Amid the rocky start to this New York Islanders season, one offseason preaching point from the coaching staff has come true thus far: Jack Capuano wants offense from his blueliners, and they have delivered, including a recent franchise-record eight consecutive games with a goal from a defenseman.
Is it for real, or is it just a blip on hockey’s randomness radar?
What is happening?
Has Capuano’s “defense first” mentality gone too far or not far enough? A little over a dozen games into the season may seem a little early to start over-analyzing the coach’s strategy. But, being that Cappy has been around here for so long and has preached the same strategy for some time now, I feel like we can take an accurate reading on how it has impacted the team this season.
And to be sure, this “we need contributions from the D” is hardly new for Capuano. He’s preached it for years (most NHL coaches do), “stressed it from day one,” and it comes up during slumps and in offensive resurgences, like last spring.
“You got to realize in today’s game,” Capuano said, “you have to utilize your defensemen if you’re gonna have any success.”
So, for starters, this season already feels a little scary and from really every angle. The team looks disjointed, they trend in the bottom 5-10 in nearly every statistical category, and the games are hardly drawing a full crowd. I digress, but it doesn’t feel good thus far.
That being said, let’s take a look at the season thus far in terms of Cappy’s “defense must be active and score” philosophy and see how well it’s working out.
Where do the D stand league-wide?
First, streaks aside, is it actually happening?
A look at the NHL leaderboard has familiar names at the top of blueline scoring: Burns, Keith, Karlsson Weber, Shattenkirk, Hedman, even ex-Isle Mark Streit rounding out the top 10 (through Monday’s games) with nine points through 13 games.
Any Isles in the top 10? Nope. Top 20? Yep, Dennis Seidenberg slots in there tied for 16th with eight points. Okay, haha that must be an anomaly right?
Nick Leddy HAS to be in top 20...right? Anyone? Nah. We don’t see another Isles until rankings 45 and 46 which house the names Leddy and Travis Hamonic, respectively.
Okay, maybe goals gives us a different look. In fact, it is. Seidenberg is at number 2 with Leddy, Hammer, and Boychuck at 23, 28, and 32 respectively. So in goals scored, four Islanders defensemen are in the top 32 of the league.
In shots on goal, Boychuk (7th), Nick Leddy (33rd), and Clavin de Haan (49th) are in the top 50 blueliners. To underline the shooting percentage point, Seidenberg’s 15 shots on goal were last among the Isles’ regular blueliners.
Lopsided, back-heavy production
That sounds great, the defense is scoring!
But, why so low with the point totals? Oh, because the rest of the team isn’t scoring. The offense only has one player in the top 50 in goal scoring and that is our captain at 36th with 5 goals.
What’s even more infuriating is that our only other player in the top 100 in goal scoring is...Seidenberg. The training camp signing.
(Please note, as Seidenberg has to every reporter who’s asked, that he’s gotten the bounces. That 26% shooting percentage of his will not last.)
Don’t look now, but the Rangers have five players in the top 50 with ex-Isle Michael Grabner and college free agent acquisition Jimmy Vesey slotting in at 2nd and 16th...somebody grab me a bucket.
Basically, without getting into the math I did, the defense on this team has scored about 36% of the teams total goals. That’s a lot.
Let’s look at that stat for the top teams in the league and see if this “defensive activation” strategy can translate into wins: on the Habs the defense scores about 25%, Rangers it’s a meager 8%, and for the Oilers it’s 7.6%.
The Rangers are actually leading the league in goals for, at a pace that I feel won’t be sustainable. But if you look at a team like Montreal, where the defense contributes to about 1⁄4 of the scoring, you get a nice balanced attack.
Let the defense play defense. Forcing them to get super active in the offensive zone is only helping their stat sheets, it’s obviously not helping the Isles win games.
What further illustrates this team’s lack of defensive play is our USAT (unblocked shot attempts against). They rank in 4th in most unblocked shots allowed and 1st for most overall shots allowed. If you ask me, that doesn’t sound like a team that’s “defense first.”
How do we crawl out of this gutter you may ask? Unfortunately I can’t answer that. Results this early in the season are a little risky to form big conclusions, but so many team stats and rates are in the gutter that it sure appears things aren’t working.
Maybe the forwards aren’t pushing the offense as much because they’re worried about covering for aggressive defense, or maybe the whole system is out of sync for a variety of reasons (the breakouts? neutral zone? supply lines from the D?), and blueline goals are obscuring even worse variables.
What I do know is that this coaching strategy/philosophy needs to change, or maybe the staff altogether. Not that we bellyache about wanting changes in management around here. Nah...