Nearly halfway through the 2014-15 NHL season, the New York Islanders are one of the NHL's most dominant puck possession teams. Arguably the most dominant. Which, if you're like me, is a fact that still hasn't fully sunk in yet, despite the mountain of evidence that exists in support of it.
The Islanders consistently win the possession battle—recording more unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick events) than their opponents—a true sign that their 25-11-1 record and 51 points through 37 games aren't aberrations. Don't pinch yourselves; this team is absolutely for real.
The underlying numbers tell the story: the Isles are second in the NHL in raw Fenwick for percentage (FF%) at 54.57. They're first in the league at even-strength (54.53 FF%); they're first at 5-on-5 (55.01 FF%); and they're first in 5-on-5 close situations (55.84 FF%).
None of those stats are misprints. (Sure, I'll give you a minute. No rush.)
It'd be one thing if the Islanders were just a top-10 possession team, but their first-place ranking in even-strength situations, 5-on-5 situations, and 5-on-5 close situations solidifies their position as the most dominant puck possession team in the NHL.
Even when we adjust for score effects—to remove the impact of times when the Isles sat back with a lead or pressed when they were down by a few goals—the club is still an absolute force in the possession game. A 5-on-5 score-adjusted Fenwick (SAF) of 55.60% ranks them first in the league, ahead of teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Nashville Predators.
This is a good sign. So why is it still so hard to believe that the New York Islanders, so often used as a punching bag by the national media—unless "tire fire" is actually a compliment—are truly the best team in the entire NHL at controlling the flow of a game?
During a Twitter conversation (Twitversation? Twit Chat? Should I stop now?) with Micah McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) the other day, he made an excellent point in response to a comment I made about his 25-game 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi chart showing the Islanders among the league leaders:
@MichaelWillhoft possession improvement on the islanders isn't star-driven. That might be part of why people don't believe.— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) December 28, 2014
"[P]ossession improvement on the [I]slanders isn't star-driven." Being an under-covered team in a saturated sports market, the Islanders don't get the type of media exposure that the Hawks or Preds—or, say, any of the Canadian teams—generally get, which means Long Island's team is flying under the radar most of the time.
(Forgive me for stating the painfully obvious, but certain things must be said in the interest of beating certain storylines to death.)
And if big-name players like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo aren't leading the charge, possession-wise, there's even less of an incentive for national media outlets to shine the light on just how good the Islanders are at possessing the puck. Why focus on the Isles if they can't bank on the name recognition associated with star players?
Fact is, the Isles have only been out-Fenwicked 10 times in 37 games, and only one of those possession battle losses was particularly gruesome: the 41.67 FF% at 5-on-5 they posted in a 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Dec. 9. (Involuntary shiver.)
A Story of Depth
But back to the relative lack of star power in the possession department. At 5-on-5, the Islanders' Fenwick for percentage leaders are as follows: Nick Leddy (60.45 FF%), Johnny Boychuk (59.74), Anders Lee (58.40), Ryan Strome (57.48), Mikhail Grabovski (56.99), Frans Nielsen (56.04), and Cal Clutterbuck (55.70), all of whom have played 27-or-more games this season.
Okposo ranks eighth on the team at 55.35 FF%; Tavares is 11th at 54.62 FF%. And those aren't bad numbers, either. In fact, those are pretty damn good.
All this to say that this New York Islanders squad is better than they've ever been, and they're doing it without having to rely on Tavares and Okposo. The Isles' two star forwards are still producing and contributing directly to wins—Tavares leads the team in goals (15) and Okposo leads the team in points (32)—but they're not the only ones carrying the mail.
"Mail" is a metaphor for "puck" here. But you knew that.
The Islanders have their most complete roster in seemingly forever, as evidenced by their Fenwick numbers and related league ranks. And with the way they've dominated the puck possession game to date, there's no reason to think their half-season success won't continue in 2015.