Trotz’s Islanders Defy Puck Possession Metrics

The success of the 2018-19 New York Islanders has been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season. After losing John Tavares to free agency, many prognosticators expected the Islanders to fall from fringe playoff contender to bottom of the standings. Instead, they have earned 81 points in 64 games, embarrassed Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs in his return to Long Island and they are tied for the lead in the Metropolitan Division with the Washington Capitals (with one game in-hand), despite poor puck possession metrics.

Trotz Has the Islanders Winning the Scoring Chance Battle

The 2018-19 Islanders have defied those poor puck possession metrics. The Islanders are severely below average by both Corsi (net shot attempts) at 47.28 percent (29th in the NHL) and Fenwick (net shot attempts, not including blocked shots) at 47.70 percent (26th), worse than their teams from 2016-18: average Corsi (48.24 percent, 23rd) and average Fenwick (48.20 percent, 24th).

Under coaches Jack Capuano and Doug Weight from 2016-18, the Islanders captured 55.3 percent of available standings points (19th), while generating 214 fewer high-danger scoring chances (47.67 percent, 25th) than their opponents. With Barry Trotz, the Islanders have captured 63.3 percent of available standings points (6th), and have generated 47 additional high-danger scoring chances than their opponents (52.03 percent, 11th); a net improvement of over 3.3 high-danger attempts per game, on average.

New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz
New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

PDO, which is the sum of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage (and which typically regresses to the league mean of 1.0) would suggest that the Islanders have been the luckiest team in the NHL this season. The Islanders have a PDO of 1.030, just ahead of Toronto (1.027).

Washington Capitals With Trotz as Coach

However, Trotz’s teams in Washington showed high PDO markers and consistently outperformed their possession metrics too, suggesting that he is a coach who gets the most out of his players:

Year Corsi % Fenwick % High Danger Scoring Chance % Standings Points Earned % PDO
2014-15 51.36 (13th) 51.53 (14th) 50.96 (14th) 61.6 (8th) 1.005 (11th)
2015-16 51.04 (14th) 51.45 (9th) 50.94 (11th) 73.2 (1st) 1.012 (3rd)
2016-17 51.81 (4th) 51.46 (5th) 49.04 (21st) 72.0 (1st) 1.029 (1st)
2017-18 47.97 (24th) 47.34 (27th) 45.08 (31st) 64.0 (7th) 1.017 (4th)

Washington won the Stanley Cup during the season in which they had, by far, their worst performance metrics under Trotz. Clearly, however, he is teaching something intangible, or has a successful system in place that is not effectively captured by possession metrics. At least it appears that way – Washington does have the third-highest PDO in the NHL again this season, under new head coach Todd Reirden.

Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden
Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has overseen the continuation of a “puck luck” trend for the Capitals (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Mitch Korn, Trotz’s Secret Weapon

After surrendering the most goals in the NHL last season (296, 3.61 per-game), the Islanders have allowed the fewest goals (153, 2.39 per-game) this season. Goaltenders Robin Lehner (.931) and Thomas Greiss (.928) are posting save percentages well above their career norms (.914, and .912, respectively).

Islanders goaltending guru/director Mitch Korn, who worked under Trotz in both Washington and with the Nashville Predators and who previously coached Dominik Hasek with the Buffalo Sabres for seven seasons, is a key piece to the Trotz puzzle. The “goalie whisperer” clearly maximizes the talent out of his charges – helping Hasek to four Vezina trophies, Braden Holtby to one and having Pekka Rinne twice named as a finalist. Lehner will be a leading contender for the award this season if he continues on his run.

Islanders goaltending coach Mitch Korn
Islanders goaltending director Mitch Korn works with Mack Shields at 2017 Development Camp, when he was still with the Capitals (Credit: Sammi Silber/THW)

A more structured and deliberate style, leadership from a proven NHL head coach (instead of Weight learning on the job) and improved goalie coaching may be all that the Islanders needed to go from middling to contending. With just two regular skaters (Matthew Barzal and Devon Toews) showing positive possession metrics, the 2018-19 Islanders have the look of a typical Trotz team – justifiable overachievers.

Is the quality of a coach best measured by the metrics that his team puts on paper or how they performed despite those metrics? Having made it out of the first round of the playoffs just once since 1992-93, and after standing pat at the trading deadline, Islanders fans are hoping that the latter is the answer – and that Trotz can continue to help his team to defy the data.