Have you noticed that Andrew MacDonald now has 32 games under his belt this year and is plus-7 -- tied for third-best on the team? That's behind forwards Frans Nielsen's +13 and Josh Bailey's +9. Not surprisingly, these Islanders also have the best 5-on-5 results -- along with a few others you might not expect.
Among those perhaps is Jack Hillen, whose ceiling is sometimes debated in comments here. Hillen (+5 by the way) is getting more minutes than he should on a thin blueline at this point. He is undersized, and that size mismatch has at times led him to take too many minor penalties (18 thus far) to compensate. But 5-on-5 figures show that overall he's handled the minutes pretty well -- with Andy Sutton the toughest minutes on the squad, by the way -- and he's now gone seven games since his last penalty. I wouldn't be surprised if familiarity is getting him a little more respect from the referees by now, as some of his early season spate of minors were harsh if not outright illegitimate calls.
|GP||EV TOI||Rel. +/-||Pts/60|
The above are the top 10 Islanders at 5-on-5 thus far, according to the "Rating" (i.e. +/- per 60 min. relative to teammates) at Behind the Net. Check this BtN link for the full squad, where you'll find minus-9 Kyle Okposo and minus-10 John Tavares low on the list. Note these figures are a couple games behind, but they yield a good picture.
A few more explanatory notes and some talk of even-strength scorers -- a big deal with the powerplay struggling -- after the jump.
The first thing that strikes me is that by this metric Bailey, Nielsen, Hunter, MacDonald and Moulson are in their own elite group (again, relative to Islanders teammates) at 5-on-5. No surprise that along with Tavares, Okposo and Mark Streit, the forwards in that top group are also the Islanders best even-strength point gatherers.
The finest example here is Matt Moulson, who leads the Islanders with 24 even-strength points. Was his early season production a mirage? No, though his early pace was obviously part of the ebb and flow of any player's season. He's a 20-goal scorer now, but just as importantly he's a responsible even-strength winger who is not relying on the powerplay for production. (Just three PP goals.) I'm not expecting Moulson to be an annual 20-goal guy (which might be harsh of me, since all he's done is lead the team in goals, without feasting on the powerplay, with nearly 30 games yet to play). But I am a believer that Moulson is for real.
And of course you don't need to hear me praise Frans Nielsen or Josh Bailey again.
Elsewhere at the top of that rating table: Obviously MacDonald is not a point producer, and he's only 35 games into his NHL career. But if he keeps this kind of steady form going, the Islanders will have a nice 23-year-old secret on their hands. It's tempting to wonder whether MacDonald and/or Hillen are being sheltered by veteran partners, but I've seen enough flat-out smart plays from both of them to give me hope for their continued growth.
We don't need them to be #2 or even #4 guys -- there's something to be said for cheap, smart depth guys who can pair with a guy like Mark Streit or Andy Sutton without requiring babysitting. If Hillen's offensive game continues to evolve, all the better. If the Islanders could complement these four with two bigger guys who strike fear in the opposition without also striking fear in their own goalies, then suddenly they have a passable top-six. And then the focus, rightly, turns to the powerplay's impotence.
Some Unsung Keepers
I don't see these rate stats as the end-all, be-all. I can think of specific defensive mistakes a couple of these guys just in the last week. You still need to outscore the opposition -- which often depends on special teams, where the Islanders are struggling -- and anyone watching knows that, goaltending aside, several Islanders wins this year wouldn't have happened without Tavares and Okposo, who don't even clear the top 10. (They also draw more taxing minutes against better competition, which likely hurts their relative numbers.) You can also dig into their quality of competition to shed more light/question on any of these numbers, but of that top 10 only Tambellini has been insulated by facing weak competition.
That said, while I'm no believer in Tambellini as magic elixir, it once again sticks out that a team desperate for offense with an ineffective powerplay has put into cold storage a guy who can help both and, this year, has not been a defensive liability.
Regardless, I see these numbers as providing another perspective on who has been competent over the course of the season on a team that remains in the bottom five of the league at 5-on-5 (.82 GF/GA ratio). We all have our own observational biases, and certainly any bad observable stretch can make us -- rightly or wrongly -- sour on a player's form. But through 50-plus games this year, I'm going to need more than "he's no good" to convince me that the above players are having bad years. We could all appreciate more offense; but the guys on this list are pulling their weight.