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Comparing the Islanders to Last Season’s Avalanche, Devils and Vegas

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Is there something to the Islanders’ surprising start?

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Brocktober has helped cover for a slow 5v5 start by the Barzal line.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

All stats in this article do not include play for (non-Isles) games Sunday, Nov. 4. All stats via offsidereview, except 2nd chart is from Natural Stat Trick data.

Many experts around the hockey world predicted the Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, and Vegas Golden Knights to each finish bottom-5 in the NHL last season, yet the Devils and Avalanche snuck into the playoffs, claiming wildcard spots, while the Golden Knights marched all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Each of the three teams benefited from a hot start to the regular season, winning at least eight of its first 13 games. This season many experts pegged the Tavares-less New York Islanders to finish bottom-10 (if not bottom-5) in the league, yet they are off to a shocking start, at 8-4-1, as of Sunday evening, including five straight wins, all against divisional opponents, while sporting the best goal-differential in the Eastern Conference.

Even for the most optimistic Islanders fan, it has been a surreal past couple weeks, which included back-to-back victories over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Do the Isles have anything in common with last season’s Avalanche, Devils, or Golden Knights? Let’s take a look below at each team’s schedule and performance through 13 games. (Stats are score-adjusted.)

In terms of each team’s schedule, we can see that while VGK exploded out of the gate, winning eight of their first nine games, COL and NJD won four of their last five (through 13 games) after an up-and-down first couple weeks, which aligns with NYI’s current 5-game winning streak.

While COL faced largely difficult opponents, NJD and VGK benefited from a softer mix of adversaries, with 7-of-13 on home ice. In contrast, this season’s NYI have faced more difficult opponents, with only 5-of-13 at home.

5v5 Defensive Zone Play and Goaltending

In terms of 5v5 play, NYI have by far the best Fenwick-based save percentage (.963), but they also boast a clear lead in expected Fenwick save percentage (.947). Credit Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner (and also lady luck, to some extent), but this is also a result of the defensive-zone system Trotz has instilled.

Notice that all four have strong starts in terms of 5v5 goaltending, while COL, VGK, and NYI have outperformed their expected save percentage at 4v5 as well. In the NHL, a ton rides on goaltending performance as well as related bounces/luck. If even one of Greiss or Lehner can continue to play close to this level most of the season, NYI’s playoff-qualifying chances are much higher than most expected entering the season.

5v5 Offense

COL, NJD, and VGK had four to seven more expected goals at 5v5, yet the Islanders are greatly outpacing their own expected total, 27 to 20. This is mostly due to production with the Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas lines on the ice. While Mathew Barzal’s line has struggled to score out of the gate, the other three lines are outproducing the goal-rate of NYI’s corresponding lines from 2017-18 (entire season rate, via Natural Stat Trick):

The Islanders will likely see their scoring decline to some extent without Barzal on the ice at 5v5, as their shooting percentage is celestially high, but the Beauvillier-Barzal-Eberle line is bound to see their on-ice scoring rate rise if they continue to produce scoring chances, as they have in recent games.

5v4 Promise

In terms of 5v4 power play, while COL’s 10.7 expected Fenwick shooting percentage was high, NYI’s 14.8% to start the season is bonkers. Here is a quick visual of NYI compared to the other top 10 teams in the NHL this season for the stat:

  • 15.0
  • 14.8 NYI
  • 14.6
  • 14.4
  • 14.2
  • 14.0
  • 13.8
  • 13.6
  • 13.4
  • 13.2
  • 13.0
  • 12.8
  • 12.6
  • 12.4
  • 12.2
  • 12.0
  • 11.8
  • 11.6
  • 11.4
  • 11.2
  • 11.0
  • 10.8
  • 10.6 EDM
  • 10.4
  • 10.2 MIN, SJS
  • 10.0 PHI, TOR, DET, PIT, CHI
  • 9.8 OTT

(Nine other teams are between 9.0 and 10.0.)

If there is not sufficient evidence that Isles are shooting selectively at 5v5, there appears to be plenty reason to believe they are at 5v4.

It is working, too: NYI’s expected goals-for per-60 at 5v4 is 10.1, edging out three other NHL teams, each armed with loads of talent, for 1st in the league:

  • 10.1 NYI
  • 9.3 WPG
  • 9.1 TOR
  • 8.1 SJS

If the Islanders can continue to set up Lee and Eberle with scoring chances from the lower slot, expect their power play to jump from middle-of-the-pack into the top-10, if not top-5.

4v5 Penalty Killing

At 5.6 goals-against per-60, the Islanders’ penalty kill stands at 7th best in the league, while its goals-for rate of 1.9 per-60 is good for 4th best.

Credit Greiss and Lehner, since the expected rate is 17th best, but also give some love to the coaching staff’s new system as well as the penalty killers (including newcomers Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula) for improvement as the team was 28th best last season for expected goals-against rate.

Notice that NYI’s expected rate is significantly better than COL’s and NJD’s at this point last season, while three of the four teams were off to good starts preventing goals at 4v5.

Conclusion

Can the New York Islanders be a Cinderella story for the 2018-19 season, as the Avalanche, Devils, and Golden Knights were in 2017-18? It looks a lot more promising than two weeks ago, but there is a long way to go.

Thanks to kschmann for the idea of comparing 2018-19 NYI to 2017-18 COL, NJD, and VGK.