Analyzing Islanders' Neutral Zone Play through 4 Games (Zone Entry Tracking Report)

Need more here. - Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

As some of you may know, I've been tracking zone entries for the Islanders this year. If you don't know what zone entries are, I'd encourage you to read my intro post about them, but if you'd rather not for some reason, I'll explain quickly here:

Zone Entries are the name given to each entry made by each team into the offensive zone from the neutral zone. In effect, I'm going through each game and tracking each time the puck travels from the neutral zone to the offensive/defensive zone.

What do I mean by tracking? Well, ,what I mean is that I'm tracking who gets the puck over the blue line, how they do so (via dump, tip, carry-in, or pass), and whether it's even strength or not.

The whole point of this exercise is that it essentially gives us a method to measure which players are winning the battle of the neutral zone, which is incredibly important to the game of hockey, but basically unmeasurable by traditional statistics. Teams that win the neutral zone win more games because they get more time in the opponents' zone and manage to get more chances to score than their opponents.

How do we tell if a team is winning the neutral zone? Well, quite simply, the better neutral zone teams not only get the puck more often into the opponents' zone, but they also get it into the opponents' zone with POSSESSION. In other words, better teams will carry or pass the puck into the offensive zone more often than they dump the puck in. Getting the puck into the zone with possession results in more than double the amount of shots on goal than getting the puck in via dump-in (or tip-in), so it's a major factor in winning hockey games.

Okay so now that we're done with the primer, let me give you the results thus far. I've tracked through the Isles' first four games - so last night's WPG game isn't in the data (so no Thomas Hickey data yet, sorry guys). Overall, the team has had 3 games in which it has barely lost or tied the opponent in neutral zone play - against the Devils, Lightning and Bruins - and had one game where it majorly won the neutral zone battle - Against the leafs.

The end result of this is that overall the Islanders have won the neutral zone battle through 4 games, although again this is skewed by the only dominant performance by any team in these four games (Against Toronto the Isles had 7 more entries with possession - against the other 3 teams combines, the Islanders had 3 less entries with possession).

If I sound blah about the team results, I apologize - those are solid #s and better than I expected from watching this team through those first 4 games. They're not great #s - but they're enough that a team with good goaltending and shooting can win and they're good enough #s to get an 8 seed if they continue.

How about the Individual results? Let's look at the forwards line by line first:

NAME Zone Entries Entries with Possession % of entries with possession
John Tavares
39 29 74%
Matt Moulson
17 6 35%
Kyle Okposo
32 15 47%

John Tavares is an absolute beast, leading the Isles in both entries and entries with possessions, and on the latter it's not even close. Against Toronto he was especially dominant with 9 entries with possession and 14 entries overall but he's been pretty great all season as usual.

Matt Moulson by contrast is not a neutral zone player - not making many neutral zone entries (for his ice time) and rarely creating an entry with possession. This is the same as in the 11 games I tracked last year so it's not a surprise - Moulson is not someone who creates anywhere but in the offensive zone.* Which is why being paired with Tavares is a good fit.

*Lest anyone think I'm being overly critical, let me just point out again that he's REALLY REALLY GOOD at creating in the offensive zone.

The third member of this line however has not been particularly impressive. Last year P.A. Parenteau, in the 11 games I tracked, was very good at neutral zone play, entering the zone with possession 68% of the time. His replacement, Kyle Okposo, ALSO managed to enter the zone with possession 68% of the time in the games I tracked (the last 10 of last year and the first game of last year)

But this year Okposo isn't succeeding at anywhere near the last year's rate, only getting an entry with possession 47% of the time. That's not good enough - especially with Moulson on the line. John Tavares can't do it himself.

NAME Zone Entries Entries with Possession % of entries with possession
Frans Nielsen
14 11 79%
Michael Grabner
25 14 56%
Brad Boyes
20 8 40%

Moving on to Line 2, you'll notice that all three of these guys have far less zone entries than line 1 (59 entries total compared to 88), which is mainly because these guys all start in the defensive zone far more often than the Tavares line (and because of lesser ice time).

Frans Nielsen is amazing at making his entries count (79% of the time with possession!) but he hasn't created many entries.

Michael Grabner has created a ton of entries - in fact the most on the team outside of the first line guys - yet manages only a 56% possession rate. 56% mind you isn't bad - it's fairly effective, but it's not as dominant as you can get.

Brad Boyes, the new Islander, seems to essentially be the Matt Moulson of this line, which may not be a great idea for this line given its defensive responsibilities. This bears watching. And again, Fransie and Grabner can't give him enough opportunities to make carrying him worthwhile if he can't improve his neutral zone play.

INCIDENTALLY, this analysis perhaps explains why Boyes isn't on the first line instead of Okposo - putting him on the first line would essentially REALLY force John Tavares to do everything himself in the Neutral Zone and would just hurt the line overall by preventing JT and MM from getting as many scoring opportunities as they could use.

NAME Zone Entries Entries with Possession % of entries with possession
Keith Aucoin
16 7 44%
Colin McDonald
14 5 36%
David Ullstrom
23 13 57%

Line 3 has been the most interesting to Islander fans because of their success in the offensive zone. Yet their neutral zone effort is a little worrying.

New Islander Keith Aucoin has been lousy in the neutral zone for a center, with few entries and even fewer (44%) with control.

AHLer Colin McDonald has been Moulson-esque in the neutral zone play, except without Moulson's offense it's doubtful this can justify continued ice time.

But the one guy who HAS proven his worth on this line has been David Ullstrom (Not coincidentally, Ullstrom is not only a former center but also the only one of the three who is really an Isles prospect). Ullstrom drives most of the neutral zone play on this line and has been effective at getting the puck in with possession at a good clip.

NAME Zone Entries Entries with Possession % of entries with possession
Marty Reasoner
5 3 60%
Matt Martin
11 3 27%
Casey Cizikas
15 8 53%
Eric Boulton
1 0 0%

The Fourth line.....yeah. Admittedly these guys will get more defensive time than offensive and less ice time overall but yuck. Reasoner has entered the zone a mere 5 times in 4 games, a lousy rate for a center. Matt Martin has 11 zone entries, but most have been dumps.

Really the only bright spot here has been Casey Cizikas. And this probably comes as a bit of a surprise since his play hasn't looked great so far, but the neutral zone play has been surprisingly decent. In 1 less game than Martin/Reasoner he has more zone entries and a decent amount of those are with possession. Cizikas deserves to play every game and has made a strong case to be the 4th line center.


The Defensemen:

NAME Zone Entries Entries with Possession % of entries with possession
Travis Hamonic
17 8 47%
Andrew MacDonald
15 4 27%
Mark Streit
14 10 71%
Brian Strait
7 4 57%
Matt Carkner
5 3 60%
Joe Finley
3 0 0%

Defensemen obviously create zone entries differently than forwards - nearly all of their entries come by way of passing or dumping in. The better neutral zone D-men connect on passes (and occassionally carry in and then get back) - the worst ones create entries only on dumps.

Looking at Islander D-Men, the Hamonic-AMac pairing creates a lot of zone entries (a positive sign since it keeps the puck out of our own zone) though Macdonald's entry rate leaves a little to be desire (AMac Dumps it in too much). Hamonic has a more satisfactory 47% entry rate with possession - a rate poor for a forward but solid for a D-man, especially one who makes as many entries as Hamonic.

Streit-Strait has been terrific so far actually. Streit has an amazing 71% entry with possession rate and has made a whole bunch of entries. Strait has been less able to get the puck through the neutral zone on his own but when he has attempted to do so, he's got a solid possession rate as well.

Unfortunately the 3rd pair has been well....terrible. Carkner's possession rate is obviously fine, but it's on just 5 entries in 4 games (with 12 minutes of EV Ice Time per game too). Which might be okay if his partner was any good.....

but Joe Finley possesses no neutral zone play ability whatsoever and is invisible in getting the puck up ice. THREE entries in FOUR games! All dumps too!! When the 3rd D-pair is on the ice, the forwards have ZERO help in getting the puck through the neutral zone, which is why the team has looked so poor with the two guys on the ice.



The Islanders have been acting like an average team in the neutral zone so far this year overall. That'd be enough for the 8th seed, if the Isles could count on good goaltending - which they can't. So they probably need to improve.

And 4 games does seem to give us an indication as to where improvements can be made: McDonald should be removed for Bailey/Joensuu when either guy is ready, Okposo needs to improve his play, but it's not clear that any other forward is a good replacement just yet. And Cizikas needs to play every game for the 4th line to be close to okay, and probably should replace Reasoner when the other guys come back.

On Defense, the top 4 are fine, but Finley has to go. Would prefer if Lubo gets back that he pair with Hickey to create a very competent 3rd pair.

But the point is that the neutral zone play can be clearly improved in places, and the Isles have the pieces to do it.....if Cappy chooses to do so.

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