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The Islanders Are Playing a Faster Game

The integration of rookies like Devon Toews, as well as a strong stretch from Mathew Barzal, have the Islanders playing an effectively fast game.

NHL: New York Islanders at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, before we get going here, I want to wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year. The Islanders had a roller coaster of a 2018, but with things looking consistently better by the week, there should be a lot of optimism heading into 2019. The team has backed that up with wins in seven of their last eight games, including four in a row dating back to before the Christmas holiday.

Within those games one of the more interesting recent trends for the Islanders has been their increased pace of play over the last stretch, highlighted by the integration of Josh Ho-Sang and Devon Toews into the lineup. Before we go further, let’s talk about how pace is defined.

As Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) defines it in the below tweet, “Pace” is defined by the amount of shot attempt events at 5v5 play per hour. In other words, teams that have high event games with a lot of shot attempts are considered to be faster paced teams.

Data as of January 2, 2019

But, does this have any correlation to winning? Well, not really (there is a .16 correlation between points and pace, which indicates a weak relationship). It’s really more about how exciting a team may be. We can show fairly easily — Carolina, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and San Jose make up the top five. The bottom five, which include the Islanders, are teams equally all over the map in terms of standings position.

Despite the fact that pace doesn’t correlate to winning, there’s been a shift in the Islanders’ pace in recent games. Below is a chart of a rolling five game average of Islander pace over the course of the season:

Data as of January 2, 2019

We can see two peaks, one around Thanksgiving and one that has been more recent (and looks to be trending upwards yet). The initial peak likely could be due to competition: in that time period the Isles played faster-paced teams including Carolina, Washington, and New Jersey. That’s also been somewhat true of more recent games. Games against Toronto and Ottawa have potentially made similar impacts on how the Isles are playing games.

But there are a few differences at the player level, which we can examine using the below chart.

Data as of January 2, 2019

It’s not necessarily a bad thing for players to play at a slow pace. The Islanders’ third and fourth line clearly play slower than the first two lines. In the case of the Cizikas line, especially, that’s a good thing. Their strength is in their defensive game and that line, in particular, has done an outstanding job suppressing shots and high danger chances against this season.

But, this is a different team now than the one we saw a month ago. The infusion of Ho-Sang, Toews, and Michael Dal Colle have added a dimension of both skating and skill into a lineup constructed to simply grind out games. And in fact, over the last five games (which, calling back to the above chart, have been faster for the Islanders), we can see how this bears out by looking at player paces in the last 5 versus their season averages.

Data as of January 2, 2019

We can see clearly there have been huge jumps by the Barzal line over the last few games, as well as many of the defensemen on the team. Some of the team, at large, are still playing near their season average, but as a whole it’s become clear the Islanders are playing a “faster” game of late than they were earlier on the season.

So, at the end of the day, what does this all mean? Well, in terms of actually winning games, as mentioned - not all that much. But pace can dictate an exciting brand of hockey, which the Islanders find themselves playing over the last few games. In fact, Their most recent 99.8 shot attempt events per game ranks in the top half in the league, and when you add in the context of the integration of youth, it makes the Isles an intriguing watch right now.

All data for this piece by Natural Stat Trick, unless otherwise specified.