Diagnosing the Islanders' Problems Part 2: What should be done with the Isles Defensemen?

One of the main complaints about the team's management from preseason onward has been that the Islanders don't have good enough defensemen.  Islander fans were confident in their top 3 D-men...and that's about it.

Well the season is here, and the complaints about D-Men have continued, perhaps for good reason.  Interestingly enough, most of the complaints now focus on the bottom pair D-Men, rather than on the lack of a clear top 4.  

But enough about what the complaints are.  Let's talk about reality.  In the first post in this series I talked about how a major problem of the Islanders wasn't their shooting %, but their inability to drive possession.  How much of that are the D-men responsible for?  And which D-Men have been successful, and which have been poor?  

Table 1 below shows the various statistics of the Islander D-men.  The prime number to focus on in the table is the "Possession %" (Corsi %), which attempts to estimate the % of time the Isles are in the offensive zone instead of the defensive zone (neutral zone time being...well, neutral).  

Table 1 also includes two statistics to put the possession #s into context:  
Zone-Start % calculates the total percentage of faceoffs each D Man is on the ice for that are in the offensive zone (factoring out neutral zone faceoffs once again).
Quality of Competition (Relative Corsi) attempts to calculate how good the competition has been while each D Man is on the ice.  The higher the number, the better the competition.  

Without further ado, Table 1:

Defenseman Games Played Possession % (Corsi %) Zone-Start % Quality of Competition (Relative Corsi) EV Time On Ice PK Time on Ice PP Time On Ice Minor Penalties Taken Minor Penalties Drawn
Travis Hamonic 16 49.3% 53.2% 0.816 17.94 2.20 1.45 4 4
Andrew MacDonald 16 48.3% 51.9% 0.673 18.18 2.10 1.59 2 5
Mark Streit 16 46.9% 53.3% 0.749 18.21 1.21 3.52 5 6
Steve Staios 16 46.0% 49.4% 0.873 16.15 1.86 0.03 8 1
Milan Jurcina 7 45.5% 57.1% -0.631 14.21 1.31 0.89 1 0
Mark Eaton 14 42.8% 45.9% -0.697 12.87 2.08 0.06 1 0
Mike Mottau 11 37.5% 50.0% -0.484 12.08 1.16 0.10 2 0

Table 1:  The Possession (and some other) Statistics of Islander Defensemen so far.

So what can we learn from Table 1?  Well, let's start with the good.  Travis Hamonic has been the Islanders best Defenseman so far, with the team nearly playing evenly against opposing teams while Hamonic is on the Ice.  Oh and he's doing that despite facing pretty tough competition.  

Speaking of tough competition, what you can also see from this table is that the Hamonic-AMac D pairing is facing roughly the same level of competition as Streit-Staios.  Streit and Staios haven't done as well at driving possession as AMac-Hamonic, though they're not insanely far off.  


Oh did I say insanely far off?  I mean to say MIKE <Insert Curse Word Here> MOTTAU.  Sorry for losing my professionalism for a second there, but Mottau's statistics simply show him to be such a liability to this team that it's not even funny.  When Mottau is on the ice, the puck is in the Islanders' defensive zone almost twice as often as it's in the offensive zone.  Needless to say, that leads to bad results.  And Mottau's performance is coming with him facing really poor competition.  Mottau plays over 12 even strength minutes per game, which is simply way too many.  (He also somehow gets over a minute of PK time per game, which is simply mind-boggling).  


How about his fellow bottom-line D man, Mark Eaton?  Well mind you, Eaton's numbers are to a good degree affected by Mottau's.  But they're not good either - as a 3rd pair D Man he's faced weak competition, but despite that, Eaton's possession rate is quite bad.  Of note: Eaton has been given more Defensive Responsibility by Capuano than either of his fellow 3rd-pairing guys - he has a zone-start of 45.9%* (which isn't low in general, but is the lowest for every D man on this team) and gets over 2 minutes of PK time per game - which is 2nd only to Hamonic.  Still, pretty bad numbers here -though again, having to cover for Mottau has NOT helped.  If you look at the four games that Mottau was out for Juice, Eaton's possession #s get MUCH better (48.7%), but a four game sample size is pretty worthless.  

*On Second thought, the low zone-start may simply be the result of Eaton not playing certain games where the Isles did better from a possession standpoint.  


How about Milan Jurcina?  Once again, It's hard to tell his effectiveness due to a small sample here. Notice however, a few things:  One, he's being used in a much more offensive role than his two competitors (Eaton & Mottau) - having a greater offensive faceoff percentage than any other D Man so far (though the top 4 D Men each get more offensive faceoff starts overall, this is because they're on the ice for a longer period of time).  Of course here's the problem - there are some D-Men who are effective in such an offensive role so it's worth giving them such treatment.  Jurcina....isn't one of those guys - his shot is overrated and he's never been a big assist guy either.  


One last D-Man who needs talking about is Steve Staios.  Staios' #s are hard to distinguish from those of Mark Streit (unsurprisingly).  However, there is one sign that he may be over his head in his role: the penalties he's taken.  Staios leads all Islander defensemen in penalties taken, having taken 8 minors so far.  In addition, he's not the type of player who draws penalties (by contrast, Andrew Macdonald has somehow managed to draw 5 penalties), having drawn only one.  Now penalties for a D-Man are expected - it's the natural result of D plays sometimes.  But Staios' 6 penalties taken is a lot for 15 games in (It puts him at tied for 3rd in the league for most penalties taken at even strength (Staios hasn't taken a special teams penalty yet)), and makes me worry that it's a sign that he simply cannot keep up.  


Fixing the Problem:

Enough about the problem itself.  Let's talk about fixing it.  In the Long term this season, fixing it will occur through the bottom 3 players, particularly Mottau, being replaced.  Matt Donovan seems like a natural replacement for Milan Jurcina, for example, and Calvin de Haan, Aaron Ness, and Ty Wishart are all extremely likely to be on this team instead of the bottom 3 by year's end.  And even Dylan Reese is likely to be an improvement over Mottau right now.  

But that's long term, and there are some solutions that the Isles and Capuano can implement in the short term.  Let's focus on those:

Obvious Solution #1:  SCRATCH MIKE MOTTAU.  That is all.  (This is beyond a no-brainer at this point and Capuano may have figured this out given that he benched Mottau for the entire 3rd period).  


Other Fixes I would suggest:

#1 Swap Staios and Jurcina, Use Streit-Jurcina in more of an offensive role than they are currently, and anoint AMac-Hamonic as the clear #1 Defensive pairing.

A common thing for teams to do is to have each of their lines and D-pairs specialize in a certain role.  The top pair specializes in facing the opponents' top competition, a second pair deal with middle competition, and the third faces the dregs.  When the team has the personnel for it, sometimes the team opts to shelter a few defensemen in a more offensive role, taking advantage of that pair's (or individual's) great shot.

Now Streit isn't really a defensive liability (yet) like MAB just yet, but the Isles aren't really using him in any different way from Hamonic/AMac just yet outside of the Power Play.  Despite some evidence (see the Capitals game) that the team is trying to match AMac-Hamonic against superstars, overall, Capuano has basically treated the first and second D-pairs as if they were D lines 1A and 1B.  

But Streit has clear offensive prowess that surpasses Hamonic and AMac but doesn't clearly surpass the latter two on defense, particularly with any of our other defensemen accompanying him.  So why not try and take advantage of this?  Make AMac-Hamonic the clear #1 to face opposing top forwards and a little more defensive zone starts, and give Streit-Jurcina the offensive zone starts that we took away from AMac-Hamonic.  I'm not talking about giving Streit a purely offensive role, but a zone-start of say 56-57% (Perhaps even 58%) seems optimal and in fact would match up to how Streit was used in his first amazing season on the Island.  Anything further would require either burying AMac-Hamonic in super tough competition or giving harder work to Staios-Eaton, which is a bad idea.

Meanwhile, Staios-Eaton actually involves two defensively oriented D-Men who are both meh.  Neither are Mottau however, and with both of them focusing on D, perhaps more costly gaffs can be avoided (Whereas matching Jurcina with Eaton basically leaves Eaton with the D responsibility all to himself sometimes).  In such a situation, Capuano might want to advise Staios (and Eaton to a lesser extent) to lead the rush a little less often, but it should in theory work.  

*We saw a tiny bit of this (3.1 minutes) on Thursday's probable that the Isles are sneaking Juice onto the ice with Streit when the puck is in the offensive zone (look at Jurcina's zone start % -  it's a huge outlier so far).  Or it could just be coincidence.  Jurcina did still play the entire 2nd period with Mottau and most of the first, before Mottau was benched for the entire 3rd period.


#2 Increase AMac, Hamonic, & Streit's Ice Time and reduce the 3rd pair's Ice time:

John Tortorella has a very interesting management style:  He knows the players he trusts and knows the players he distrusts and makes a decision:  he plays those he trusts as much as possible while he plays those he distrusts as little as possible.  The end result is that his top 2 D Men (usually Girardi and Staal, but this year Girardi and Ryan McDonagh) have played the most minutes on 5 on 5 of any D men in the NHL.  Moreover, the Rangers' bottom 2 D-Men play near the least minutes of any defensemen in the league (Anaheim appears to be doing the same thing this year and has buried its 3rd pairing even further than the Rangers).*

*Tortorella not only maximizes the minutes of his top pair (and limits that of his bottom pair) but he also INSANELY specializes - the top Rangers' D pair is on the ice basically ALL The Time whenever the opponent's elite forwards are out there, to the point where they face the toughest competition in the NHL both this year and last.  The merits of this are debatable, and I'm not even suggesting it here.  

Now, could the Islanders try a similar thing here?  Perhaps the Isles could increase it so that Hamonic-AMac and Streit each play 19 minutes a game instead of 18, dropping Eaton-Mottau/Jurcina by a whole minute per game.  It doesn't sound like a lot, but it really would help to get the bottom pair off the ice and that would basically reduce their ice time by near 10%.  It could help.  

That said, I'd strongly recommend against this strategy for the Islanders due to their circumstances.  The Islanders top 3 D-Men include a guy on the tail end of his career coming off of a major surgery (Streit) as well as another guy coming off Surgery (AMac) and a kid who couldn't even legally drink in this country until this past August.  Pushing the ice time of these guys could hurt Hamonic's development and could be bad for AMac or Streit's health.  And seriously, this team cannot afford to lose any of those 3 for any decent duration this season.  This strategy might not be a bad one were we clearly going to compete for the cup this year, but it's most likely a bad idea for this team which, while hopefully competing for the #8 spot, is still in rebuilding mode.  


#3:  Keep the D-Pairs as is (Scratching Mottau) but try and shelter the 3rd pair even more.

Perhaps the Isles could adopt the Tortorella approach to a lesser extent - keeping the time on ice breakdown the same but giving the top 4 D-Men slightly tougher competition and literally saving only the worst dregs for Eaton-Jurcina.  In addition, or perhaps alternatively, the Isles could give Eaton-Jurcina more offensive faceoff time to shelter them from defensive responsibilities even further (this would hurt the Isles offense to be sure, but these are the tradeoffs).  

Right now there are 19 D-Men who play against worse opponents than Eaton-Jurcina (Jack Hillen, Ed Javanovski, Jonathan Ericsson, Andrej Meszaros, Jaroslav Spacek, Mark Fistric, Dennis Wideman, Erik Gudbranson, Steve Eminger, Colin White, Cory Sarich, Jakub Kindl, Matt Greene, Andreas Lilja, Alec Martinez, Derek Smith, Luca Sbisa, Jeff Woywitka, & Sheldon Brookbank).  Some of these D-Men are sheltered in the Offensive Zone and others are the aforementioned Ranger/Anaheim 3rd pairing (who get little ice time).  But quite a few of these guys are really given even worse competition to face than the Isles have given Eaton/Jurcina/Mottau.  

So why not change that?  It wouldn't require the Isles to give super tough competition to one D-Pair, both the first and second D-Pairs could just take a little tougher competition in order to pull this off.  It certainly seems like a nice idea.  



In case you're curious where I stand on this, I'm in favor of option 1, but would be quite happy with option 3.  And of course scratching Mottau.  But really, there are options here for the Isles in the short-term until the younger D prospects are ready.   And there's no reason not to implement them.  The D situation truly isn't as bad, except for Mottau, as you might have thought, and Hamonic is really really promising so far.  

Next time, we'll talk about Islander Forwards.  

<em>Submitted FanPosts do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog or SB Nation. If you're reading this statement, you pass the fine print legalese test. Four stars for you.</em>

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