Each at age 28, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau haven't suddenly gotten better since last year. They were good in 2010-11 and they are good now, whether with John Tavares (Moulson) or without him (Parenteau).
John Tavares, age 21? He's gotten better. In the last 20 games even. We'll get to a few advance stat/possession pictures of that in a moment, but one expression of this progress is the pace of his most frequent linemates (Parenteau has been on a different line now and in a previous stretch) this season:
|2010-11 - Matt Moulson||82||31||22||53||-10||38||15||237||13.1%|
|2011-12 - Matt Moulson||45||22||21||43||10||28||15||123||17.9%|
|2010-11 - P.A. Parenteau||81||20||33||53||-8||33||20||161||12.4%|
|2011-12 - P.A. Parenteau||45||9||32||41||-3||28||13||94||9.6%|
Just 55% of the season's schedule in the books, both players are around 80% of the way to matching last year's totals. (Tavares, who collected points at a .84 per game clip last season, is up to 1.0 points per game in 2011-12.)
No doubt they're on a hot run now and that pace is likely to taper off, but it's still impressive and Tavares' growth is the source.
Superb plays like the one Tavares made last night to Moulson (or rather to Kyle Okposo, with Moulson as the backup) are happening more frequently, and Moulson showed even in Tavares' lowest rookie-year moments that he has the ability to bury those. Tavares is pulling off moves that is drawing more defense to him, leaving his linemates more open.
This doesn't mean Tavares is what makes them good -- in today's NHL you can't just stick anyone on the wing of a good center and watch the points pile up. But it does mean Tavares' improvement has made all of them better.
Possession With Or Without Tavares
In fact, it's what's carrying the team overall right now as it rides a modest lift in play. I was going to express this another, typically long-winded way, but BenHasna pointed out some numbers in comments last night. Here is the Islanders Corsi (percentage of a game's shots for/against) for all even-strength situations with the score tied (that means when the game is up in the air and either team is equally inclined to play for goals, rather than sit back and protect the lead or, conversely, throw everything at the net to try to erase the opponent's lead):
Last 20 games:
Tavares individually: 58.33% (!)
team overall: 51.02%
team without JT: 46.19%
First 25 games:
Tavares individually: 50.97%
team overall: 48.44%
team without JT 46.99%
In a nutshell: Unlike his rookie year, the Islanders are unquestionably better when Tavares is on the ice. Even more so -- to an extreme -- in the last 20 games.
Tavares Carrying The Team, Boosting His Linemates
Now back to the Moulson/Parenteau counting stats above.
True shooting talent does not suddenly improve in a player's late 20s -- and over time much of the figure is beyond a player's control. So Moulson, who's been a 13-14% shooter in his career, should not be expected to stay near 18% this season, but the Islanders' improved powerplay may be helping (he already has seven PPG this season; he had nine in 2010-11).
Regardless, outsiders are understandably tempted to dismiss Moulson and Parenteau's production as purely Tavares-driven, but there is an egg that goes with that chicken.
(It's been pointed out before -- and BenHasna alluded to the numbers again in that comment -- that in Moulson's breakout year, his possession numbers were better without the then-rookie Tavares than with him. That doesn't mean Moulson is more talented. It means Moulson at 26 was better equipped to play an all-around NHL game than Tavares at 19. Given their ages, this should not be surprising.)
Moulson and Parenteau have always brought something to the table, and in fact helped Tavares through the difficult transition from junior star to NHL regular. It's hard for people to realize because we've seen Tavares' finer passes from day one (though far less often) in 2009, but it really has been a process for him to develop over the last 2.5 years. His skating and ability to physically protect the puck this year has been a massive improvement over his first two seasons.
And now that Tavares is becoming a top NHL forward on a nightly basis (instead of just an okay overall forward with some magical game-breaking hands) we're seeing the results of he, Moulson and Parenteau (before the line shakeup) and Okposo (now) firing on all cylinders.
'If He Had a True First-Line Mate...'
The whole "true first-line X" debate is a little overdone, because basically you want a top-six that can outplay the opposition more often than not, and however the pieces of that fit together doesn't really matter. You need to find the combo that makes the matchups with the opponent work in your favor.
Still, sometimes people say, "Imagine how many points Tavares would have if he had true first-line wingers." I'd turn that around two years ago and much of last year and say, "Imagine how many points Moulson would have if he had a true NHL first-line center." We're now finding out.
It used to be Tavares was a very talented player who still needed the rounding every 19-year-old thrust into the NHL needs. Today, it appears that part is arriving before our eyes.
The Islanders' top line is now starting to outplay the opposition with some regularity. Tavares' improvement has made that possible. Whether or not they are ephemeral "true first-line" talents, one should consider Moulson or Parenteau/Okposo as 50-point players when given PP minutes and offensive roles next to a good center.
And now that they're next to a very good center (and worthy first-liner!), those totals are only going to grow.