It's been an odd summer for New York Islanders fans in that outside observers, to say nothing of the fans themselves, are predicting good things for the team in 2014-15. With the exception of a few surface-skimming takes -- Dan referenced one yesterday -- the general perception is that this is a team that has improved in several areas and should contend for the playoffs.
Rob Vollman's annual "Hockey Abstract" (available at that link via Amazon or pdf) takes an analytics- and data-based approach to a wide range of hockey topics, including team-by-team previews. But one of the real benefits of its presentation is that it works hard to evaluate traditional hockey thinking (e.g. "Go to the net!" or "Protect the puck!") and meld it with what the available data says about different traditional tactics and current thinking.
Is it dense? Yes. Is it also accessible and skimmable for the "traditionalist" fan? Also yes. I'll be referencing the 2014 edition a few more times in upcoming posts on different hockey tactics, but I thought I'd start with something of particular interest to Isles fans: How the team should fare in 2014-15.
As many have expected (and many Isles fans have grown impatient waiting), Abstract sees the Isles as a team that has been loading up for the future and could soon be "one of the Eastern Conference's strongest threats for years to come."
With a look at how the Islanders players are deployed -- John Tavares weighted heavily with O-zone starts, Frans Nielsen used in a D-zone weighting against tough competition -- and notes on emerging young players like Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome and Calvin de Haan, Vollman describes the Isles' system:
New York's success is all about unleashing John Tavares. Yes, the team does have other scoring threats, like last year's goal scoring leader Kyle Okposo, but in general, if you shut down Tavares then you shut down the Islanders.
That is, of course, why the Isles added forward depth this summer via free agency, as Vollman notes. There was another bit I couldn't help quoting though:
And even though Tavares gets all the press, Frans Nielsen is the key player that makes the system work. The undervalued veteran is a classic do-it-all player who plays a tight two-way game against the league's best, and that's what gives Tavares the easier assignments required to keep scoring.
There's more to the preview, of course, but I had to get that Frans love out there. And it brings to mind a topic not addressed there, but one that keeps me up at night.
What's interesting, and frightening, to me is that Nielsen is 30 and someday his powers (i.e. speed) will decline to the point that he can no longer be considered "key" to making the system work. Maybe that means he eventually gracefully descends to a really good fourth-liner and penalty killer, or maybe it means one day he becomes trade bait.
Whatever Nielsen's future -- and Bossy I hope it involves some serious Islanders success before it ends -- the good news is the Isles have groomed major depth to soften the blow. Brock Nelson has already exhibited some Frans-like tendencies, while Ryan Strome and others create a good problem to have down the middle.
New signing Mikhail Grabovski is also 30 like Nielsen, but his addition means the Islanders have both improved day-to-day and created much better injury insurance.
All of which is to say people are right to expect a lot better of the Islanders this year (and we haven't even mentioned the most important offseason upgrade, the goaltending).
First, a point from Hockey Abstract about the nature of any NHL predictions, and the injury and fortune swings that can derail them:
As a group, we "experts" haven't figured out how to project the standings. At various points in the season, not a single set of projections was more accurate than simply using last year's standings.
- p. 302
On that note, Vollman's "luck neutral" model based on returning rosters plus offseason acquisitions/departures puts the Islanders at 99 points, sixth overall in the league. This is biased by the departure of Andrew MacDonald and Radek Martinek, and the additions of so many analytics-friendly free agents (a couple of whom might not even make the opening roster).
He quickly adds in the notes afterward areas where he feels the model will err, and this is one of them: "I really like their moves this summer, and they have some great youth, but climbing that high will be at least a two-step process."
Agreed. Anyway, the conclusion for the Isles offered in the team-by-team preview is a familiar one, based in part on the possibility of rounding out the blueline with Matt Donovan or Griffin Reinhart:
Assessment: If the blue line holds up then this is a playoff team for sure.
Please hold up.