This year, the New York Islanders are different. They're different from the 2013-14 New York Islanders or the 2012-13 New York Islanders. And they're especially different from the [sad trombone] 2008-09 New York Islanders.
Point is: we've been hearing from coaches, players, media, and fans alike all season long that the 2014-15 New York Islanders are not the New York Islanders everyone has gotten used to seeing in recent years. Which is 100 percent true.
Leaving aside the fact that this year's club is different from literally every other Islanders team in history—I mean, they've set a franchise record by winning 22 of their first 32 games—the 2014-15 Isles are different this year for one major reason: they're possessing the puck better than any other Isles team of the #FancyStats era.
How do we know that? Because numbers. (And pictures, but we'll get to those.)
Score-adjusted Fenwick (SAF) at 5-on-5 is probably the single best metric we have when it comes to evaluating how well a team controls the puck. This will remain true until the NHL adopts the type of player-tracking technology that's used in the NBA, which is when we'll be able to ditch things like Corsi and Fenwick in favor of, you know, actual possession metrics instead of the proxies for possession we're using today.
Until then, we'll rely on SAF as our best indicator of possession—and a team's ability to control the run of play—since it's based on Fenwick and it eliminates score effects from the equation, thereby making it more accurate. In short, SAF is Fenwick without the noise.
We know that teams with higher SAF numbers tend to outperform their competition, so it makes sense that a team would want to increase its SAF percentage, whether or not the players are aware of what that percentage means.
Below is a graph I put together based on the Islanders' 5-on-5 SAF numbers (H/T PuckOn.net) for each season since 2008-09. For fun, I overlaid the numbers for the Toronto Maple Leafs during that same period:
As you can see, the Islanders have been trending in the right direction, possession-wise, since bottoming out in 2009. The reason I overlaid the data for the Leafs is that two former Toronto players joined the Isles as free agents during the offseason: Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin.
You may have heard of them.
Grabbo and Kuley aren't the only reason for the spike in the Islanders' SAF numbers this year, but they're definitely important factors. At 5-on-5, Grabovski has posted a 55.01 Fenwick for percentage (FF%) and Kulemin has recorded a 52.86 FF% so far this year. Those numbers indicate that both players consistently record more unblocked shot attempts than their opponents. (Remember: 50% is the break-even point, same as with SAF.)
In addition to adding two positive possession players to the forward corps, the Isles traded for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy right before the start of the season, both of whom have been monsters on the blue line and in the analytics department.
Leddy and Boychuk lead the team in 5-on-5 possession, having posted Fenwick numbers of 60.18 FF% (60.18!) and 58.94 FF%, respectively. Coupled with Grabovski and Kulemin up top, general manager Garth Snow has assembled quite the puck-control unit this season.
Like we said earlier, the Islanders are different this year. But just how different are they?
More picture time
Based on their overall SAF rating and the individual FF numbers up and down the lineup, the Islanders should, in theory, be dominating the shooting battle on a regular basis this year. More shot attempts for and fewer shot attempts against are the expected results of adding players to the roster who control the puck as well as Boychuk, Grabovski, Kulemin, and Leddy do.
What's more, the Isles should probably be getting higher quality shots this year as a result of their increase in possession metrics, an assumption based on the fact that their goals-per-game rate this season (3.00) is up from 2013-14 (2.63).
So how do we check these things?
Over at War-On-Ice, the hexagonal bin plots (read: "heat maps") are perfect for this kind of quick evaluation. If you're a Grantland fan, you've probably seen Kirk Goldsberry doing this kind of work for the NBA. War-On-Ice has taken the same approach to charting the shooting rates for each NHL team, which makes our analysis basically a paint-by-number exercise.
Here are the side-by-side shot rate charts for the 2014-15 Islanders at 5-on-5:
The picture on the left shows the rate at which the Isles record shots at their opponents' nets. Red dots indicate the areas of the ice from which the Islanders are shooting at a rate higher than league-average; so in short, red is good. Gray dots indicate a shot rate at or around league-average, and blue dots (nonexistent) would indicate that the Isles are shooting below the league-average pace.
The picture on the right shows the rate at which the Islanders concede shots to their opponents. The red dots there mean than the Isles are giving up shots at a higher rate than the rest of the league; you don't want to see red on this chart if you're Jack Capuano or his coaching staff. The gray dots represent a league-average shot concession rate, and blue dots—there are quite a few, which is good—mean the Islanders are giving up fewer shots than an average NHL team from those areas.
Now, compare those charts to last year's results:
You can see a few distinct differences between the two seasons.
This year, New York has seen a tremendous increase in their shooting rate from between the faceoff dots. The red bubbles in the slot in the top-left chart are a darker red than they are in the lower-left chart, which means the Islanders' shooting rate is even higher above the league average in that part of the offensive zone this season than it was last year. It's likely that Grabovski and Kulemin driving the possession bus has more than a little to do with that.
The Isles have also given up shots from the scoring chance area at a lower rate than they did last season—there's a lighter red in the top-right chart than in the lower-right chart—which is no doubt due to the presence of the top-end defense pairing of Boychuk and Leddy.
Again, these are 5-on-5 shot charts; they give us the clearest representation of a team's ability to record shots in the O-zone and suppress shots in the D-zone. There are similar shot charts available at War-On-Ice for power play or 4-on-4 situations, but those tend to be misleading from a holistic point of view since there's more ice out there for players to maneuver. That extra ice tends to skew the analysis, much like how a player's Corsi or Fenwick at 5-on-4 wouldn't be a good indication of his overall skill.
An aside, for those wondering: no, the Islanders' penalty kill shot chart doesn't look like the inside of a volcano. (Mostly because we only have a third of a season's worth of data so far.)
Still, the Islanders have improved by leaps and bounds when it comes to possessing and shooting the puck this season. The club's score-adjusted Fenwick is as high as it's ever been, which means the team is getting more shots for themselves and allowing fewer shots to their opponents.
You don't have to rely on the "eye test" to see that's the case.
(H/T PuckOn.net, War-On-Ice.com, NaturalStatTrick.com)