Besides being a lull in the schedule that the fans hate, a recess for a game that no one cares about and an excuse for the league to pander to its corporate partners, the NHL All-Star break is a chance for mid-season reflection. Could we have the reflection and not all the bother? Probably, but hockey culture says nothing comes without a struggle.
So let’s take stock: the Capitals and Blackhawks are very good, and anyone who makes the playoffs should shamelessly plot to avoid them.
But let’s turn our attention to the Islanders, a team that has quietly gone about its business through the first four months of the season. No one’s really mentioned their name in Cup prognostications – and that’s probably fair – but the Isles have hovered near the top of the Eastern Conference right from the jump. They’re deep on the back end (when healthy), they’re strong between the pipes, and they have enough Talent and Tavares up front to run with just about anyone.
Without being too brazen, we can confidently predict the Islanders will make the playoffs. If they stumble over their final 35 games and come up short, it won’t be the result of predictable regression or averages catching up to them. By any measure, qualitative or quantitative, the Isles are a good team.
But let’s dig deeper and examine some individual players. Are certain guys benefiting from unsustainable numbers? (Yes.) Are others falling victim to them? (Yes.) Are some guys better than we realize; are others – yikes – even worse? (Oh yes.) Will everyone eventually regress to the mean??
Yes! Well, Maybe.
So let’s take a look at some statistical outliers and try to figure out whose numbers are sustainable and whose aren’t.
The Surprise: Nelson has scored 19 times in 47 games, which puts him on pace for 33 goals. His career high is 20, which he set last season.
The Explanation: Before we burst Nelson’s bubble, let’s give credit where it’s due. The young center has no shortage of offensive gifts, the most lethal of which might be his deadly wrist shot. Scoring goals is incredibly hard in today’s NHL, and Nelson has made something of a habit of it.
But his shooting percentage is almost laughably high. At 5 v. 5, Nelson ranks fifth in the NHL at 17.28 percent*; his career average is 11.4 percent. (And that’s skewed, mind you, by this season’s numbers.) Yes, Nelson is continuing to grow as a player, and yes, his superb shooting ability boosts his overall percentage, but that’s not enough to account for such a massive jump. It’s impossible to explain Nelson’s 19 goals without assuming a healthy dosage of luck.
The Prediction: Nelson’s shooting percentage comes down to earth, settling in around 14 percent for the season (arbitrary, I know.) He nears the 30-goal plateau but falls just short.
Similar Candidate(s): Cal Clutterbuck
*Among players with at least 40 games played
The Surprise: After breaking through last season with 25 goals, Nelson has lit the lamp just 6 times in 2015-16.
The Explanation: Simply put, the puck’s just not going in. Lee’s career 5 v. 5 shooting percentage is 8.92; this season it’s dipped to 3.37. That trend holds up on the power play too, where Lee has been a workhorse in the past.
It’s not as if the big winger is generating less offense. He’s still racking up 2.5 shots per game, just a touch below his career average, and he’s still one of the Islanders’ leaders in high-danger scoring chances (for the second year in a row, only Tavares has more.)
For whatever reason, the hockey gods just haven’t smiled on Lee this season as they have in the past.
The Prediction: Lee’s luck turns over the final 35 games, as he helps the Isles lock up one of those two spots behind the Caps in the Metro. With a late flurry of goals, he approaches 20 for the season.
Similar Candidate(s): Ryan Strome, Nick Leddy
The Surprise: Tavares has just 34 points through 44 games, the lowest scoring pace of his career since his rookie season.
The Explanation: Tavares’ offensive slog is as much about his linemates as himself. Because he racks up a heavy portion of his points through assists, his numbers are largely dependent on those around him finishing plays. He can put the puck on a platter for his wingers, but he can’t slam it home.
Last year, when he finished second in the Art Ross race, the Islanders’ shooting percentage with Tavares on the ice was 8.6 percent at 5 v. 5 and 10.4 percent across the board. The year before that, when he posted the highest scoring pace of his career, it was 10.3 and 11.7 percent, respectively.
This season, his linemates haven’t had the same finishing touch. The Islanders are shooting just 7 percent with Tavares on the ice at 5 v. 5, 9.5 percent across the board. Not surprisingly, his per-game assist pace is well below his career average and his overall numbers have suffered as a result.
The Prediction: Tavares’ linemates come alive down the stretch, and he finishes above a point-per-game pace. He then tells them it was about damn time.
Other Candidate(s): Ryan Strome
The Surprise: Leddy, a cumulative plus-43 over the previous three seasons, is a team-worst minus-11 in 2015-16.
The Explanation: Plus/minus is a useless statistic and generally means nothing.
But okay: that’s a pretty stark drop-off. And it can be understood through the same lens used above.
Just as Tavares (mostly) can’t control what happens once the puck leaves his stick, Leddy can’t dictate the game when the action moves in a different direction. That’s especially true in regard to his team’s goalie.
Last year, when he led Islanders defensemen with a plus-18 rating, the goalies’ cumulative save percentage with Leddy on the ice was .915, the third highest mark for any player on the team. Under the same scenario this year, that save percentage has fallen to .901, the third lowest mark on the team.
The Prediction: We never discuss plus/minus again.
He’s Better Than We Thought He Was: Frans Nielsen
Most NHL fans have heard of Frans Nielsen. He’s been in the league for 10 years, he’s earned Lady Byng and Selke Trophy support in the past, and his name is Frans freaking Nielsen, making him the only Frans to ever play in the NHL. But he’s played most of his career to little fanfare, a steady two-way forward with decent scoring touch who’s lost in the growing cluster of players like him.
Is it possible he’s flying drastically under the radar?
In terms of driving puck possession and dictating the flow of a game, Nielsen is the best player on this Islanders team. He starts just 44 percent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone, but leads the team in 5 v. 5 Corsi-For at 53.7 percent, a measure of the percentage of shot attempts directed at the opposing net while he’s on the ice. That’s a mind-boggling feat.
Tavares, for example, starts a whopping 70 percent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone, and his Corsi-For is 51.9 percent – a very good mark, to be sure, but not spectacular. And not as good as Nielsen’s.
There are quality of competition variables to be considered, of course, and it has to be recognized that Tavares consistently draws the opposing team’s best defensemen. But Nielsen, typically a second-line player for the Islanders, isn’t playing against scrubs himself. Deployed predominantly in his own zone, Nielsen, almost magically, creates offense out of defense, tilting the ice to a greater degree than just about anyone in the league.
He might not be many fans’ favorite player, but he’s every StatHead’s dream child. So there’s that.
Honorable Mention: Nick Leddy, Matt Martin
He’s Worse Than We Thought He Was: Brian Strait
Islanders fans don’t like Brian Strait because they don’t think Brian Strait is very good.
Islanders fans are right.
As impressive as Nielsen’s possession numbers are, Strait’s are even uglier. Despite starting 55 percent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone, Strait’s Corsi-For is 44.8 percent. The moment he steps foot on the ice, it seems, he’s backpedaling. And he’s rarely able to stem the tide.
For a moment in January, it looked like the emergence of Adam Pelech would spare Isles’ fans the frustration of watching Strait. Alas, a mysterious injury to the young defenseman has thrust Strait back into a starting role and the fans can only share in the exasperation.
Honorable Mention: Marek Zidlicky, Brock Nelson