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New York Islanders Analysis: Neutral Zone through 19 games shows signs of improvement

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Looking at the Isles' Neutral Zone Play through the first 19 games

This kid is pretty damn good in between the blue lines.
This kid is pretty damn good in between the blue lines.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Islanders started this season looking pretty poor at driving play (or possession) overall, as I discussed in my last post on this site. They have improved quite a bit over the last few games, now outplaying their opponents on average in terms of possession.

But saying the Isles have been playing better at "possession" doesn't really get at HOW this improvement has happened. To look at that, I'd like to go look at some neutral zone numbers for the team so far.

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.

So what's been going on this year?  Well the Isles did in fact start poorly in the neutral zone, before (like their possession #s), the team went on a run over the past few games - their last game vs Arizona was one of their best games of the season in the neutral zone.

Overall, the team's #s look like this:

  • 50.6% Neutral Zone Fenwick
  • 49.96% Entry%
  • 43% Controlled Entry %
  • 40% Opponents' Controlled Entry %


In short, the team is making nearly as many entries into the opposing zone as their opponents are making into the Isles' own zone (the Isles trail 1217 to 1215), but the team is heavily denying opponents the ability to make controlled entries - entering the Isles' zone by carry-in or pass-in.    The Isles aren't carrying in a lot themselves (43% isn't very good), but their carry-in defense has been excellent.

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Let's take a look at individual Islanders' performance in the neutral zone.  This first graph below shows the individual neutral zone performance of each player:

Individual

The X-Axis of this graph shows the % of the team's entries made by each player while they're on the ice - essentially the burden of neutral zone play each player takes upon themselves.  The Y-axis shows what percentage of each player's entries are by carry-in or pass-in, a so-called controlled entry.

There are very little surprises here.  None of the forwards have particularly elite rates of carrying in - a trend that started last year (prior to last year, both Frans and Tavares had controlled entry rates in the 70s).  Worth noting that Steve Bernier is taking a large role getting the puck into the offensive zone, athough his entries are mostly dump-ins.  Not the greatest.  Kyle Okposo on the other hand is at least carrying in most of the time, which is great since he is yet again (2nd season in a row) leading the team in % of his line's entries.

On defense, Nick Leddy is yet again dominant, with a 54% carry-in rate being truly elite for a D-Man.  The big change honestly is Marek Zidlicky, who doesn't carry-in at all - a big change from the player he replaced, Lubomir Visnovsky, who specialized in this.

Okay, so that's the individual offensive performance in the neutral zone for each player - how about defensive performance?  I don't have specific individual numbers of that type, but we can extrapolate defensive neutral zone performance for each player by looking at the on-ice defensive neutral zone performance of each player as shown in the following graph:

D

This graph is pretty self explanatory: The x-axis shows the rate of entries into the Isles zone with each player on the ice while the y-axis shows what % of those entries were by carry-in (or pass-in).  Again, very little surprises here.  One perhaps surprise has been Ryan Strome being in the awful top right corner, showing his line allowing a ton of entries and a lot by carry-in, the worst possible combination.  Some of that of course came from playing with Tavares, who has always been poor here, but even JT isn't allowing near as many entries as Strome.

Okay, let's put the above two graphs together.  The following graph showcases overall neutral zone performance by each individual Islander player this year:

NZ

The x-axis here shows "Neutral Zone Fenwick Against Per 60."  What that means is that it shows the amount of unblocked shot attempts we'd expect the Isles to give up over 60 EV minutes based upon the neutral zone results with each player on the ice - lower of course being better.  This essentially shows neutral zone defensive performance.  The y-axis shows "Neutral Zone Fenwick For Per 60" which is of course the offensive version of that same statistic.  The diagonal blue line is the break-even line - above that line means the team is winning the neutral zone with that player on the ice, while below means the team is losing.

Leddy: Early Slump a Mirage?

One interesting result here has been that Nick Leddy has been pretty damn good overall in the neutral zone - despite having weak possession numbers. Leddy's bad possession numbers has been due in large part due to awful team performance at getting shots off in the offensive zone and slightly less awful but still bad preventing of shots in the defensive zone.  These numbers are more likely to regress compare to neutral zone numbers, and thus give us strong reason to believe Leddy's early slump, which i discussed in my prior post, was a mirage.

1st Line Struggles in Neutral Zone

The first line (John Tavares) has not been good in the neutral zone overall.  Last year and in the lockout year, the first line was basically even in the neutral zone - getting a lot of offense and allowing a lot of opponents to do the same (Tavares of course makes up for this in what he does inside the zone).  This year, Tavares has been more negative than usual - he needs to provide more of a boost in the neutral zone from an offensive perspective.

Conclusion:

In short, the Isles Neutral Zone numbers do show the team improving and likely to improve further in some areas as the season goes on.

I apologize for the lack of specific numbers for each player mentioned above, but feel free to hit me up in the comments with questions and I can provide the same.