It's one of those questions you'd get in trouble for asking. Like asking your boss how much money she makes each year before taxes. Or asking the Leafs' training staff how much Phil Kessel really weighs.
Asking if you should worry about John Tavares -- 2013 Hart Trophy finalist; franchise player and star of his draft class; the undisputed face of the New York Islanders -- is like asking a woman "When are you due?" only for her to tell you she's not pregnant (and is also thinking about murdering you now).
Mostly, it's just awkward for everyone.
As is always the case with the Islanders, there is no shortage of things being picked apart at any given time, even in a season when the club is off to its best start in franchise history. As taboo a topic as questioning Tavares's play is, the online grumblings about him not being able to "take over a game" or "put the team on his back" this season have become more pronounced considering the team's recent form.
"What have you done for me lately" seems to be rearing its ugly head, even though Tavares elicited this reaction from the faithful before ever putting on an Isles jersey, and says things like this not because he's told to, but because he believes them to be true.
Concern from the fan base generally spikes after losses, or in the case of Tavares, after one of his no-look passes gets picked off and leads to an odd-man rush the other way. Visceral reactions have a way of being, well, visceral, I suppose.
To be fair, Tavares shouldn't be the only one drawing criticism. The entire team was outplayed in the 2-1 win over Ottawa, the 6-4 loss to St. Louis, and the 5-4 loss to Minnesota.
But because Tavares is the captain, much of the responsibility for righting the ship falls on his shoulders. And he'll tell you as much himself, because that's how captaincy works.
Thanks for explaining the Islanders to me. Any other brilliant insights you'd like to share?
It's easy to say a player looks "off" or "isn't trying hard" when the team isn't playing well as a whole. Things like confirmation bias and small sample size come into play and sometimes reinforce incorrect analyses; which is to say that fans tend to remember the bad plays more readily than the good ones.
That's not an indictment of the fans, but it's important to note that the occasional bad pass by Tavares isn't grounds for pressing the panic button on his season.
Tavares isn't playing particularly poorly this season, despite the fans' calls for him to "flip the switch" and "be more like Crosby." His points-per-game average is down from last season, but it hasn't dropped off the chart completely: 0.892 PPG in 2014-15 vs. 1.12 PPG in 2013-14.
Still, this year's number is pretty much in line with his career average: 0.899 PPG. His shooting percentage (13.3%), shots per game (2.964), time on ice (20:39), and other standard metrics show that his performance this season isn't an aberration or something to worry about. At least, not yet.
The fancy stats give us a better perspective on Tavares's play this year.
His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 53.70% and his Fenwick for percentage (FF%) of 54.55 % are both above 50% and therefore indicate that he's driving puck possession. That's a basic way of saying that the Islanders record more shot attempts (Corsi) and unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) than they allow when Tavares is out there.
His relative Corsi (Corsi Rel)-a measure of the difference in the team's Corsi when he's on the ice and Corsi when he's off the ice-is 5.8%, meaning the Islanders out-attempt their opponents by 5.8% with Tavares than without him; this number is up from 3.3% last year.
In short, the Isles control the puck much better when Tavares is skating than they do when he's on the bench.
What's more, Tavares has been pretty unlucky this season. His PDO --- the sum of a player's shooting percentage and his goalie's save percentage; it generally indicates how "lucky" a player is, with 1000 being about average -- is only 968 this year, the lowest of any season he's been in the NHL. That number should climb toward 1000 as he plays more games, meaning he'll start seeing more goals scored by the Islanders when he's out there, and fewer goals against.
Tavares is also facing much tougher competition this season than he has in years past, which accounts for his perceived struggles.
The relative Corsi of Tavares's competition weighted by head-to-head ice time (Corsi Rel QoC) is 1.243, meaning the opponents he's matched up against have generally been strong possession players. This makes sense, because as a top-line player, Tavares will generally see tough competition on a consistent basis.
The difference this year is that the competition he's faced has been much better than he's ever faced before.
By comparison, the highest Corsi Rel QoC Tavares to date was 0.636 in 2013-14. The whole "he looks like he's trying too hard to make something happen" thing? A Corsi Rel QoC nearly double what he's seen in prior years will have a negative impact on any player, no matter how skilled he is.
So...maybe Tavares isn't in decline and we should all just settle down?
Sure, Tavares's scoring is down slightly this year, but that's a result of a few things: him taking fewer shots per game; his goalie making fewer saves when Tavares is on the ice; and tougher competition staring at him across the faceoff circle. There's no need to panic, and there's certainly no reason anyone should be citing him as the reason the Islanders have lost two games in a row.
Besides, the level of talent around Tavares this season is such that it shouldn't be entirely on the Islanders' captain to lead the club to victory night-in and night-out.
Injuries have taken their toll so far this year, but the Isles were still the first team in the league to reach 19 wins. Add to that Tavares's play (somewhat unfairly) being called into question and it's kind of amazing how well the team has performed, record-wise.
Just think how far the team could go once it's entirely healthy and Tavares starts getting some bounces.
(Stats courtesy of ESPN, BehindTheNet, and NaturalStatTrick; CF%, FF%, Corsi Rel, Corsi Rel QoC, and PDO are for 5-on-5 situations)