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Miscellaneous Islanders Thoughts: Losing Weight, Boosting Barzal

Also: Bolstered lottery odds, Barzal and Butchie the cantankerous individual

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NHL: New York Islanders at Calgary Flames
Doug Weight leads a rousing game of Hangman.
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

What follows is a short list of miscellaneous thoughts relating to the sorry state of the New York Islanders as the 2017-18 season winds down. This is something I either will or will not do from time to time.

1. Lottery Odds. Here are the Islanders’ current lottery odds (as the 7th-worst team in the NHL) combined with Calgary’s odds (as the 12th-worst):

Odds at no. 1 pick: 6.5% + 2.5% = 9%

Odds at top-3 pick: 20.4% + 8.2% = 28.6%

Things are pretty tight in the standings though, so these odds could receive a marginal swing in either direction depending on how the Islanders, Flames and those teams immediately above/below them perform in the last two to three games of their respective seasons.

The range of possible outcomes is probably something like 18% to 33% for a top-3 pick and 6.5% to 11% for the no. 1 pick. That last figure is just about the same odds that Edmonton had of winning the Connor McDavid lottery (11.5%).

The draft lottery will held on Saturday, April 28, and I hope you’re as excited for it as I am.

2. He’s a gifted individual. I’ll be posting a video tribute to former Islanders star and current color commentator Butch Goring in the near future. Here’s a short teaser:

At this point, Butchie has proven himself to be quite the cantankerous individual, wouldn’t you say?

3. Losing Weight. Head coach Doug Weight scratched both Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk from last Tuesday night’s 4-3 win in Ottawa. I have no problem with that itself, and in fact am a proponent of NHL coaches taking a queue from the NBA by keeping players out of games throughout the season as a way of keeping them fresh and maximizing their effectiveness.

What I do have a problem with is how Weight deployed his defensemen in the absence of his top pairing. In deciding who to play in Leddy’s spot on the top power play (PP) unit, Weight opted to go with Adam Pelech rather than the seemingly obvious choice, Ryan Pulock, who has been thriving of late and who, unlike Pelech, actually has considerable offensive ability.

Here’s the exchange Islanders announcers Brendan Burke and Butch Goring had shortly after Anders Lee’s first-period PP goal (on which Pelech notched a (meaningless) secondary assist):

Butch Goring: Adam Pelech likes the idea of playing on the power play, as he picks up an assist. He’s trying to send a message to Coach Weight: “You shoulda played me there sooner!”

Brendan Burke: You asked Doug prior to the game, “Who’s gonna step in and play that Nick Leddy spot on the top power play unit?” He said he liked the chemistry that Pulock and Jordan Eberle and Anthony Beauvillier have developed on that second unit, and he wanted to keep them in tact. And he said Pelech and Hickey will each get their opportunities based on how much each of them are playing at that point in the game.”

So let’s first assume that Weight is presumably still coaching to win, i.e., he probably wasn't doing this in service of the tank, to improve the Islanders chances of losing, and thus their lottery odds. That’s just not what coaches do.

Which makes this decision a particularly stupid one.

Ryan Pulock is, objectively, a much better offensive player than Adam Pelech. He’s probably better defensively too, sure, but that can at least be debated, I suppose. For purposes of the PP and offensive ability though, there’s quite simply no reasonable comparison that can be made between the two.

So whatever benefit is gained from the chemistry Pulock may have developed with the second unit, it is far outweighed by the fact that it’s the second fucking unit. The second PP unit generally plays around half as much as the first unit. So Doug Weight, in trying to win a hockey game, consciously decided to give the objectively inferior offensive option (Pelech) three times as much PP ice time as he gave to the superior option (Pulock).

It’s almost too stupid for words.

Which keeps in line with rest of the head-scratching, senseless decisions Weight has made in his absolutely abysmal rookie season as head coach.

Really, Weight should’ve put Pulock in Leddy’s spot on the top PP unit weeks ago, if not earlier. I’ve personally been calling for it since October. But Pulock has by now earned that opportunity with his increasingly impressive play and offensive production.

In fact, Pulock has probably been the Islanders’ best defenseman this season, period. Not just in shot-attempt differential or scoring rate but by the “eye test” as well. That might not be saying much considering how thoroughly terrible the Islanders defense has been, but he’s been one of the few legitimate bright spots of this extremely disappointing season.

The Islanders would be well served to get Pulock as much practice on the top PP unit as possible, especially in these last few meaningless games. That 100+ mph shot — which Pulock used to score not one, but two PP goals against Tampa Bay just three games prior off blistering one-timers — is a weapon few teams possess. It should be utilized more, not less.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for personnel decisions: if there’s a 100% chance your opponent would be thrilled for you to go with Player B over Player A, then you should probably go with Player A.

And which player do you think Ottawa (or any team’s) penalty killers would rather see out there running the Isles PP?

Would they rather see Ryan Pulock, the one with the 100+ mph slap shot? The one who leads all rookie defenseman in goals? The one who's tied for the 6th-most goals and 12th-most points of all NHL defenseman since January 1st?

Or would they rather see Adam Pelech, who has demonstrated a complete lack of offensive awareness, and who on the season has scored more goals into his own damn net (four) than he has into the other team’s net (three)?

Look, I get that this was an inconsequential game between two lottery teams, and that this one decision doesn’t matter in the long run. But what kind of faith must Weight's players have in his judgment if he can’t even get this no-brainer of a decision right?

Seriously now. This isn’t brain surgery we’re talking about here. We’re not trying to figure out how to bring peace to the Middle East. I’m not saying that an NHL head coach has an easy job - not in the slightest. But of all the decisions a coach can and/or should over-think, this here sure as shit ain’t one of them.

In a season in which the Islanders are on pace to allow more goals than any NHL team in more than a decade, in which they’ve allowed 50 shots on goal twice as many times as any other team in the league, in which their defensive strategy has actually been described by an opposing forward as extremely generous and easy to play against, Doug Weight somehow manages to keep finding new ways to distinguish himself as one of the most overmatched and downright inept coaches this franchise has ever seen.

4. Barzalder. It’s been a foregone conclusion for a while now: Mathew Barzal will win this season’s Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year. Brock Boeser’s injury against the Islanders back on March 5 was an unfortunate way for the race to come to its official conclusion, but that’s what happened. As it stood, Boeser would’ve had to go on a Barzalian tear just to have a chance.

Here are some interesting facts about the rookie season Mathew Barzal is wrapping up:

  • Barzal is having the best rookie season in the NHL in over a decade and the only players in the last 20 years to score more points as rookies than the 79 points Barzal has thus far accumulated are Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin.
  • Barzal is just the 14th player in NHL history (that’s 100 years) to record at least 56 assists as a rookie; 10 of the first 13 are Hall-of-Famers (nine already in plus one (Crosby) who will be).
  • Barzal is one of only 10 players in NHL history to notch 59 assists as a rookie. Six of the other nine are Hall-of-Famers.
  • Barzal needs just 28 assists in his last three games to tie Wayne Gretzky’s record of 86 rookie assists.

5. You make me better. Here’s one example of a play Barzal makes virtually every time he’s on the ice which demonstrates the incredible influence he has on a game.

This is what that cliché about “making your teammates better” looks like. It starts in the defensive zone, where Barzal cuts short a typical Islanders defensive breakdown before Tampa can capitalize on it.

Truth be told, I don’t love what Barzal did here. See, the Islanders’ defensive zone “system” is premised entirely on preventing high-quality chances in the slot. The wingers drop back and they basically encourage perimeter shots exactly like the one Girardi takes from the right point here.

As the shot is taken, the Islanders have enough guys back to cover the “home plate area” in front of the net, with a fourth guy (Eberle, the strong-side winger*) nearby just in case. They have numbers here. And yet somehow, amazingly, it’s Tampa’s Tyler Johnson who gets a point-blank shot, and Tampa’s weak-side forward (#37 Gourde) who remarkably finds himself completely uncovered at the back-door of the net.

* FYI: for those not familiar, the “strong-side” refers to that half of the ice the puck is on and the “weak-side” is that half of the ice in which the puck is not. A player’s responsibility away from the puck varies depending on whether he is on the same side of the ice as the puck.

It’s almost astounding, really.

Barzal should’ve seen Seidenberg and Pelech, the stalwart defensive pairing that they are, matched up with Johnson and Palat, respectively. And regardless of the fact that both defensemen had lost optimal position on their guys, Gourde was Barzal’s responsibility, and it’s doubtful that Barzal was “helping out” on Pelech’s man for that reason.

Barzal does get tunnel vision at times, with a tendency to go puck-chasing when he feels like he’s got a chance to gain control of it. And most of the time — as in this instance — he’s just so relentless and fast that it doesn’t even matter. His hyper-aggression pays off here as he’s able to swoop in and snatch the puck away before Palat could get a stick on it.

Next, Barzal builds up speed and carries the puck from below his own goal line, out of the D-zone, through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. It’s easy to take this kind of stuff for granted when we see it so often, but the ease with which he does this continues to amaze me. Watching Barzal skate circles around NHL competition at times feels like I’m watching the best player in a peewee league game.

Notice how Barzal forces both Tampa defensemen - Hedman and Girardi - to converge on him by taking this puck straight through the middle of the ice. Barzal’s speed and relentless aggression forces opponents to cheat towards him to avoid getting burned. This is what opens up a nice, wide lane for Eberle to skate into a dangerous wrist shot from the slot.

Barzal already commands a tremendous amount of respect from opposing defensemen, even Norris-level blueliners like Hedman.

The Islanders don’t score here but they easily could have and that’s entirely thanks to Mat Barzal. One moment, they’re scrambling, allowing a dangerous, point-blank opportunity. Within five seconds, Barzal is taking the puck into the heart of Tampa Bay’s defense, creating a high-quality chance for his right winger.

This has been an extremely disappointing season for the Islanders. There’s the inactive GM with life tenure, the in-over-his-head coach, the billboards, the empty rink, the star captain’s impending free agency, the abominable defense, the arena situation, the lack of accountability (with one notable exception), and, of course, the losing. It’s all so tiresome and I doubt I’m alone in feeling like there’s a dark cloud hovering over this franchise right now.

But amidst that darkness is a light that is shining bright: Mathew Barzal. And for that I am thankful.