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Islanders Neutral Zone Performance Through 36 Games

A look in three graphs at how the Isles are doing in the Neutral Zone over their first 36 games

NHL: New York Islanders at Carolina Hurricanes
This frequency of this position is probably why Dennis Seidenberg doesn’t rate so well in the Neutral Zone.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

As the season has progressed, the Isles have fluctuated around the middle of the pack in the league according to “Advanced” Stats - (in both Score Adjusted #s and Model #s). You can find those #s on a number of various websites. Back in November, I wrote a post going a bit deeper, looking at the Isles’ performance in the Neutral Zone through 13 games. I now have data for the Isles through the Christmas Break (36 games), and I think it’s a good time to look at what has and what hasn’t changed.

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 have three graphs I like to use to demonstrate performance in the neutral zone. Overall, unsurprisingly, the Isles are basically around average in NZ Performance, with a Neutral Zone score just above 50%. Also unsurprisingly, there’s a mix of players with good and bad neutral zone numbers on the team. (The Isles’ overall corsi is a bit more negative, which my #s suggest comes from giving up more shots than expected in the DEFENSIVE zone.)

Individual Neutral Zone Performance of the Islanders:

Figure 1: Individual Islander Neutral Zone Entries and Roles

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. That said, Nick Leddy comes close to being near the forward cluster in terms of the burden he takes in the neutral zone.

This is not the first time since he was drafted that John Tavares hasn’t led the Isles in % of entries made with control (Frans Nielsen led him a few years I tracked)- but it’s looking like the first time that another Islander player would have more total carry-ins than Tavares on the year. That’s Mat Barzal for you - unlike a guy like Frans Nielsen, Barzal is both carrying in at a higher rate than JT and taking a greater role in the neutral zone while doing it. That’s a pretty incredible feat for a veteran, to say nothing of a rookie.

Again the above simply shows individual zone entry performance, and not whether that performance is netting to a positive outcome. So the next graph tackles on-ice defensive neutral zone performance:

Defensive Neutral Zone Performance:

Figure 2: On-Ice Defensive Neutral Zone Performance through 36 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.

I’ve highlighted the Defensemen on this chart in green. It’s kind of a surprise now to see Nick Leddy not having better performance (as in past years) defensively, though it’s totally not a surprise to see Dennis Seidenberg in the top right. He’s bad defensively in the neutral zone and this should surprise absolutely no one.

Interestingly, two Isles players who are occasionally criticized for defense are in interesting positions. Ryan Pulock is the best Islander at preventing opposing players from carrying-in it would seem, though he allows a greater # of entries in total than you’d prefer. Basically it seems that opponents are being forced to dump it in with him on the ice, even if Pulock isn’t keeping the puck away from them.

In a similar vein: Josh Ho-Sang DOES allow more opponents to carry-in with him on the ice, but he reduces the # of times opponents are able to actually make zone entries significantly. You can see why this would create a perception he’s bad defensively - opponents are making dangerous entries at a higher % with him on the ice, which is easily noticeable, and less noticeable is that he’s keeping the puck out of their hands more often than other Isles players.

Okay Let’s put the offensive and defensive numbers together:

Overall Neutral Zone Play:

Figure 3: Overall Neutral Zone On-Ice Results thru 36 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 green 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.

Again, none of this should be a surprise if you’ve looked at the other graphs, but this graph does put together which players’ neutral zone packages are overall plus and which are negative. Mat Barzal is the Isles best Neutral Zone Player and it’s not even close, but certain other players have surprisingly been positive this year - Josh Ho-Sang and Casey Cizikas for instance. The rest of the Isles’ bottom six has been utter trash in the neutral zone, just as they have overall. A total reworking is needed there, but again, this is only corroborating what we already know.

Getting a good neutral zone playing 3rd line center is probably a must for the Isles (you’ll note that 6 of the 8 Isles Defensemen are at least even and with Boychuk out for a bit, just removing Seidenberg should fix things there), but again, the NZ Data is so far only corroborating what we already know.

In sum, the Isles are an average team that wavers between above and below average. That’s also the case in the neutral zone. A more aggressive attack through the NZ might be worthwhile, but they have too many players in the bottom six right now that just can’t prevent others from countering that aggression.