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How the Islanders Performed in the Neutral Zone Under Doug Weight

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A look at how the Islanders performed in the Neutral Zone under Doug Weight

Three Players who exemplify the Good and Bad ways to play in the Neutral Zone.
Three Players who exemplify the Good and Bad ways to play in the Neutral Zone.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Islanders in 17-18 are going to look an awful lot in terms of personnel like the Isles of 16-17, for better or for worse. One thing that may change results is that this season will be Doug Weight's first as a coach with a full offseason to implement his own system.

One place we can look at how Weight's system worked, or how well certain players worked within it, is to look at play in the neutral zone.  This isn't a perfect tool - again, Weight may change the system a bit now that he has a full offseason to implement his plans instead of just a few days after getting the job - but it's what we can do.  I've recently finished tracking the Neutral Zone for all games after Doug Weight took charge, so in this post, I'll be going through those to see what happened in this third of the ice under the new regime.

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.

One final note before I continue - I have not yet tracked the final 20 games of Cappy's tenure (Planning to finish that project in August), so I cannot compare the Cappy and Weight parts of the season directly yet.

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I like to explain Neutral Zone Performance most simply with three particular graphs.  The graphs with explanations are below:

Individual Neutral Zone Responsibilities and 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 might imagine, defensemen are on the left side of the graph because well, they make less zone entries than forwards because of the difference in role.  Only one D-Man for the Isles under Doug Weight really attempted to make any controlled entries at any significant rate - that being the great Nick Leddy, who'll be mentioned a lot in this post - Leddy's Individual Controlled Entry rate is VERY high for a Defenseman.  It should be noted that Hamonic's carry-in rate was really low for what I've previously seen from him - it was higher under Cappy to start this year, and in prior years it was in the mid 30s at least.  There's always been a lot of talk about Isles D-Men activating, but in the Neutral Zone under Doug Weight, it was Nick Leddy and no one else.

Forward-wise, you shouldn't be too surprised with the fact that John Tavares takes one of the biggest roles on the team in the Neutral Zone and also led the team in controlled entry rate.  Josh Ho-Sang being second on the team is also impressive - do note that I was a bit more conservative at calling things "Controlled Entries" than other trackers (such as Corey Sznajder), so JHS' #s are lower than others may have them.  Casey Cizikas being extremely active, but being extremely dump-in heavy should also not be much of a surprise.

That said, it's a bit disconcerting to see how few other players are in that higher tier of controlled entries - in previous years, Frans Nielsen also occupied that area, and you'd have hoped for more from a guy like Strome or Nelson.  Jordan Eberle's #s per Corey's tracking aren't particularly high either, so his addition doesn't appear likely to change that.

One final note before we move on, as this is basically the LEAST important of these charts, I should make a note about Josh Bailey being almost amongst the Defensemen.  This is a product of the Tavares line - for multiple years now we've seen that one winger on JT's line is downright passive in the neutral zone - Matt Moulson at first, then Thomas Vanek, now Bailey.  This is NOT a problem (passenger jokes aside) - we'd rather John Tavares carry through the Neutral Zone than Josh Bailey and given that this has been a thing with multiple partners, it suggests that Tavares prefers this strategy and is not upset about not getting help in this area.

Defensive Neutral Zone Play:

There is more to individual performances in the Neutral Zone than the offensive element - players have an impact in defending entries and preventing opponents from winning the neutral zone with them on ice.  Corey Sznajder tracks Zone Entry Defense - noting how effective players are at directly defending each zone entry that is made against them when they're the primary defender, but I don't track those (due to time constraints).  Still, a minor issue with that stat is that there's more to defensive neutral zone play of course than simply directly defending zone entries (which most forwards don't do much of anyhow).

Instead, to quantify defensive neutral zone play, we can look at how opponents do in the neutral zone with each player on the ice.  How often do they enter the zone?  And how often do they do so with control?  The answer can be seen on the below graph:

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.

The first thing you will likely notice in this graph is one player all by himself in the upper right corner.  Yes, that's Travis Hamonic, allowing opponents to enter the Isles' zone at one of the worst rates of any Islander Defender (only Scott Mayfield was worse) but allowing Opponents to carry the puck in at a FAR HIGHER rate than any other Islander.  This is pretty awful for a defender and really characterizes how bad of a season Hamonic had last year and unfortunately, this will not be the last time we'll mention this in this post.  The Hamonic sample size isn't that large due to injuries - but when he did play under Weight, he was dreadful.  This is part of the reason why the Isles were presumably looking to deal Hamonic.

You'll also note some of the Isles' grinders in the bottom left - Nikolay Kulemin is all by his lonesome and Steven Gionta is also there to a lesser extent.  This is probably both a competition thing and a product of how these type of guys play - they don't take risks offensively in the neutral zone (we'll see that in a second), which means they can be more set defensively.  It's a tradeoff, and not necessarily a good one.

A few players do show some good results here that are worth noting - Nick Leddy again is stellar here, which is impressive since he is most definitely NOT being conservative in the Neutral Zone.  He's awesome guys.  Adam Pelech is nearly as good in the small sample, although again, he's a lot more conservative.

On the negative note, Jason Chimera is awful defensively in the neutral zone - he allows by far the most opponent entries with him on the ice.  This shouldn't be a surprise - Chimera is known to be awful at Defense for a reason - but it's still irritating to see given we have him for another year.  JHS is also in a bit of a negative area, which is something we can hope for him to improve going forward.

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Finally, let's try to put this all together.  The final graph I like to use takes the results of neutral zone play on both offense and defense while each player is on the ice and puts them both on one graph.  In this way we can see which players are good overall in the Neutral Zone, which are good in one area (offense or defense) only, and which are just plain bad overall.

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.

Unfortunately, only the Islanders only managed to win the Neutral Zone under Doug Weight when five Isles were on the ice.  Those Isles shouldn't be a surprise to anyone - there's the Tavares line, Josh Ho-Sang, and Nick Leddy.  JT's line and Leddy are guys you can count on at this point to be great  (although JT usually isn't as great as he was this past season - he's usually a guy a little above average in the NZ who makes his bread and butter in the offensive zone).  Josh Ho-Sang being great is an exciting sign, especially given the linemates he was given in his first NHL season.  He can still improve on the defensive end of the Neutral Zone too.  Still, as with all small sample rookie seasons, there's no guaranty these great #s will continue (Brock and Strome once had strong #s as well).

Travis Hamonic again shows up all by his lonesome as the worst defensive neutral zone Islander by far.  I don't know what happened with him, and I wish him the best in Calgary, but there's nothing good to say about his play last year, and Doug Weight's coaching did not improve it.

You'll note Kulemin and Gionta, along with Cizikas, in the bottom left - this is what I meant above about being great defensively only due to style - all three guys were negative in the neutral zone overall (though Kulemin was very close to break even) due to providing no offense to go with that defense - they were an ultra conservative line.  That's not necessarily bad obviously, just the context is needed before we praise them defensively.

Shane Prince was awful full stop.  As a big fan of acquiring him based upon his Ottawa stats, it seems safe to say now that he just has not worked out at all. His spot in the lineup should not be guaranteed going forward (though Alan Quine, despite not being terrible in the NZ, is not a particularly good replacement).

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Some Actual Numbers:

Below are some of the relevant actual numbers that lead to the above graphs.

Defensemen:

For those new to NZ Posts, some quick explanations as to what these numbers are:
NZ Score, also known as Neutral Zone Fenwick, is what we would expect a player's Fenwick (Shot Attempts not including Blocked Shots) % to be based solely upon the team's neutral zone results with them on ice.  Above 50% means you're above the break even line on the last graph and are "winning" the neutral zone.
Entry % is simply the % of entries made while a player is on the ice that were made by that player's team.  So if a player is above 50%, that player's team is out-entering the opponent.  
Controlled Entry % For: The % of a player's team's entries with him on ice that are made with control (by carry-in or pass=in)
Controlled Entry % Against: The % of Opponents' entries with that player on ice that are made with control.

As noted above, Nick Leddy was the only positive Neutral Zone Defenseman, although Adam Pelech came close to break-even.  That said, it should be noted there was an obvious reason for that - the two played together for a significant portion of time - when the two played together, they managed a 52.4% NZ Score, while when Pelech was with anyone else, Pelech was at 47.4% (terrible).

So, I wouldn't get too high on Pelech. Again, it's incredibly impressive that Leddy had the 2nd best controlled entry% against while having the highest controlled entry % for and being the only Islander Dman to out-enter his opponents.  He's awesome, folks.

You'll note Scott Mayfield weirdly prevented opponents from carrying in by a significant margin but also allowed the greatest number of carry-ins against. I've noted this as a trend for bigger slower defensemen on the Isles the last few years - Kevin Czuczman and Matt Carkner amongst others - opponents dump-in more against these guys because they feel they can get to the puck faster.

Otherwise, not much to say here that hasn't been said above.  These numbers need to be significantly better next year.

Forwards:

Again, not much new here.  Jason Chimera is bad because he's dreadful defensively, Shane Prince has been awful, and the usual fellows are up top.  I suppose I should add that Anthony Beauvillier, despite having a pretty awful corsi, actually stacks up not terribly here....but again, a large part of that is Josh Ho-Sang, who had a 51.1% NZ Score when playing with Beau and without whom Beau had merely a 48.8% (bad).

I know the Isles intend to use Eberle probably on top line, but I'd be really hesitant to break up that top line in my opinion, as by pretty much every metric they were great - despite the bad play of their teammates- and I wouldn't want to mess that up.  But I suppose the team will try out multiple combinations next year.

Conclusion:

Overall, the Islanders under Doug Weight had a neutral zone score of 49.5% - just below average.  That needs to improve going forward - it's not totally dreadful but it can and should get better.  There should be more than one line who is above average on this team, or they are in big trouble with a better Metropolitan Division.  That said, the subtraction of Travis Hamonic should be a major plus in this area of play, sad to say.