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Isles Neutral Zone Performance Through 22 Games: Yet More Evidence of Coaching Issues

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A look at the Islanders' Neutral Zone Play reveals some more evidence that Coaching is a major factor in the Isles' poor play.

Nick Leddy is taking a HUGE role in the neutral zone this year.
Nick Leddy is taking a HUGE role in the neutral zone this year.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Islanders have been well.....awful to start this season.  The fancystats and point totals both agree - this team has been one of the worst in the NHL.  A lot of Islanders fans, including myself, have placed a good bit of blame on the coaching.  But well it's hard to make any measurements of coaching.

One way we can do that is to look what's happening in the Neutral Zone.  I've now tracked 22 games (up through Wednesday's game against Pittsburgh) of what has gone on in the Isles' neutral zone to see how things have changed tactically and skill-wise in the Isles game from previous years.  A look at this performance reveals some very interesting things.

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.

OVERALL TEAM NEUTRAL ZONE PERFORMANCE:

Relevant Statistics:

Entry % (% of Zone Entries made by Isles): 49.5%
Controlled Entry % by Isles: 39.1%
Controlled Entry % by Opponents: 41.4%
Neutral Zone Score/Fenwick: 49.1%

The Isles have been outplayed in the Neutral Zone this year, but not by a tremendous amount - a 49.1% Neutral Zone Score means that from the Neutral Zone Play alone, we'd expect the Isles to put up a 49.1% Fenwick (Unblocked Shot Attempt %).  The Isles are actually at 46.6% (28th in the NHL), so not all of the Isles' poor play can be explained from the neutral zone.

That said, there are some things on a team level worth noting here that have contributed to the problem. The Controlled Entry rates for both the Isles and their Opponents are very low (some of that is due to how I track games changing from in years past, so it's not all real), but the Isles are really really dump-heavy even considering that, and are dumping the puck in more than their opponents.  In addition, Isles are making less entries than their opponents.  The combination is why the Isles are losing the neutral zone, even if it's not outright domination.  In addition, the dump-heavy strategy is likely a reason for diminished offense - controlled entries are much more effective at generating shots, scoring chances, and goals.

Some other statistics worth noting:
Unblocked Shots Per Controlled Entry: Isles: 0.59, Opponents: 0.62
Unblocked Shots Per Uncontrolled Entry: Isles: 0.29, Opponents: 0.34

The Isles are putting up normal numbers for shots based upon their own zone entries.  By contrast, Opponents are getting a LOT more shots off on their own entries than we would expect.  In short, the Isles' performance in the Defensive Zone has been truly awful.

Who is responsible for that?  Well research has shown that while, as you'd expect, teams do have control of Defensive Zone and Offensive Zone Performance.  But Individual Players have much less control, at least in a sample size such as this.  What this suggests is that systems and coaching matter heavily in these areas.  So bad performance in this area suggests a lot of the blame rests once again at the hands of Jack Capuano.

INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE IN THE NEUTRAL ZONE:

Individual Neutral Zone Performance

The above graph shows the individual roles each player takes offensively in the Neutral Zone for the Isles.  The Horizontal Axis shows the individual burden each player takes in trying to get the puck into the offensive zone - literally showing what percentage of entries while that player is on the ice are made by that player.  The vertical axis shows the percentage of each player's entries that are with control, in other words are by carry-in or pass-in.

As you'll notice, the Defensemen are mainly to the left of the graph while the forwards are to the right - as you'd expect, forwards are the ones who usually get the puck down the ice.  Note however two exceptions:  Nick Leddy is making 20% of the team's entries with him on the ice, which puts him like a forward rather than a D-man. This is different from prior years where he was around 15%.  In response, his controlled entry %, which once again leads the D, is down from prior years.

Alan Quine by contrast is insanely passive in the neutral zone, rarely making entries on his own, actually being int he same neutral zone area on the graph as Travis Hamonic.

The above graph is merely offensive however, and doesn't show how well the team is doing in the neutral zone overall with each player on the ice.  For that, see the below graph:

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 black 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.

As you'd expect from the team numbers above, the majority of the team is below water in the neutral zone.  Only the fourth line - which has been above water by basically slowing down play and reducing back and forth play by both teams - and the deHaan-Pelech/Seidenberg pairs as well as Travis Hamoinc have been winning the neutral zone.  It's worth noting that the above mentioned players haven't been doing as well by overall corsi or fenwick, due to performance in the other zones.  That said, research suggests that performance in those zones for players is more variable, and a coaching change could very well be the catalyst to get players back up where they have been in the past.  (Of course guys like Leddy and Lee being below water isn't a good sign, as neutral zone performance usually is consistent for individuals).

CONCLUSION:

The Isles haven't been good in the neutral zone, but they haven't been terrible.  So there's some hope there if something was to happen that would change their systems in other zones.

That said, the loss of performance in the NZ from two years ago is very real, and losing maybe the Isles' best neutral zone player in Frans Nielsen is probably a decent part in the effect.  That said, the overall picture painted by the NZ #s suggests that a coaching change is indeed the move to make at this point.