Islanders: Contenders or Pretenders? (An Analytical Approach)

Every season at least one team that spent the prior year in the league’s basement gets off to a hot start and shocks the world. As the encore to their Cinderella playoff run, almost without fail those teams manage to find their way back to the bottom. Those who have embraced the world of #fancystats have usually been the people who predicted these relapses and maintained their positions through an off-season of ridicule and internet insults.

https://twitter.com/twolinepass/status/540548588066320384

With the additions the New York Islanders made in the off-season, the talking heads in the mainstream hockey media saw a clear improvement and were willing to at least concede that the Islanders could battle for a Wild Card spot. The fancy stats community gushed over the idea of Leddy, Boychuk, and Grabovski playing on a team together. There were claims that this group could actually compete at the top of the Eastern Conference based on the idea that the trio would drive possession.

And how right they were.

As the Islanders become the first NHL team to reach 19 wins last night, Leddy, Boychuk, and Grabovski are 1st, 2nd, and 5th on the team respectively in terms of 5-on-5 on-ice Corsi. Nikolai Kulemin isn’t far behind at 8th. Keep in mind too that Kulemin and Grabovski have spent much of the early part of the season being shuffled between lines, as Capuano searches for the perfect fit. They’re still newcomers with the team, and despite trying to find chemistry they’ve been two of the most important Islanders forwards in terms of controlling possession.

With important pieces controlling the puck, it’s no surprise that the Islanders have become one of the best possession teams in the NHL. After finishing the 2013-2014 season 20th in the league in Corsi For %, the Islanders at 53.1% are tied for 4th in the league with Tampa Bay and Boston. These are the three top teams in the East in terms of Corsi: Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference, and most expect the Bruins to bounce back from a mediocre start when the team gets healthy.

Excuse the quality of the video, but as you may recall Howie and Butch began discussing Corsi and possession stats on air a bit last year, and have started to embrace them. Some in the industry have no time for crunching numbers when it comes to the sport, but I truly believe that the broadcast team’s recognition and acceptance of these stats means that the executives around the team are learning to use these numbers to their advantage.

Now, Corsi is not the end-all be-all of stats and certainly doesn’t paint the whole picture. No statistic will. But going deeper into this team’s stats gives me more and more proof that the Islanders are legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference.

The Islanders, at 8.15%, are 10th in the league in 5-on-5 shooting percentage. Though it’s a high number, it’s not startlingly high.What it does show is significant improvement over last season (7.25%). Of course, last year’s team didn’t have nearly the talent that this year’s does, and it’s not out of the question to assume that their shooting percentage will remain close to this mark.

What’s so important about their shooting percentage being just above average? It shows they’re not a team that’s necessarily getting a ton of puck luck. By comparison, Calgary is shooting at a 9.78% rate while sitting 29th in the league in Corsi For. Though a nice story, Calgary will likely be a team that sees itself following a familiar fate and coming down to Earth soon enough. No one shoots at a nearly 10% rate in the NHL all season anymore. And despite Brock Nelson’s absurdly high shooting percentage, he’s still just 69th in the league 5-on-5 and 51st on the power play in that category.

As for goaltending, Jaroslav Halak has had a wonderful season but is 7th in the league in save percentage among starters. Halak’s .926 sv% is quite a bit higher than his .918 career average, but considering he’s a goaltender in his prime it isn’t out of the question to imagine he’d continue to perform at least close to this level for the rest of the season. Chad Johnson, on the other hand, has been a bit of a disappointment thus far. Johnson’s .873 is significantly below what was expected from him after he posted a .925 in Boston last year. It’s reasonable to assume that from this point forward, Johnson’s numbers get better and Halak’s get a bit worse. As a team, the Islanders are 22nd in save percentage.

This can be seen two ways. 22nd in the league in any category is certainly not very good, especially when I’m making an argument that they’re contenders to represent the East in the Cup Final. However, by coupling their below-average goaltending numbers with an above-average shooting percentage, you can see that the Islanders are not a team whose success is based on luck. This right here is proof that their impressive possession numbers are the key to victory. Even if Halak’s performance declines slightly, which you’d assume it would, Johnson will likely play a bit better. At this point in the season, it’s reasonable to assume there won’t be a significant drop off in the team’s shooting percentage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcgZpb5_F0E

Couple the numbers with the fact that John Tavares has emerged into one of the league’s superstars and you’ve got yourself a deadly combination. This is a team to be reckoned with that has the superstar who can take over a game on his own if he needs to.

All things considered, at this point it seems more likely that this team will make a deep playoff run than that they won’t.

 

All advanced stats courtesy of Puckalytics.com, check them out for your #fancystats needs.