NHL mailbag: In defense of not defending the Islanders

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Enjoy it while <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/4762/" data-ylk="slk:Robin Lehner">Robin Lehner</a>'s godliness lasts, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/ny-islanders/" data-ylk="slk:Islanders">Islanders</a> fans. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Enjoy it while Robin Lehner's godliness lasts, Islanders fans. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Well, things have gone sideways for a lot of people. You’d have to think the vast, vast, vast majority of people who filled out brackets have had those brackets good and busted with Tampa losing so quickly, and perhaps the Penguins as well.

So there’s plenty to talk about even as the first round isn’t halfway done. Good times ahead.

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Let’s go:

Stateisles asks: “How badly, on a scale of ‘I’m not owned!’ to ‘corncob’ did the New York Islanders make you eat [crap] this season?”

Assuming “I’m not owned” is the lowest, “I’m not owned.”

I do have to eat some crap, obviously, and I think this is a great question and that it’s important for Take Doers such as myself to revisit their takes and see what they got wrong and why. This season’s big one is obviously the Islanders, who not only cleared 100 points but swept the Penguins out of the first round with relative ease.

There was little doubt they would improve under Barry Trotz, but the loss of John Tavares plus a not-great roster certainly portended that there would be another year without playoffs on Long Island. One thing no one — and I mean actually no one, like no one thought this even if they were the biggest Islanders homers on the planet — foresaw Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss turning into world-class goaltenders who basically got a perfectly okay team to fourth in the Eastern Conference.

And that’s not hyperbole, that’s legitimately what happened with this team. All-situations expected goal difference is a great measure of how a team plays by both quality and quantity, and factors in things like power-play opportunities, penalty kills, etc. By that measure, the Islanders were 13th in the league per 60 minutes this season. That’a a big step up from 26th last year, and it should have certainly gotten them into the playoff conversation.

But the thing is, the Islanders — a team without a lot of skill in the lineup top to bottom — were tied for 22nd in goals per 60 this season, underperforming their expected number by about 13 goals (equivalent to 2.3 wins or 4.6ish standings points). Just as talented teams overperform expected-goals numbers consistently, relatively low-talent teams will underperform them. This stands to reason.

But Greiss and Lehner made up for that several times over. Lehner stopped 20.5 goals above expected, Greiss 16.7. That’s about 6.5 extra wins, or 13.1 points in the standings. For their entire previous careers, Lehner delivered 27.2 goals UNDER expected (and granted, he was always on bad teams with worse D corps), and Greiss was 3.1 over.

And before you say, “Oh well Barry Trotz’s systems make goalies great!” please note that over four seasons in Washington, the Capitals (with a ton of talent) beat expected goals against by an average of 19.5 goals, about half of what the Islanders did in Trotz Year 1. In 2016-17, they beat it by roughly as much as the Isles did this year, but with a goalie and defense with much better track records. And for all the great goalies he went through in Nashville, the Preds’ GA beat xGA just twice, both by narrow margins. So in Trotz’s long history as a coach, this has happened exactly twice, and only once with a team that didn’t come pre-loaded with a half-dozen All-Star caliber players.

So with that said, they did it this year, right? But it’s basic math: You take the underperformance of the offense, overperformance of the goaltending, and that gave the Islanders about 8.5 wins — 17 points — above their expected number. Their 103 minus 17 is 86 points, well below the postseason cutoff of 98 points. I have long been on record as liking Lehner’s game, and Greiss’s to a lesser extent, so to see them play well for a coach whose Whole Thing is defense checks out. But it was not a rational expectation to say, “And they’ll end the season second and third in save percentage among goalies with 40-plus appearances.” They went so far above and beyond expectations that you can’t reasonably think it’s either foreseeable or repeatable. Even if they’re good again, which they probably will be, it’s unlikely they’ll add 13 points to the Islanders’ total again next year. Or probably anything close.

Someone who says they saw any of this coming is a liar, a homer, or (most likely) both. But hey, they got here so every successive win brings me closer to being a corncob.


Rob asks: “Were TBL and PIT done in by NHL refs using a different set of rules for regular-season and playoff games?”

I think they were both done in by getting outplayed for more games than they outplayed their opponents. The Islanders finished their series at about plus-3.2 expected goals and Columbus was plus-1.8. Would it have helped the teams with more skill to get more power plays if they could have drawn more penalties? Sure. And it is indeed very stupid what gets let go and what doesn’t in the postseason versus the regular season in October versus the regular season in March.

Plus, based on the expected-goal numbers, you still have to say both the Islanders and Blue Jackets got a little lucky to actually sweep. Lehner finished with a .956 save percentage and the team in front of him scored on one in every nine shots it took. Sergei Bobrovsky went .932 and the rest of the team shot 17.6 percent. That doesn’t last over a long enough timeline.

But overall, too many top players on both the swept-out teams were effectively no-shows. So penalties or not, you just can’t get outplayed.

Jacob asks: “Why is the season 82 games long when it only really decides who is in or out of the playoffs?”

The No. 1 answer is revenues.

Second — and this is the important thing, and the reason I chose the question at all — is that the regular season is really important for figuring out who the best hockey team is. The postseason tells you who had the best four to seven games in any given stretch.

Any reasonable person should reject the premise that 28 games, max, tells you more about a team’s quality than 82. That’s not to say being the best team in those 28 isn’t important or a useful data point, but when you can get eliminated for four bad games out of a potential 110, it’s silly to me to say that means the previous 82 were pointless.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it forever: The Presidents’ Trophy is harder to win than a Stanley Cup and should be treated at least equally in the eyes of hockey fans.

Marcus asks: “Why is Phil Kessel always brought up as the ‘he’s going to get traded’ trade bait player?

Because he doesn’t look like he’s trying and he doesn’t appear devastated enough any time the Penguins lose in February or something. It’s that simple. It was the case in Boston, the case in Toronto, and the case in Pittsburgh.

Call it the Hot Dog Factor but he really just doesn’t fit into hockey culture so people will project all kinds of semi-believable stuff onto him that they don’t like.

Also his contract isn’t great. But it’s not what’s holding the Penguins back from signing or trading for more good players. Maybe it’s a little more moveable than, say, Jack Johnson’s or Erik Gudbranson’s, too. I dunno. But the hot dog thing is for real, so there’s your answer.

As to why people want to trade Letang, I straight up don’t have an answer. That’s stupid. So’s trading Kessel unless you can get something insanely good for him, which you probably can’t because of the hot dog thing.

Jason asks: “Contractually the Sharks may not be able to move on from Martin Jones, is their only hope a Marc-Andre Fleury-type revival?”

It’s a brutal deal and, as someone said on Twitter during the game, you have to remember that Aaron Dell sucks too. There’s just not going to be a budget for another goalie add unless you can fire one of them into the sun.

On the other hand, we need to also keep in mind that for as bad as Jones was this year (exceptionally), he’s been a roughly average-or-better goalie since he came into the league. Much as I believe Lehner didn’t turn into the best goalie alive over a single summer, nor did Jones automatically become the worst.

Maybe he’ll bounce back next year. Maybe you’d argue the Sharks, given the age of their core, can’t wait to find out. I think both are reasonable takes.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.

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