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Islanders Early Season Analysis: 3 things to watch for using Basic Analytics

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Using Basic Analytics to Look at the Beginning of the Islanders' Season: What we should be looking for and what we've seen so far.

Johnny Boychuk's level of play will be a key to determining how far the Isles are actually going this season.
Johnny Boychuk's level of play will be a key to determining how far the Isles are actually going this season.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Islanders have played 3 games so far this season, which is too few games to really take much stock in any statistics - team or individual - as a predictor of future performance.  The statistics do however, provide a description of how things have gone in these games, and we can use these stats, along with what we knew about this team going into the season, to find a few things to pay attention to going forward.  In this post, we'll be looking at what the stats show so far and what they suggest we need to continue looking at.

The Team's Shot Differential (Corsi)

Last Year, the Islanders were a negative shot differential team (by Shot Differential, I am talking "Shot Attempts," or "Corsi") when you adjusted for the effects of the score on their games - 49.67% - and started the season not so well by this metric.  Score Adjusted Shot Differential is one of the leading indicators of future team success - teams that outshoot their opponents tend to win more hockey games for obvious reasons - having more shots when adjusted for score means that teams are controlling more of play and are directing more on net (or taking fewer shots themselves) and unlike goal differential, the higher amount of shots per game means these statistics become more meaningful more quickly.

That the Islanders went from 53.4% (VERY good) to 49.67% (Below average) was a bad trendline for the Isles, who relied more and more on better goaltending last year.  Should this team want to be a cup contender, it almost certainly has to improve this number - and losing Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo will hurt here.

As mentioned above, three games are not an adequate sample size to know if they're accomplishing that so far - the Isles have a 50.7% differential so far this year, but that's far from meaningful.  Still, It's nice to see them not tank given the loss of two of their better players and the introduction of Jason Chimera (who has been bad at this in the past), Andrew Ladd, and the two kids of whom we know very little.

The Defense's Performance (Again, Shot Differential)

Last year, the Islanders had a problem- whereas in 14-15, the Defense had two super good Defense pairings - Leddy-Boychuk and Hamonic-DeHaan - last year's Isles had only one and a half - Travis Hamonic, Nick Leddy, and Calvin deHaan.  Brian Strait was totally miserable (as he had been before) and dragged down Thomas Hickey, but the real surprise was Johnny Boychuk failed to have a positive influence on preventing shots aimed at the Isles' net and on the shot differential in general.

This year, the Isles added Dennis Seidenberg and have played him in place of Ryan Pulock. Analytics people have mocked the move for pretty good reason - for three years now, Seidenberg has been a total anchor on team shot differential, and in some metrics ranked WORSE than Brian Strait.  Ryan Pulock meanwhile rated positively by shot differential, and as a young player might've even improved on that measure.

Despite this, Seidenberg has actually played pretty solid so far - he had a bad first game, but then did well against Washington and Anaheim.

D Corsi

All Numbers Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

Five Islanders' D men are actually in the green, although this is not using score adjusted statistics, so the numbers actually are worse than they look.  But Johnny Boychuk has...not played as well (and interestingly has gotten near the least amount of 5v5 minutes).

Again, this is too early to mean anything.  The odds favor Seidenberg's #s collapsing and the Isles would be better served playing Ryan Pulock, as many suspect.  But we need to be looking at Boychuk carefully going forward as that's maybe the biggest area of concern on this end.

Neutral Zone Play:

In the past few years, I have tracked the Islanders' neutral zone play - meaning how often the Islanders and their opponents entered the offensive/defensive zones from the neutral zone and how often they did so with control of the puck - by carry or pass-in- and how often they did so without control - by dump-in or tip-in.  I didn't track more than 25% of last year, but it was clear there was a change from 14-15 in that the Islanders became a less aggressive team last year - dumping the puck more often than they had before.

The problem with dump-ins is that while they're perceived as safer than carry-ins, they're in general less effective overall - they result in substantially fewer shots and goals than carry-ins and the drawback of a failed carry-in is much smaller than coaches think.  The 14-15 Isles benefited from carrying the puck in at a higher rate than their opponents.  Last year's Islanders were hurt by the opposite.

Limited tracking this year performed by myself suggests the Islanders have continued their strategy from last year into this one.  In yesterday's first period for example, the Islanders dominated play, and did indeed enter the offensive zone 22 times to the Ducks' 14.  But the Isles only entered the Ducks' zone with possession 6 times, which is a lousy rate.

It IS possible to win hockey games - even convincingly - without carrying in a lot.  The Los Angeles Kings are the ur-example of a dumping team controlling possession.  But it usually relies on strong neutral zone DEFENSE as well, which can be tough.  If the Isles persist in this strategy, abandoning a bit of what worked well two years ago, they will put more pressure on the D, which as noted above, is a bit of a question mark.

Conclusion:

Again, it's really early.  But these three things are areas I think we should be looking at in the first few weeks of the season, as they'll give us a good early picture of where this season is going.  Is this a possible successful season?  Or is more mediocrity in store?  You can make arguments either way, but these areas will give us our first indications.  So far things are slightly positive, but it is too early to tell.