Making the case against the red-hot New York Islanders
I’ve gotten a lot of, shall we say, constructive criticism about my takes on the Islanders this season.
I routinely put them somewhere between the high teens and mid-20s in the Power Rankings, and while they’ve been creeping up more and more lately because they keep winning, it hasn’t been enough to convince people that I am not some sort of deranged Islanders hater.
The Cliff’s Notes version of my skepticism of this team is pretty simple: They are eighth in the league in points percentage, but 24th in adjusted corsi at 5-on-5, 17th in all-situations adjusted expect-goals share, and fifth in all-situations PDO. Big disparities between results and performance, you’d have to agree.
Simply put, teams with these kinds of characteristics are not legitimately good. They may appear that way, especially to partisans, but as a general rule if you’re putting up huge percentages and getting out-attempted by four or five tries an hour, it’s not a long-term recipe for success.
This is, I’ve been told, a reductive view of this particular team that is rather poor at controlling the puck but really good at, I guess, having high percentages. Stop me if you’ve heard it before, but the “pro” argument here is that they’ve sacrificed shot quantity for shot quality.
To some extent, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. After all, this summer they went out and got a coach with a very good reputation who’s fresh off a Stanley Cup. As pointed out by Dimitri Filipovic last week over at ESPN, Barry Trotz teams tend to outperform their poor underlyings and even the shot quality they generate (as expressed by adjusted expected-goal percentages, which account for PK and PP shots accordingly). For the record, their all-situations goals-for percentage is third in the league, despite a negative xGF total for the season.
And just to break it down further, the Islanders have scored 0.17 more goals per 60 in all situations than their xGF number would suggest, and stopped 0.35 more than xGA. That may not sound like much, but when you figure they’re getting an extra half-goal more than they “should” in either direction almost every game they play, it adds up quick.
But let’s circle back to the Trotz thing and think about how he’s so ably exceeded expected goals over the previous three seasons. More specifically, let’s think about how that plays into what he had to work with in Washington versus what he has on Long Island.
Let’s start from the net out: Braden Holtby has a long-term track record of being an elite goaltender, which evaded him for most of last season but got sorted out in the playoffs, which is when it mattered. Goaltenders with high-end talent are always going to give teams higher-than-100 PDOs; we’ve seen it time and again.
But while Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner may have pretty good track records as 1b goalies (they’ve played 238 and 232 games in 10- and nine-year careers, respectively), the idea that Trotz’s system and working with Mitch Korn turned them both into .920-plus goaltenders overnight is, to me, absurd. Especially because the league average is down so much this year.
I’d buy that Holtby and a backup could go 15 or so points above the league average in an 82-game season because I have proof of concept there. I don’t have anything resembling it with this tandem.
Now let’s look at the blue lines. The Caps’ minutes leaders on defense over the previous three seasons are Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov. There may not be Elite talent there, but it’s quite clearly a top-eight or so group in the league over a three-year period. Now let’s look, if we dare, at the Islanders’ minutes leaders this season: Ryan Pulock, Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield, Thomas Hickey. Some decent defenders in there but hardly comparable, talent-wise.
And finally, the Caps’ biggest weapon in the xGF wars: The forwards. When your centers are Nick Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and your best left and right wings are Alex Ovechkin and TJ Oshie, you’re going to outperform your xGF numbers because xGF is based on the league average. All four of those guys are way above the league average.
Few would argue that Mat Barzal is anything but a star in the making. But beyond that, you’ve got some guys who, over the last few years, have been goodish points producers who often had the benefit of playing with an elite talent in John Tavares (16th among forwards in all-situations primary points per 60 from 2015-18).
By that same measure, Anders Lee ranks 40th over the three-year period before Trotz arrived. Josh Bailey was 97th. Brock Nelson 143rd. Mostly respectable, especially Lee. But that compares with 13th for Kuznetsov, 17th for Ovechkin, 43rd for Backstrom, and 72nd for Oshie.
(More fuel for that fire: Without Trotz this year, the only team outperforming its xGF% with actual GF% more than the Islanders this year is………………… the Caps.)
And if you think The Trotz System was the reason for those offensive performances in Washington, note that Lee and Bailey, both with all-situations PDOs of 105(!!!!!!!) so far this season, can’t crack the top 50 in primary points per 60 among forwards this year. That’s a talent thing, not a system thing.
So yes, the team has been better since acclimating to The Trotz System around mid-November. But how much better? You hate to do the “if you cut out all the games they were bad, they’re really good actually” argument, but let’s indulge in it.
To return to the earlier Cliff’s Notes, doing “since Nov. 15” to account for the team’s learning curve: The Islanders are ninth in points percentage, 15th in adjusted corsi at 5-on-5, 13th in all-situations adjusted expect-goals share, and 10th in all-situations PDO.
Which, like, that’s better for sure. But even by that token this looks like maybe a low-end playoff team that loses in the first round. And I guess that’s an accomplishment for a team everyone wrote off this summer, but again that’s only if you think the extent to which they outperform expected goals is workable for some reason.
I would say they’re this year’s Flames/Blue Jackets/Leafs/Wild/Avs equivalent, but usually those teams get pretty high up in the standings through an insane PDO. The Islanders have that insane PDO, but don’t currently occupy a playoff spot, so…
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Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.