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New York Islanders Neutral Zone Analysis: The first 34 Games of 2014-15

We take a look at how the Islanders have performed in the neutral zone through the Christmas Break, and like what we see.

Happy Holidays Everyone! I come with a present for you all: Neutral Zone Data! Just what you all wanted for Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Whatever, right? No? Well, I'm sure you'll change your mind shortly.

To clarify again for those who are new to these posts, I've been tracking play in the Neutral Zone during every game this season, recording each zone entry into the offensive zone by Islanders' players (and into the defensive zone by opponents), tracking what time they happened, who made each entry, and whether the entry was with control (by carry-in or pass-in) or without control (by tip-in or dump-in).

If you don't know what Neutral Zone Tracking and 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.

After 8 games, I noted in a post that the Isles, despite being quite positive in possession numbers were actually slightly negative in the neutral zone, and opponents were carrying in at a higher rate than the Isles.

At the 15 game mark, this trend had reversed itself, although the Isles weren't carrying in at a particularly good rate.

Again, as I stated in the above posts, carrying the puck isn't everything, and teams can win the neutral zone even by being high dump teams by out-entering opponents and by preventing opposing carry-ins.  That's basically what the Isles were doing through 15 games.  How about since?  Let's look:

Above is a graph showing a ten game rolling snapshot of the islanders' controlled entry % (% of entries via carry or pass), the opponents' controlled entry %, and the overall entry % while Isles games are close.* Entry % simply means the amount of entries into the offensive zone that are made by the Isles - 50% means each team is entering their opponents' offensive zone equally, above 50 means that the Isles are making more entrances into the offensive zone than opponents are in their defensive zone.

For reference, a "ten game rolling snapshot/average" simply measures these 3 variables over each set of 10 games.  As such they show progress throughout the year while maintaining a decent sample size.

*There are now reasons not to use close data, but since I used them in prior posts, same are needed to make a reasonable comparison.

So what do we see?  Well you can see some great progress!  While the team did indeed start on a dumping spree and opponents did not, From the point after 10 games you can see a clear decline of the opponents' controlled entry rate, up until game 19, where it stayed somewhat stably below 40% for the next 15 games.  That's elite territory.

On the other side, around Game 13, oddly enough a game against the Kings, the Isles' own controlled entry rate skyrocketed, resulting in it being above 50% until game 32, where it has since remained just barely under 50%  In short, the Islanders have actually become that fast rush team that people talk about, while still denying opponents the chance to do the same thing.

The Entry% line on the graph you'll noticed stayed pretty stable without, showing that in getting more entries by carry and allowing less by the opponent, the Islanders remained out-entering the opponents in close situations.  Quite simply put, the Isles sacrificed nothing and got better results.

The end result is incredibly positive neutral zone #s:

This graph shows the 10 game rolling average of the team's neutral zone fenwick in close situations.  NZ Fenwick is a measure of neutral zone play framed in terms that we already use for overall play - in shots.  Essentially it uses the average # of shot attempts off of controlled entries and uncontrolled ones to estimate what we would expect the team's Fenwick Close to be.  Again, using close situations is slightly misleading here as two of the Isles' worst games were the Wild and Blues collapses, where the team barely spent any time in close situations (within 1 goal in the first two periods or tied in the 3rd).  But the overall trend tells the truth:

The Isles have become a dominant neutral zone team recently.  Neutral Zone Fenwick Close above 54%, as the Isles have been since game 20 (remember the point at game 29 is actually showing the #s for games 20-29), is simply amazing (for comparison - there is only one team besides the Islanders with an overall fenwick close (not just counting the neutral zone) of over 54%.  We're talking top 2 to top 5 in the league here during these fifteen games.

Overall the Isles have been a 53.2% NZ Fenwick close team and a 52.2% NZ Fenwick team in all situations.  These are great numbers, the best by FAR of any Islanders' team over the last 2+ Years.

So how have they been doing it?  One commenter in the last bits post asked if this was a sign of coaching or player talent.  The answer is probably a bit of everything.  The improvement since the Kings game is probably coaching combined with the players finally beginning to gel together as a team.  But the Isles couldn't put up these kind of numbers without incredible player talent, which they've finally managed to obtain.

So lets look at this individual talent, shall we?

The above graph showcases individual offensive neutral zone performance from the Isles so far this year.  The Horizontal axis shows how big a role each player takes in attempting to enter the offensive zone. Naturally D-Men take a much smaller role than forwards and are thus all on the left side of the graph. The vertical axis shows how often each player's entries are via carry-in or pass-in.

As we'll soon see, this isn't a clear picture of who is or who isn't a good neutral zone player at all - a player can have a low carry-in rate and a lower role and still be a strong neutral zone player by either helping teammates offensively or denying opponents defensively, for example. That said, it does give us a good idea of who's doing what offensively.

Ideally you'd want your more active forwards, who take a bigger burden than the others and are on the right side of the graph, to be near the higher points of the graph. This isn't completely the case - Ryan Strome is the Isles most active player in the neutral zone on offense but is merely very good at entering with control, while Cal Clutterbuck takes the 2nd biggest role (in relation to his minutes) and is not good at avoiding dumps at all.  Some of this is of course strategy, but ideally you'd prefer his numbers closer or above those of Casey Cizikas' who takes a lesser role but carries in a little bit more.

That said, there are a number of standouts. As we've previously discussed, Nick Leddy's controlled entry % of 59% would be pretty good for a forward, but is absolutely elite for a D Man.

Also on D, Visnovsky is over 50% in controlled entries, which is his second time pulling that in his 3 years with the team. Lubo's role in the NZ isn't as big as Leddy's but he chooses his spots expertly. At forward, Frans and Grabovski's #s are getting back to their great level of prior years, as both (like the rest of the team) started incredibly slow.  Both are nearing 70%.  John Tavares' #s are rising more slowly but are going in the right direction over the past month.

Overall Neutral Zone Performance:

Where as the last graph showcased the individual performances of each player in the neutral zone, this graph showcases instead the on-ice performance of the Islanders in the neutral zone while each player is on the ice. As such, this should in theory capture indirect offensive neutral zone performance (such as a guy who increases his teammates' carry-ins while not carrying in a lot by himself).

It also should capture DEFENSIVE neutral zone performance as well, something which the above graph doesn't show. If a player carries in a lot (like John Tavares the last two years) but allows the opponent to come in themselves without interference (again John Tavares), well, they may actually be hurting the team rather than helping it.

The horizontal axis on this graph showcases opponents' neutral zone performance with each player on the ice. The lower this number is (the more to the left), the better a player is performing defensively in the neutral zone. The vertical axis shows Isles' offensive neutral zone performance with a player on the ice, where higher is better. Thus the best players are in the top left corner of the graph.

The Blue Line going diagonally up and to the right on the graph is the break even line. Any player above that line is winning the neutral zone, any player below is losing it.

The first thing you should notice is how practically every Islander regular is above the break even line, and the two that haven't been - Martin and Clutter - are really close.  Compare this to last year's #s through 60 games, where half of the regulars were below break-even. This is pretty incredible.

The second thing you should notice is that a few players really stand out.  Remember, the farther above the break even line a player is, the better they are performing.  Here, Anders Lee and Frans Nielsen are having such good offensive performances that I actually had to increase my Y-axis to fit them on the graph: both guys lead the team in neutral zone fenwick with elite #s over 55%.  Nick Leddy leads the D-Men with incredible performance, being the best Islanders' regular D man at defensive neutral zone play while leading the Isles to great offensive performance as well.

A Word on Anders Lee

A word on Anders Lee inspired by one of the recent comments: You'll note that Lee leads the team in offensive neutral zone performance despite his tendency to dump the puck in and his not huge role in the neutral zone.  So what gives?  Well some of this may be teammates - last year Lee was great as well, but he was playing with Frans (who has consistently been a neutral zone savant) and this year his linemates Strome and Nelson have strong #s as well.

That said, Lee's #s are well ahead of his two linemates (some of that may be Strome playing a bit with Martin), suggesting he's actually causing some of the great play himself - for example, both of those players have better carry-in #s when with Lee than without. Meanwhile, Lee is one of the best defensively in the neutral zone amongst forwards.  The combination suggests Lee might well be a dominant neutral zone player, despite allegingly having poor skating.

...and on Griffin Reinhart

One final word on Isles rookie Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart only has 108 minutes in the NHL at 5v5, so his numbers reflect a pretty small sample size (the same with Matt Donovan, who has only 132 minutes). But we can see here that he's struggled hard in the neutral zone, far more than any Isles D Man. He's doing great defensively, but with him on the ice, the Isles stall offensively in the Neutral Zone. Presumably some of that is due to his small role in the neutral zone (and his dumping when actually taking a role) requiring his teammates to do more of the work. Course, Strait and Hickey both have similar roles, and neither are negative.

In short, Griffin has basically not been an NHL caliber D-Man this year in the show, and should be in the AHL for a little bit longer. There's nothing wrong with this of course - he's 20! But the team is better with any other D man on the ice, even Strait, in the neutral zone.

Conclusion: Serious Signs of Improvement

Overall the Islanders have massively improved in the Neutral Zone and it does appear to be fueling their success this season. Nearly every Islander has been responsible for this, and as long as players stay healthy, it does seem there's a good shot this continues. And some of our kids could get even better as they get more experience too.

APPENDIX:  Actual Numbers for Each Player:

Below are the actual numbers for each player that you can see visually represented on those charts (Click to enlarge):