Matt Martin is still bad and should be the odd man out.

With Josh Bailey and Cal Clutterbuck apparently not badly hurt, the Islanders are soon about to have a fully healthy forward corp for the first time all year.  Even if we ignore Conacher (not likely to get playing time if people are healthy) and Boulton (goon – also injured for now), this leaves 13 forwards for 12 spots – someone suddenly has to sit.  5 games ago, when word of Grabner’s impending return came around, it seemed clear:  Someone in the fourth line would have to sit, probably Martin or Cizikas.

As if sensing this was the case, the fourth line has played inspired hockey in the last 5 games:
4th Line

The #s above show what many have probably noticed: the fourth line has played damn good hockey over the past 5 games and have the best possession numbers of any Islanders line during this stretch.  How can you bench some players playing truly great hockey?

The answer is simple: We have a lot more than five games to go on when making this decision.  I’ve repeatedly mentioned “Bayesian Analysis” on this blog when talking about analyzing players and teams and it comes into play here as well.   Again, “Bayesian Analysis” is simply a complex name for a pretty simple context:  When evaluating the play of players or teams or anything, we don’t simply forget all that came before.  We take new information (our “signal”) and add it to the prior info we have (the “prior”) and adjust our current belief as to that thing by combining the two.  The stronger our “prior” – the larger our sample in this case – the stronger the signal it takes for us to change our belief.

To go back to our fourth line players, well, our signal here is only five games worth of data.  Yeah the fourth line, including Matt Martin and Cizikas has played incredibly well for five games, but we have multiple years of data of Martin and Cizikas besides the data from this year to judge these players on:
Martin

The above is Martin’s 6 year history.  You can see the uptick in this year’s performance pretty clearly – it’s the first time Martin has ever been above 50% in corsi, and it’s driven strongly by this past 2 week’s performance.  And well, for the 280 games prior to this season, Martin has been an awful NHL player, with the team greatly better without him on the ice.  That’s what we call an incredibly strong prior and this year’s performance – and especially the last 5 games’ performance – really isn’t nearly enough evidence to take away from that.  The odds are incredibly unlikely Martin has morphed into a plus possession player, better than either Bailey or Grabner.  And he’s a worse scorer than either of those guys as well.

The same is true of Cizikas to a lesser extent – we only have two seasons worth of prior for him – but CC has the advantage of being a Center, which Martin does not.  Martin being removed makes lineup changes easy -> out Martin, in Bailey or Grabner, voila, keep all the other lines the same.  Even after two weeks of good play, it’s still the right move – odds are if he could keep up this good play for a full season, we’d have seen a player who wasn’t god-awful for a prior season.  We haven’t.

It may be tough to justify taking out a player playing the best hockey of his career, and hell, genuinely some of the best hockey of anyone on the team over the past two weeks.  But it’s clearly the move that makes this team better more than any other.

Anders Lee is playing dominant Hockey for the second year in a row.

Anders Lee was a big surprise last year.  Not that he wasn’t an eagerly anticipated prospect for the Isles by much of the fanbase (although the fanbase eagerly anticipates any player whose playing style involves being physical and bruising), but he put up numbers that were those of a pretty dominant player last year.  As I wrote when Lee came up this year:

That’s the stat line of a very plus possession player alongside good linemates, with a great shooting rate and who wasn’t sheltered territorially.  You can see some evidence of his less than great skating in the neutral zone data – where his 37% controlled entry rate is below average for a forward, but his line was such a plus possession line it didn’t matter.  They were only slightly positive in the neutral zone, which may suggest some decline, but the overall numbers are really good and even the neutral zone #s, due to the 51.1% on-ice entry rate, was terrific.
 

In short, in Lee’s 22 games, Lee was:
1st on the Isles in 5 on 5 goals per 60 minutes.
1st on the Isles in 5 on 5 shots on goal per 60 minutes.
the leader amongst Isles forwards in corsi.

Those are pretty awesome numbers and the underlying numbers (Shots on goal, corsi), suggested it wasn’t a fluke. So we were pretty sure he had the talent to be at least a solid or even plus player going forward, even if his pedigree suggested he probably wouldn’t repeat that performance in the next year.

Well it’s only been 18 games, but this year, Lee is:
1st on the Isles in 5 on 5 goals per 60 minutes.
1st on the Isles in 5 on 5 shots on goal per 60 minutes.
Leading Isles forwards in corsi.

Yes, he is DOING IT AGAIN. Now again, this is a small sample size, and again, for the second year in a row, Lee is playing amongst some good forwards – Nielsen and Bailey last year, Strome and Nelson this year. But all those guys have better numbers with Lee than other players, and Lee this year is even getting a good number of defensive zone starts.

The Kid is playing dominant hockey 40 games into his career. Still way too early to anoint him as this great for real, but he should not be sitting any time soon, nor should he be changing his game in any sort of way (although he should not get into fights like he did against Washington – we’d like him to stay on the floor!)

UPDATE: I noted this in my Neutral Zone Data post through 15 games at Lighthouse Hockey that Lee had video game good #s through that point in the season, although it involved only 9 games at that point. I’ve tracked through the Capitals game Friday and the numbers are still comically awesome:

With Lee on the ice, the Isles have:
Made 53.2% of entries;
Made 48% of their entries with control (carry-in or pass-in);
held opponents to controlled entries on only 37.3% of entries.

Those are insanely good numbers in the Neutral zone.

Is Casey Cizikas really anything special?

The Isles announced the signing of two of their three remaining RFAs* today: Calvin de Haan was signed to a 3 year just under 6 Million dollar contract, and Casey Cizikas signed a 2 year 2 Million dollar deal.  Both of these contracts are reasonable for what the guys are:  de Haan’s 2 million per year is a pretty standard rate for a Bridge Contract given to an RFA in the NHL, and getting the third RFA year at that rate is a reasonable compromise for a guy with an injury history (instead of getting the first two years cheaper, the Isles get his long term contract started a year later, with him being an RFA after this deal – assuming he pans out again).  Cizikas’ one-way 1 Million per year rate is a pretty standard 4th line rate, and is only a slight raise over what he made last year (900K) although it’s no longer 2-way.  In short, neither deal should be considered a big deal either way, and both are pretty in-line with league prices.  Neither incidentally should commit the Isles long term to either player, although the Isles are more likely to be reluctant to cast off de Haan’s deal even if de Haan busts the next two years.

*Kevin Poulin is the last RFA given a QO and is awaiting his chance at arbitration.

That said, there’s a bunch of talk from Isles fans about how good deals both of these are.  I’m not going to talk about de Haan now (another time), but I’d like to talk about Casey Cizikas.  To a bunch of Isles fans, Cizikas is a pretty solid player – maybe even a pretty good one.  On twitter today, I mentioned that I didn’t see the need to add a second year to Cizikas’ deal, calling him a “mediocre 4th liner” and got a bit of pushback.  So it’s worth asking:  Is he really mediocre?

Looking at Cizikas’ fancystats (from the great extraskater.com):

Cizikas

The Key #s here (I’ll refer to the other #s below, but these two are the ones you should make sure you understand – feel free to tweet or comment me with questions on the others!) are his CF% – which is his corsi – and his CF% rel – which is his relative corsi.  A quick explanation: 

Corsi%: % of all Shot Attempts (SOG+Missed Shots+Blocked Shots) taken by a player’s team while they’re on the ice on 5v5. A Corsi% of 50% means that each team is getting an equal amount of shots while a player is on the ice; above 50% means the team is outshooting the opponent, under 50% means they’re being outshot. Corsi has been found to approximate time of possession and scoring chance #s extremely well.

Relative Corsi%: Difference in Corsi% while a player is on the ice for a team and when he is off the ice. For example, a Relative Corsi% of 5% means that the team’s corsi with the player is 5 percentage points better with that player than without him – while a negative 5% means the team is 5 percentage points better in corsi with him on the bench. This measure allows us to separate a player’s performance from his teammates to a certain extent.

On CC, you basically have the picture here of a guy who in his first full season last year put up solid points for a 4th liner, but was losing the possession battle (taking into account zone starts only makes it slightly better) and this year his possession #s went off a cliff. When he was off the ice, the Isles were winning the possession battle and were spending more time in the O Zone than the D zone.  With him ON the ice, the Isles were greatly outshot instead.

Now here’s the thing:  4th liners are GOING to have negative relative corsi #s – relative corsi measures a player relative to his team, so naturally the 4th liners should be worse than the top 9 guys.  So how does CC compare relative to other 4th liners?   Well let’s look at this year and see similar forwards to CC.  Behindthenet.ca is the original hockey advanced stat resource (in fact the years NHL PBP allows us to obtain individual player fancystats is often referred to as the “Behind the Net” era) and while extraskater is most of what you need these days, it offers a level of customization that is currently unmatched.  In our case, we can use it to see how well Cizikas does in comparison to players with similar ice time.  I’ve generated a list of such players here. 

This list essentially includes forwards who played at least half the season last year, between 8 and 11 even strength minutes per game.  Those are your typical minutes given to 4th liners who aren’t face-punchers (Cizikas is just below 11 minutes per game, as is Matt Martin.  Colin McDonald misses the cutoff).  I then also removed players with extreme zone starts (players who started under 40 or over 60 percent of their starts in the offensive zone), who tend to be extreme defensive specialists (Manny Malhotra) or extremely sheltered players (Bryan Bickell) and thus aren’t comparable to Cizikas.  This left me with 54 players who fit the criteria, as you can see on that link.  In terms of relative corsi, or corsi relative to his teammates, Cizikas was 43rd of these 54 or fairly below average.*  Cizikas wasn’t much better in scoring per minute compared to these guys as well.  Even if you try adjusting for zone starts and competition, the season ranks toward the bottom of 4th liners, and remember our relative corsi metric isn’t exactly comparing him to a top 9 that ranked in the top of the league. 

*I’m not going deep into it because this post is already running way too long, but Cizikas does also play penalty kill.  Unfortunately, his PK results aren’t good either.

Now there are two elephants left in the room:  First, Cizikas’ teammate, Matt Martin, is also on the list BELOW Cizikas (Martin is 46th) and Colin McDonald would also be bad if he made the list.  How do we know Cizikas is the problem?  Well, we don’t – and in fact, I think it’s pretty clear from Martin’s play with other players, that he’s also a problem (more on that in a later post).  But Cizikas’ play without both of these guys – he played 240 minutes without Matt Martin – isn’t that much better than it was with Martin (See his #s with and without each linemates (WOWY #s) HERE). 

Second, Cizikas’ #s were better last year.  And in fact they wound up last year around average for a 4th liner.  So perhaps CC bounces back (he certainly will score a few more assists this year, as he had notoriously bad shooting luck from his linemates) a little.  But if his upside is “average 4th liner”, that’s not worthy of talking about much.  And the Isles do have FIVE other centers (although I’d rather Nelson and Strome play wing on the top 9), six if you count Bailey.  He may be 23, but there isn’t much growth likely here.

In short Cizikas isn’t anything special, and calling him mediocre is hardly wrong.  In fact, his #s compare unfavorably to one other Islander on the BTN list linked above: Peter Regin – who scored just a little less points but drastically was better at keeping the puck out of our own end.  And Regin was hated by fans and traded for peanuts (that wound up being traded for Halak).  But let’s stop talking about him as if he’s a key part of the lineup, who deserves to have 4C locked up.  If guys like Sundstrom or hell, even Halmo (who doesn’t usually play C), might be better, the Isles shouldn’t hesitate eating the 2M and switching over.  And late in games where the Isles are down, Cizikas should be getting as little ice time as possible.