Daddy, what's a good powerplay? How do you know? When are struggles the product of injuries, when is it the product of poor strategy/failure to adjust, when is it a run of tough opposition -- and when is it just bad luck? Like answering your child's questions about Santa and war, the answers depend on how much you want to go into it, and how much you want to make up stuff to make the question go away.
The Islanders haven't scored on the powerplay in their last five games -- since just before Andrew MacDonald was shut down -- representing 16 official chances. Of course, two of those games they were 0 for 2 in truncated opportunities. (I don't tend to get upset about games where the opportunities to convert were minimal, as those games offer very little time to probe the opponent's PK and adjust, and when they are carved up by the orphan remainder of a 4-on-4, well...)
Even when at its hottest this season, I haven't found the Islanders powerplay to be anything more than an average threat. Pointmen have come in and out of the lineup (and PP QB Mark Streit never even made it), but like the Islanders' even-strength play, their powerplay success has gone through peaks and valleys, as we'll explore in the chart (we have charts!) below.
Islanders Powerplay Percentage at Important Dates in 2010-11
The chart below is a little hard to read without clicking on it (click on it for a higher-res version), but I'll explain the dates below.
Baseline: Before we get to where the Islanders have been: The league high right now is Vancouver, still clicking at 24.4% after 79 games. The league low is Florida, at 13.3%. The Islanders are 18th at 16.7% on 287 opportunities, which is the 11th-most in the league.
Midpoint: There is an interesting break in the top and bottom half of the league right now, where the Rangers (15th) are at 17.4% and the next club, 16th-ranked Ottawa, is at 16.9%.
Oct. 21: The Hot Start. The first point above is the last win during the Islanders' 4-1-2 start to the season, when they were clicking at 25.7% on 35 opportunities. That's a good hint that seven games and 35 opportunities isn't a sample of season-long significance.
Nov. 14: Gordon's Last Stand. The second point represents where the Islanders powerplay had fallen to by the time Scott Gordon was fired. It was still at 20% overall, but during the 0-9-1 streak that marked his end, they converted just 7 of 45 opportunities (15.5%).
Dec. 28: From Capuano's Rough Start to the James Wisniewski Trade. When Jack Capuano took over, the team continued its slump begun under Gordon, winning only one of his first 11 games and going nine more games without a powerplay, extending a Gordon-Capuano PP slump to 12 games -- almost a full month. On Dec. 29, the first game after the trade of James Wisniewski (who had 13 PP points as an Islander), the powerplay stood at a season low of 15.7%.
Jan. 28: Before the All-Star Break. Soon after the Wisniewski trade, the Islanders powerplay started to rebound -- really, it had sunk so low that a rebound was nearly inevitable. The Islanders headed into the All-Star Break clicking at 18.4%. In seasonlong narratives, typically the Islanders' rebound is cited after Dec. 16 (the end of a six-game losing streak, their longest under Capuano) or after the All-Star Break (when they won 8 of their next 10). The powerplay's resurgence during this time sure helped.
Feb. 27: No Reason...Just Because it's a Month Later. No big moment here, but since we were breaking it up into near-monthly intervals, I decided to put a data point there. It was at 17.7% at the end of February.
March 24: A-Mac's Last Game. In Wisniewski's absence MacDonald took on more powerplay duties. He's their top blueline point-getter with the extra man since Wiz's departure, and when he was shut down for the season after the March 24 game he had 12 PP points. The powerplay at that point was at a seasonlong performance of 17.7%.
April 3: The Late Slump. As mentioned above, the Islanders haven't scored with the extra man since, although that represents only 16 opportunities going back to A-Mac's last game. So today they sit at 16.75% with three games left.
You know what else messes with PP conversion stats? 5-on-3's. You're not going to convert all of them, but you're bound to convert several through the course of the season, and if you get those early it will surely goose your numbers until things level off. The Islanders happened to convert a few early on in the season, and overall they've scored on 7 this season, which is tied with two other teams for third-most in the league.
I mention all of this because PP and PK ratios are a nice bird's-eye view to gauge what's happening with a team's specialty units, but both units are subject to so many variables over the course of the season, such as those mentioned in the lead paragraph. Overall Scotty Bowman's rule of thumb -- just have your PP% and PK% add up to 100%, and then you're doing okay -- is a nice thing to shoot for. (The Islanders' add up to 99.7, by the way.)
Evaluating powerplays is always tricky without direct observations, as the numbers are so prone to being affected by the factors (and excuses) mentioned in the first paragraph above. A bad power play can get lucky; a good powerplay can get unlucky. Sixteen opportunities isn't much. The small samples of just a few opportunities per game complicate things. A one-week slump can mean something...or it might not.
So What are the Islanders' PP Strengths and Weaknesses?
Most observers who watch this team almost every game would probably say one of the Islanders powerplay's challenges during its slumps over the last two seasons has been just gaining the zone. This year, certainly the absence of Streit took away a respected shot and distributor from the point, where MacDonald, Milan Jurcina and Travis Hamonic have occasionally provide something like that as a replacement, and Frans Nielsen, Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo have sometimes been inserted -- to mixed results -- as replacement blueline distributors.
Meanwhile, the combo of P.A. Parenteau on the left wing half boards, Matt Moulson at the front of the net, and John Tavares lurking in the quiet areas sometimes provides a good threat (when they're able to establish zone possession) -- and sometimes it's silenced by a smart, strategic opposition PK.
You might say they need a second look to be more dangerous when teams have them figured out. You might say they need Streit back. Or you might even say they just need a little more luck. Regardless, despite the struggles of the last two weeks, this year's powerplay production looks to be a fair reflection of what I think it is: Not great, not awful, but somewhere around average.
As for how to improve things next year -- or what new/returning personnel might make the difference, the floor is open...