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Question #10: Will the Islanders improve in their defensive zone?

Answer: it would be virtually impossible for them not to

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Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If failure is the best teacher, then the Islanders will be icing a stable of geniuses on defense this season. No major personnel changes have been made to the worst defensive team the NHL has seen in over a decade and it’s likely they will enter the season with mostly the same roster.

So the question of whether the Islanders can improve in their own end basically amounts to whether the same group of players can play better than they did last year.

So, can they?

Yes, they can and they will. It would be virtually impossible for them not to.

Thank you for your time and have a great day.

In all seriousness, I don’t see this as being much more complicated than that. Thankfully, neither does Barry Trotz, the Islanders’ new head coach:

One of the easiest things to correct, if there’s a commitment and a buy-in, is keeping the puck out of your net. We’ll need a bigger buy-in, we’ll put some structure, we’ll make sure the details are there and we’ll make players accountable.

When the problem is so obvious, the solution is too. And the problem here is nothing if not obvious: the Islanders were simply incapable of defending at a competent level last season. Their struggles were pervasive, performing at or near league-worst in seemingly every meaningful defensive metric.

Perhaps no moment summed up just how bad things got last season as when Trotz’s Capitals came to town on March 15 for the first game of a home-and-home set. The Capitals won that game 7-3 and here’s what Trotz said afterwards:

“I thought it came easy for us today.”

Trotz did go on to clarify that he was talking about the lucky bounces his team got, i.e., they didn’t win because they worked hard or played well. Which might actually be more insulting, I’m not sure. Either way, it was a valiant attempt by Trotz to try to spin it as criticism against his own team, and a hilarious one too, the implication that the Caps routed the Isles by four goals because of luck.

In truth, the Islanders looked indifferent and generally uninterested in offering any real resistance to the Caps’ attack. Consider the jaw-dropping comments made by Caps forward Andre Burakovsky after the game:

“The Islanders just gave us a lot of room to skate on from the beginning. I mean, my first three shifts I was skating around and around and around with the puck and making plays, we didn’t really expect that out of them. We were expecting a little bit harder pressure when we had the puck. But, yeah, they just gave us a lot of ice to skate on.”

This was an amazing quote for two reasons:

1. He didn’t just say he was skating “around and around” with the puck. No, he threw in a third “and around” for good measure. “I was skating around and around and around with the puck.” He felt the need to throw in that third layer just to properly convey how genuinely shocked he was to have been treated so generously by an NHL team.

See, the Islanders defense wasn’t just really, really bad last season. It was really, really, really bad. See the difference?

Anyway, here are a few of the shifts Burakovsky was talking about from the first period of that game. Look at how easily he darts in and out of space, cutting into the slot practically untouched.

2. Again, this was the first of two consecutive games against Washington. That Burakovsky didn’t even think twice about trashing the team he’d be seeing again the following night, when he’d potentially have to answer for it, was just unreal to me.

Yet in that second game, the Islanders did not play as though they cared much about Burakovsky’s clear and unfiltered disrespect as they sleepwalked through another game and lost 6-3.

It’s not that I wanted to see Burakovsky’s head separated from his body, it’s that I was expecting to see something extra from the Islanders in that second game. The 7-3 blowout loss at home should’ve been reason enough, but to read Burakovsky’s comments afterwards - prototypical “bulletin board material” - and respond the way they did was just embarrassing.

For me, it was the low point of a season of low points.

Defensive Stats

Of all the words devoted to this topic around the internet last season, I thought Alex Novet of The Athletic produced the best and most comprehensive statistical evaluation of the Islanders’ hapless defense.

He broke things down into three categories: Neutral Zone Defense (allowing entries), Defensive Zone Defense (allowing passes and shots) and Defensive Zone Exits (breakouts). I highly encourage you to read this article but here is a very quick summary of the stats provided (with the Islanders’ ranking in that stat in parenthesis):

  • Neutral Zone Defense: Islanders allowed 58.8 entries per game (9th-worst)
  • Neutral Zone Defense: nearly 75% of those entries allowed with possession (4th-worst)
  • Defensive Zone: Islanders allowed 0.83 unblocked shot attempts allowed per zone entry (2nd-worst)
  • Defensive Zone: approx. 38% of shots allowed came after multiple passes (worst)
  • Defensive Zone: though average at guarding the front of the net, the Isles allowed their opponents free reign everywhere else - passes from behind the net, from low to high and one-timers (worst)
  • Failure to Breakout: Islanders committed a turnover approx. 21% of the time they gained control of the puck in the defensive zone (4th-worst)

Translation: the Islanders allowed opposing teams to do whatever the fuck they wanted. They conceded the blue line, conceded the defensive zone and then conceded the puck once they got control of it.

Here’s a screenshot from one of the Burakovsky shifts which illustrates the second-to-last bullet point here:

This isn’t to say the Islanders did good in limiting shots from this area; they absolutely did not. Just that they did an average job of preventing passes to this area and this came at the expense of allowing the other team to do literally whatever else they wanted.

So what kind of structural changes should we expect Barry Trotz to implement?

To answer this, it might make sense to look back at what he did with the Capitals when he made some late-season defensive adjustments that ended up playing a pivotal role in Washington’s very unfortunate Stanley Cup run.

The most significant aspect of those changes was a move away from man-to-man coverage towards a more team-oriented approach that emphasized the tightening of gaps and increase in support in the neutral and defensive zones.

”We just talked about having numbers and layers, and making it difficult,” Trotz said. “A lot of the man-on-man coverages you see get broken down, and there are big gaps, and we just wanted to make sure that we didn’t have gaps. This game is about mistakes, and those mistakes can lead to scoring chances. So we wanted to have levels of insulation. We wanted to insulate certain areas of our game and we did it.”

Washington’s stifling defense was really on display during their playoff run, specifically via the 1-1-3 neutral zone trap that fueled their series wins over the potent offenses of Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Vegas. Here’s an example of the 1-1-3 in action:

The Caps played a passive forecheck, choosing instead to sit back and funnel the opposing team into impossible spots in the neutral zone. They’d force turnovers and transition quickly with their potent forwards. At times, as seen in the above clip, they’d almost be content to essentially concede the puck and clear it out of the zone back to Tampa, just so they could get set and try to goad them into an exploitable mistake.

This is a big reason why the Capitals, down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final vs Tampa Bay, came back to win the series by twice shutting out the NHL’s best offense in both Games 6 and 7.

Here’s how their 1-1-3 trap was described by players from both the Capitals and those teams they eliminated (all but two taken from articles linked to herein):

Matt Niskanen (Capitals defenseman):

“We don’t want to get away from that, where we can send two guys and try to force teams into mistakes. If you can hold either the red line or the blue line with layers of support, you can force teams into turnovers, and we’ve done a good job of that.”

“If you can be on top of them and turn over some pucks, stifle them, make it hard for them to gain entry with possession, that frustrates skilled players. If you can be in their face, just standing in the way, it’s amazing what that does.”

Niskanen again:

Remember when Okposo beat the piss outta me? Good times.

John Carlson (Capitals defenseman):

“We started defending more as a team versus individually.”

Tom Wilson (Capitals forward):

“I’m a lowlife scumbag who tries to injure opposing players and ruin their lives. Wait, what was the question?”

James Neal (Golden Knights forward):

“They sit back, right? We saw that before in the Tampa series. They clogged them up, a skill team. And they transition quick.”

JT Miller (Lightning forward):

“They’re really good at slowing you down. Right when you want to just chip it and go, there’s a guy, there’s a wall there, and guys are ready to go back and get it on the other side. It’s just their ability to stand up and make you force plays because it looks like there’s more ice than there is, and then all of a sudden they do a good job of staying in front and retrieving pucks.”

*Ed. Note: Some of the above quotes may have been, um, fabricated. Or misheard.

Does this mean Barry Trotz will employ the same 1-1-3 neutral zone trap with the Islanders this season? Not necessarily. He might, he might not; I have no idea what he’s gonna do. But it should at the very least reveal something very important: Trotz is a coach with the ability to both (a) devise a strong defensive gameplan, and (b) get his players to execute it perfectly.

See, it’s not like this was some revolutionary idea Trotz came up with. Teams have been playing some form of the trap for many years, whether as a default strategy or in specific game situations. There’s no magic formation that’ll unlock the secret to great defense. As with any strategy, it requires complete commitment from the players to be effective.

Look at the Islanders try to protect a third-period lead against Winnipeg by dropping the third forward back to hold the blue line (known as the “left wing lock” or 2-3 neutral zone trap):

There are three Islanders back, yet Winnipeg still enters the zone with ease. The initial forecheckers fail to angle the Jets toward one side of the ice so as to box them in (or “trap” them) in the neutral zone and so the Jets aren’t even forced into a dump-in. They simply carry the puck into the zone as if there was no third guy back.

In fact, this shift illustrates several of the stats pulled from Novet’s post. First, the Islanders allow the Jets to enter their zone (despite dropping a forward back). Second, they then allow the Jets to skate and pass the puck around however they want so they could clog the front of the net. Third, they fail to get the puck out of the zone three times in a row. This is just remarkably pitiful. By the way, the Jets spent another 30 seconds in the Isles zone after this clip cuts off.

Yes, Winnipeg’s a really good team. But the entire point of the trap is to prevent the other team from waltzing into your zone, particularly teams with superior skill, speed and offensive firepower. Just like the Caps did against Tampa.

So it’s not just about coming up with the right structure; it has to be executed properly through constant self-evaluation and correction, i.e., through good coaching. In this regard, the Islanders are now in very good hands.

The Islanders will undoubtedly be better in their own end this season. The team’s defensive play was already starting to improve last season once Doug Weight finally, mercifully got around to making some adjustments. They’ve now replaced the clearly-overmatched head coach (who inexplicably failed to act until Game 58) with an extremely accomplished one. One statistical model actually projects the Islanders defense to be better than league average this season, even with mostly the same roster as last year. Imagine that.

Like Trotz said, so long as there’s complete commitment from the players - defensemen and forwards alike - this should be an easy problem to solve.