.  I offhandly suggested they could pull a 60% corsi on twitter, which is almost certainly being silly – only 2 lines in hockey managed that last year (Bergeron for the Bruins and Kopitar-Williams for Kings), so to suggest these 3 could do it is probably a bit much – not to mention both rookies could regress a little.

Regardless, this is a combination of three seemingly plus possession players, and this should be a line that seriously outplays the opponents.  Course if one of line 1 or 3 struggles, I could see one of these three moved around to try and spread out the talent.

Line 3:  Josh Bailey-Frans Nielsen-Nikolay Kulemin
2013-2014:  Josh Bailey +4.1% Relative Corsi , Frans Nielsen +1.3%, Nikolay Kulemin – 2.1%

For Years, Frans Nielsen was a big plus possession player for the Isles.  Two years ago though, he was negative overall, due to a horrible start to the season, and last year he was positive, but no longer dominant.  So it’s quite possible that aging is taking its toll on the Danish God, despite his flukish scoring last year.

On the other hand, Frans’ play has been by far the best with Josh Bailey the last two years on the same line (50.8% Corsi the two years with Bailey, 44.9% without).  So this is probably a plus possession duo, despite what many Isles fans may think about Bailey.  The real wild card here is Nikolay Kulemin, who has been a negative possession player each of the last two years.  Some of that is the extreme burying, which he won’t face here, and some of it was his linemates, but at least some of that was his fault.  Can he return to the plus player he was before Carlyle?  I’m not as optimistic as some, but it will be very interesting to see.  And he can’t really complain too much about his linemates here.

Overall this is probably a plus possession line as well, at least as good as line 1 in possession.  But it’s likely got the greatest uncertainty of the three, due to the Kulemin factor.

Fourth line:  Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck
2013-2014: Matt Martin -5.6% Relative Corsi, Casey Cizikas -5.7%, Cal Clutterbuck – 1.2%

So far we’ve talked about 3 positive possession lines, which is pretty damn good.  Unfortunately, that trend ends here.  This line is basically the same 4th line as in previous years, with Clutterbuck replacing CMac, and the fourth line has simply been awful.  They’re constantly hemmed in their own zone, and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again.  Hopefully the better D depth and goaltending, plus more limiting of their ice time (probably not with Cappy) can minimize the damage.

First Pair: Hickey-Hamonic
2013-2014: Hickey +1.7% Relative Corsi, Hamonic +1.3%

Unlike the lines above, we KNOW this pair is temporary, caused by the injuries to Visnovsky and de Haan.  That said, it is a pairing of plus possession players, which should work pretty well, and both guys get to play on-side.  The two guys have barely played together, so we don’t have much data on this, though the 100 minutes over the last two years is pretty damn positive.  I think this should be sneakily good first D-Pair to handle the toughs.

Second Pair: Leddy-Boychuk
2013-2014: Leddy +2.4% Relative Corsi, Boychuk +1.4%

Again, this is a pairing of plus possession players, although newcomers to the Isles.  Still this is a more uncertain pairing since Leddy has had some pretty strong sheltering the last two years while Boychuk was given some tougher minutes last year.  One would expect roughly 50% Offensive Zone starts, so Leddy might face some minor shock at not getting so many offensive zone faceoffs….except he’s good in the neutral zone and adjusting for zone starts still has him as positive.  Again, this should be a pretty solid D pair, even if not as strong as the expected 2nd pair of Hickey-Visnovsky.

Third Pair: Reinhart-Strait
2013-2014:  Reinhart: N/A, Strait: -5.8%

Let’s be clear here: Brian Strait was the worst Isles D-Man last year outside of Andrew MacDonald.  He’s probably not an NHL player.  Yet he’s on this 3rd pair with arguably our top defensive prospect.  It’s not something to look forward to.  And he’s probably playing off-side as well, since both he and Griffin are left handed shots.  Eeks.  To be fair, Strait was playing off-side a little I think with Andrew MacDonald, and that pairing was surprisingly just bad, instead of terrible (by contrast, Strait-Donovan was godawful).

Reinhart is almost certainly closer to AMac in style than Donovan, although he should presumably be better.  So perhaps he can make this pairing work.  That said, he’s not being given a pretty favorable partner to cover for him.  I wish him luck.


In sum, the lines and pairs all have mostly pretty strong lines with 1 blech pair/line between them.  That’s pretty good, if maybe not the best that could’ve been chosen.  It should lead to a good start to this season, so hopefully Friday comes soon!


2 thoughts on “Evaluating the Opening Night Lines and Pairs

  1. Keeping the lineup relatively the same, where would Grabner ideally fit when he comes back?

    He seems to be a drain on most lines, so is it fair to stick him on the fourth where he’s had relative success with Clutterbuck/Cizikas in small samples? Or do we care more about his scoring, and maximizing his TOI?



    • Grabner is generally a plus possession player so not sure why you think he’s a drain.

      In an ideal world he’d replace Martin. He’s more likely to replace bailey if bailey is underperforming by conventional stats


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