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Islanders Neutral Zone Performance Through 13-Games

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A look in three graphs at how the Isles are doing in the Neutral Zone over their first 13 games

Matt Barzal doing Neutral Zone THings
Matt Barzal with a Neutral Zone Carry-In - Something he is VERY good at.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

(Ed. Note: Reminder that garik will be hosting an Islanders video-cast this Thursday at 9 pm, talking all things stats and more.)

“Advanced” Stats - or rather both Score Adjusted #s and Model #s - have placed the Islanders this season as somewhere a little north of average. You can find those #s on a number of various websites. But another way we can look at the Isles season is to look at their performance in the Neutral Zone so far this year. Fortunately, I’m tracking the Isles in the Neutral Zone this season, and I now have some data to show how the Isles are performing in that area.

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.

I like to use Three specific graphs to illustrate performance in the neutral zone: one for Individual Offense, one for Defense, and one for an Overall Picture.

Individual Neutral Zone Performance of the Islanders:

Figure 1: Individual Neutral Zone Performance of the Isles

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.

In short, the further right on the graph, the more active each player is in attempting to make zone entries, while the higher the player is on the graph, the greater % of entries that player makes are by carry-in or pass-in. As you might expect, Defensemen tend to be on the left side of the graph as it’s usually forwards who make zone entries, while forwards tend to be on the right.

As usual, John Tavares is the best Islander at entering the offensive zone via carry-in. That said, he’s maybe a smidge more passive in entering the zone this year than he has been in years past.

One player who has NOT been passive is Mat Barzal, who takes the largest burden while he’s on the ice toward creating zone entries....while still being fairly efficient at getting the puck with control. Pretty damn impressive for a rookie. Jordan Eberle incidentally has also been very active, but very prone to dumping the puck in (though he has games where he’s a carry-in monster, so this could change going forward).

On Defense, it should be noted it’s a tiny sample, but Ryan Pulock being in the same area as Nick Leddy is a nice sign to see. Leddy is elite at carrying the puck into the offensive zone, and the Isles haven’t had a second guy like that since Lubo Visnovsky retired.

Defensive Neutral Zone Performance:

The Next Graph deals with DEFENSIVE Neutral Zone Play. See, while a player may be good at getting the puck in himself into the offensive zone with control, if he does so in a way that allows opponents to do so as well, he can of course still be negative in the neutral zone. The following graph isolates the results of opponents in the neutral zone while each player is on the ice:

Figure 2: Defensive On-Ice Neutral Zone Play Through 13 Games

The Horizontal Axis of the above Graph shows how often opponents enter the Isles' zone with each player on ice - so the further left, the better. The Vertical Axis shows how often those opponents enter the zone by carry-in or pass-in. So it's better to be on the bottom left corner of this graph if possible.

So to add on what I mentioned above, John Tavares has been very good at carrying-in the puck so far, but has been awful at preventing opponents from doing the same. This is not THAT surprising - traditionally Tavares seems to play a very high-pace style - both he and his opponents tend to get a lot of entries and carry-ins, with Tavares winning out by being better at doing damage with those entries. That said, usually his offensive performance and defensive performance in the NZ even out, and they don’t this year. If that improves, JT could become even more deadly.

Incredibly Mat Barzal has the opposite, with opponents managing the least % of dangerous carry-ins with him on ice and one of the lowest rates of entries against. The kid is awesome. You can sort of see here by the way where Josh Ho-Sang might’ve annoyed the coaching staff - while he didn’t allow a great # of entries in his small sample, opponents frequently managed carry-ins against him, which will look really bad. (Again, this is not really a good reason for sending him down considering the other options, but you can see here why the coaching staff had a beef)

Overall Neutral Zone Play:

The final graph I have for this post puts everything together, by showing how each player does both offensive and defensively in the Neutral Zone.

Figure 3: Overall On-Ice Neutral Zone Performance of Every Islander Player Through 13 Games

The horizontal 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 vertical 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. So again, you want to see players in the top left corner and not in the bottom right, although anywhere is fine as long as you are above the break-even line.

As you can see, the Isles in general are above 50% in the Neutral Zone (which is why most of their players are above break even), although not by a lot, so there are a lot of players hugging break even. That said, there are a few stand outs.

As you may have gathered, Mat Barzal has been terrific in the neutral zone as have a number of other players. Some other players like Hickey-Mayfield have also been excellent. More negative has been Brock Nelson, Jason Chimera, and Anthony Beauvillier - the Isles Bottom 6 has been a problem overall and we see that here as well.

Anyhow these are the numbers about 15% of the way through the season and it will be interesting to see how things progress.