There are a myriad of reasons as to why the Islanders have performed so poorly this season. Systems and coaching, over-reliance on veterans, impatience with the youth, and poor talent evaluation have all played a role in getting this squad to their home in the Eastern Conference cellar. Andrew Ladd has, unfortunately, been a key disappointment this season.
Garth Snow allowed Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo to leave this summer, in free agency, for reasons still unknown. Perhaps he thought they were blocking other players. Perhaps he thought they weren't critical to our success last season and the season prior. Perhaps he was just looking for a change.
Suh-wing and a miss
According to Arthur Staple of Newsday, Snow had reached out to Steven Stamkos and his camp during the week prior to July 1, when teams are allowed to speak to pending free agents. His Plan A, apparently, was to go hard after Stamkos on July 1. Not a bad idea. Stamkos is an elite goal-scorer and is close friends with John Tavares. He wouldn't have necessarily been that "stud winger" for whom many fans pine, but he and Tavares on the same team would have been absolutely deadly. It would be like rolling two first lines, with the option of throwing them on the same line a la Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
As we all know, Stamkos re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, before even reaching free agency, on June 29. Earlier that day, another rumored target, Taylor Hall, was sent to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Adam Larsson. He would have been that "stud winger," but Garth apparently wasn't willing to move Travis Hamonic to acquire him.
In one day, Snow saw the two best options he could have realistically acquired disappear into thin air, and in the mean time, Nielsen and Okposo were busy shopping themselves around, likely to depart. Snow was forced to resort to other options.
Not really a bad third (fourth?) option
His new primary target was Andrew Ladd, an established veteran left wing who had spent extended time captaining the Winnipeg Jets before being rented out to the Chicago Blackhawks at the end of last season. Ladd spent most of his time with Winnipeg playing on their first line with Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, and while the rest of their team struggled during most of his time, the Ladd-Little-Wheeler line was excellent. (A sampling of some of their work):
According to an article by Garret Hohl at JetsNation, the trio dominated at 5v5. They posted a GF/60 of 2.99, all while driving play to the tune of 55.9 CF% over 5 seasons (article is from the beginning of last season, October 2015, so the data is from then). By himself, he carried a 52.8 score- and venue-adjusted CF% from 2012-2016 (four seasons), though that number dipped to 50.49% when taking last season alone (these numbers, as well as any other CF% numbers referenced in this article, are courtesy of Corsica.hockey, by the excellent Manny Perry). Still, he managed to score 25 goals and 46 points last season.
Essentially, Ladd was a great player who was starting to show signs of decline during his age-29 season, but a player who one could reasonably assume might maintain an effective level of play for at least a few more seasons. His style of play is similar to that of a grinder, though one with demonstrable hockey skill. Personally speaking, based on the evidence, I (all of us, really) knew that he wouldn't be effective for the length of his contract, but we thought/hoped we would at least get a few good seasons out of him.
The fear with players of his ilk is that when the decline begins, it does so sharply. Eric Tulsky conducted some research and determined that forwards' scoring abilities drop like a stone around age 30. Ladd scored a bit on the lower end of what he is used to scoring, but 46 points was what he had scored the year before and in 2012-13, and only maxed out at 62 points in 2014-15. In other words, he still produced in line with most of his career.
This season, however, has told a different story. Through 28 games, Ladd has three(!) goals and three(!) assists for six(!!!!!!!) points. This paces out to be roughly 18 points, rounding up. I did the math twice because I didn't believe it, but it's true. Ladd is on pace to only score 18 points this season, his first as an Islander. Bear in mind that he is shooting 7.3%. It isn't low by any means, but it is a full 4.3 percentage points fewer than his career average of 11.6%. It gives some context to his low goal totals, and thus his low point totals. Theoretically, he shouldn't be this bad, though there's evidence to suggest it shouldn't be terribly surprising.
Okay, so his scoring appears to have tanked, at least to this point. That, more or less, could have been predicted, and makes Snow look very foolish. But Ladd wasn't just known for his scoring ability - he was a well-regarded two-way player with the shot differentials to match. We already knew that he had seen his percentages dip to just above break-even last season, but in every season prior, he had displayed play-driving ability. Tulsky also investigated age's effects on players' play-driving abilities, discovering that CF% typically starts to tank around age 34 or 35. So, perhaps he has kept up his underlying numbers, at least contributing in some meaningful way.
Haha, yeah, not so much. It's only been 28 games, so it's obviously not that large a sample, but his current score- and venue-adjusted CF% is 43.39%. Yeah. That Is Bad(d).
But, the team as a whole has been rather abysmal in the shot differential department. It might not be just him. I decided to compare his percentages with the rest of the Islanders. By an act of the supernatural, I assume, his 43.39% ISN'T the worst number on the team. In fact, it's only sixth-worst, behind Ryan Strome, Shane Prince, Hamonic, Alan Quine, and Nick Leddy. The team is a bit better with him off the ice, though only marginally, with the team posting a 45.9% SVA CF%.
And then, of course, there's this (click to enlarge):
This is a chart of each player's individual average Game Score - Game Score is a measure of single-game productivity (click here to read more about Game Score, by Dom Luszczyszyn). By this measure, he is averaging .06 GS/game, which is quite bad, and he's had 11 "Awful" games, which sounds about right.
UPDATE: Garik revealed to me on Twitter that Ladd had surgery for a sports hernia before the start of last season, and Garret Hohl, the JetsNation writer referenced earlier, has speculated that he never properly recovered, which may have had something to do with his dip in his shot differentials. If this is the case, it would make Garth's investment look all the more unwise.
None of this is to say that Andrew Ladd is the sole reason we are awful, as a team, this season. In fact, his SVACF% (and everyone else's) is so abnormally low, that I'd be willing to bet that coaching plays a large role in this, and I would want to see his performance under a new coach before making a final judgment. That being said, good players are supposed to transcend these sorts of obstacles and still perform well. Especially those that just got 7-year contracts.
The signing was made with the knowledge that he'd likely decline hard at some point during the term, but nobody suspected that such a drop-off would occur in year 1. Hopefully, he finds a way to turn it around for at least a couple of seasons, or we're going to have a Wade Redden-situation on our hands.