Diagnosing the Islanders' Problems, Part 1: An Inability to Drive Possession

The Islanders' situation this far (12 games in) to the season looks dismal. The Islanders have the second worst record in hockey - ahead of only Columbus - and look very little like they did in the more positive end of last season. Nearly every potential expected problem for the Isles has shown up this season (Goaltending, despite the three-headed monster, has not been a major problem) while very few of the expected positives have shown up (Just Tavares' improved offensive play).

But what are the true causes of the Islanders' problems? Well let's start from a really broad team perspective. The Isles' problems appear to have come from a lack of scoring.

This comes from two different places:

The first is that the Isles' Team shooting percentage is really low (7% at even strength, good for 23rd in the NHL). This is what most fans have seemingly focused upon - the Isles just aren't scoring even when they get shots on net. But believe it or not, this is really not a huge worry - this is mostly a fluke of small sample sizes. Shooting percentage is a statistic that is, especially early in the season (but even over the course of a whole season), is affected to an incredible degree by factors out of a team's control - luck on deflections, goalies standing on their head or goalies who are having incredibly bad games, sticks breaking allowing teams to practically play 5 on 4 even at even strength, etc. In other words, shooting % of teams' tend to be around the same over the long haul - last year, the Islanders' EV Shooting % was essentially only 1% worse than the #1 shooting team in the League, despite the Islanders ranking 21st.

Want some more evidence this abysmal shooting percentage isn't real? Well, only two teams had a 5 on 5 shooting percentage that bad last year - New Jersey and Montreal - and this year so far there are eight such teams. Oh and the Isles are actually ahead of Pittsburgh (11th in goals per game) by this measure and just slightly worse than Vancouver (6th in goals per game). Clearly, the Isles, who are 29th in goals per game, are not in the same category as these two teams, but shooting % would say that these teams have the shooting problems too!

No, what really has been the Isles' problem - on offense AND defense (because these are simply two sides of the same coin, really) - is their inability to retain POSSESSION of the puck and to keep it within the opponents' zone. In other words:

  1. When the puck is in the neutral zone, more often than not the puck is heading toward the Islanders' Defensive Zone.
  2. When the puck is in the offensive zone, the Islanders are having problems KEEPING it there as they try to get shots on net.
  3. When the puck is in the Islanders' defensive zone, the Islanders are having trouble getting it out and thus are giving up too many scoring chances.

Now, the NHL doesn't keep track of the time of possession each team spends within each zone (a shame), but we can approximate this by using shot totals - all shots, including missed and blocked shots. In other words, Corsi (For an explanation of Corsi, see here). The table below thus shows an approximate of the amount of time each team has kept possession in the opponents' zone. I've included the actual Points each team has accumulated per game as well in the table:

Rank (Possession) Team Name Possession (% of time in the Offensive Zone) Points Per Game
1 Detroit 58.5% 1.083
2 Boston 54.9% 0.923
3 Vancouver 54.9% 1.000
4 Washington 53.6% 1.500
5 Chicago 53.6% 1.357
6 Pittsburgh 53.2% 1.400
7 St. Louis 53.1% 0.923
8 Colorado 53.1% 1.071
9 San Jose 52.5% 1.308
10 Ottawa Senators 52.3% 1.000
11 Florida 51.4% 1.154
12 Columbus 50.5% 0.357
13 Winnipeg 50.4% 0.857
14 Los Angeles 50.3% 1.071
15 Montreal 50.1% 0.923
16 Phoenix 49.8% 1.231
17 New Jersey 49.8% 1.083
18 Philly 49.6% 1.286
19 Buffalo 49.2% 1.231
20 Toronto 48.5% 1.357
21 Tampa Bay 48.1% 1.143
22 Calgary 47.9% 1.000
23 Carolina 46.7% 0.929
24 New York Islanders 46.3% 0.833
25 Anaheim 46.2% 1.077
26 Dallas 45.3% 1.538
27 Minnesota 45.2% 1.308
28 Edmonton 44.4% 1.385
29 New York Rangers 44.3% 1.308
30 Nashville 43.1% 1.231

Now you'll notice two quick things about this chart:
1. First, The teams you'd expect to be in the top of the league, for the most part, are the best possession teams.
2. Despite #1, a whole bunch of teams aren't doing as well in the standings as we'd expect from their ability to drive possession forward.

#2 seems like a contradiction. If possession is so important, why are both Dallas and the Rangers below the Islanders? The answer brings us back to shooting percentage. In both Dallas and NYR's cases, both teams have managed a supernaturally good shooting percentage this year. However, remember what we said the short run, high and low shooting percentages are mostly flukes. Both teams' #s will drop, and as they do, their inability to drive possession will cause regression - making both teams fall back to the pack. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Detroit, who is dominating possession but can't get the puck in the net at a good rate. They're likely to bounce back. Detroit's decline this season is just an illusion. Fear the Red Wings.

Of course a second factor is what causes the oddities such as Dallas, NYR, and of course Edmonton this year to stand out despite being abysmal at driving possession: Goalie performance. All three teams have had ridiculous goalie performances thus far. To some extent, the Rangers can count on Henriq Lunqvist keeping them in games despite their awful play - though he's not a .929 goaltender. But Dallas' Kari Lehtonen and Edmonton's Nikolai Khabibulan are NOT goaltending stars and both of whom are going to collapse hard. And with them, both of their teams will collapse. These teams are not dominating, they're just getting really lucky with goaltending. Luck runs out.

Unfortunately, the Isles' poor offensive (and defensive - since keeping the puck in the opponents' zone naturally reduces goals) performance is NOT likely to regress as the sample size increases because they've been abysmal at keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Only the Rangers are worse in the Eastern Conference at getting the puck where it should be - in the offensive zone - and the Isles are 23rd overall. In fact, the Islanders' possession numbers looks identical to last year's Islanders' possession numbers - INCLUDING the numbers from our horrible slump. If we remove the horrible start from last year's numbers, the Isles this year have been worse. Quite simply put, if the Islanders' inability to drive possesion continues, the team is very likely looking at a 14th place finish.

But it's still early! Things could very well change, and in fact they should. But for us to figure out what the problem is, and for the team to change things to fix the problem, it has to figure out what is the cause - or who is the cause - of this possession problem. Assuming I have time (a big if, I'm sorry), in parts 2 and 3 of this series we'll look at what are the likely causes of the problem.

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