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Three Takeaways: Islanders Observations From Week 1

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A closer look at some key issues that have unfolded for the Islanders after the first week of play.

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

No need for a long introduction today. Here’s where things stand after the first week of the New York Islanders’ season:

  • The Islanders had a rough homestand. They have a 1-2-0 record in their first three games.
  • Some of the team’s most prominent players have struggled.
  • It’s been three games. So, it’s going to be okay. Maybe. Probably.

With that said, here are three key things I’m thinking about after the first homestand:

Concern Levels range from Green (not concerned) to Red (DEFCON 1)

1) The Goaltending Will Probably Be Fine

Thomas Greiss was pretty spectacular in Sunday’s win over Winnipeg, stopping 35 of 36 shots. He’s now entering his second season with Barry Trotz, Mitch Korn, and Piero Greco, so he’s pretty well-accustomed to what the staff is expecting. So far, so good.

The bigger focus right now is unquestionably on Semyon Varlamov, who had a rough go of it on Tuesday. And overall, he’s looked a bit shaky. Part of that could be acclimation to a new environment. Other things, such as simple volatility in goaltending, could play a role as well. The good news? It doesn’t really matter because regardless of what it is, we’re talking about just 88 minutes of game play. It’s simply not enough to make any judgments.

There’s two things that need to be called out: the first is a baseline trope I’ve touched on. There is an extremely low probability that any goalie would produce another .930 season. Expecting that out of Varlamov - or anyone else, including Robin Lehner - is already pretty unfair.

And perhaps more importantly, he hasn’t performed that poorly.

Varlamov’s 5v5 goals saved above average (GSAA) through four-ish periods is +0.02, meaning he’s basically performing as expected relative to the quality of shots he’s seen. That’s not great, but it’s also not horrible. However, he has been bad on the penalty kill, where he currently holds a .727 save percentage allowing three goals on eleven shots. Intuitively, that seems pretty unlikely to continue.

So while the goaltending (especially on special teams) has not particularly helped matters - the team lost on a powerplay goal Friday and fell behind while shorthanded on Tuesday - it hasn’t been an extraordinary problem either. Varlamov’s .872 save percentage is sure to rise over time, so for now, this does not register as a real concern.

Concern Level: Green

2) The Isles’ Top Line Has Been Bad... Does It Matter?

October 10, 2019: After 3 GP

One of the reasons the Isles’ have had issues scoring is the lack of production from Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal, and Jordan Eberle. Between the three of them, they’ve contributed just one goal and one assist combined. It’s not just the production either. Their expected goal rates, especially defensively, have been lacking which has created somewhat of an ugly picture on the ice.

Chemistry is weird wherein sometimes what clicked last week may not this week. Lines are inherently flexible and churn throughout the year, which is something that coaches use to their advantage when players do struggle. That might be something for Barry Trotz to consider, as players not on the Anthony Beauvillier, Derick Brassard, and Leo Komarov line have not really produced yet. Exacerbating that with a dysfunctional top line won’t help the Isles win games, especially during early-season play when systems aren’t fully matured.

Long term, there’s no real concern with regard to these three players. Barzal has shown flashes of brilliance early on. He’ll almost unquestionably be back to producing points sooner rather than later. Eberle and Lee have looked a little more discombobulated at times with both players combining for just 8 shots in the three games, but there’s enough of a productive track record that any super-early season concerns should be alleviated on historical precedent alone.

The reason this is an “issue” is because there’s just not enough depth to compensate for a drop in core production. Whether the three of them produce together or separately, it’s simply imperative that the Islanders are getting something out of them for them to win games in a consistent manner.

Concern Level: As individuals, very green. As a line, mostly green but there’s cause to try something new, too.

3) Noah Dobson & The Defensive Rotation

The biggest issue right now comes on the Isles’ defense, where outputs range from awful to “fine enough” to Noah Dobson.

After a somewhat rough introduction during the first period highlighted by multiple defensive zone giveaways, Dobson acclimated well and ended up with a pretty outstanding first showing. He finished with a primary assist, an expected goals for percentage of over 66%, and led the Isles in Game Score.

Obviously, Dobson’s emergence as a top prospect comes with a lot of hype. But after a quality first showing, it’s fair to want to see more of what he can offer. That means someone, whether Johnny Boychuk or another right-handed defenseman, will need to be scratched

The question of who he should replace is an interesting one. He played in Boychuk’s stead on Tuesday, but with the Isles giving up five goals, it seems pretty likely that Barry Trotz will insert Boychuk in for at least one game this weekend. Neither Scott Mayfield nor Ryan Pulock have had a good start to the season, which means they could be at risk, but Trotz has a lot of trust in Pulock as he is currently the team’s leader in ice time. That leaves Mayfield, who was really good last season but is last on the team in expected goals for share (38.08%) so far.

Trotz is quite experienced managing player personnel, so it’s not so much a matter of questioning his decisions as much as it is wondering how the team will utilize Dobson moving forward. He appears ready to be in the league full time, and while the team does have 8 more games before the first year of his contract officially hits.

As a whole, the Islanders have given up 2.21 expected goals against per hour at 5-on-5 score-adjusted play, which ranks 20th in the league. That’s actually right in line with their performance of last season (2.20), when they finished tenth, which is an indication of just how much noise there actually is around the metrics so early in the season.

In other words, even with some guys looking pedestrian in the first handful of games, the overall output of the team has been completely in line with expectations defensively using last year as a benchmark. That alone should alleviate any major concerns.

Concern Level: Green

So, Are There Concerns?

It’s too early in the season to worry about a lot of the things that appear bad on the surface. The season is so young that there’s just going to be a ton of noise in the actual results. So, while things can always improve, there should be very little actual worry around the team.

It would be unfair to ignore the team-wide troubles, which are largely connected to publicly-facing shot and chance share metrics. For example, the Isles’ 43.13% attempts for ranks 28th in the league and their expected goals for percentage of 46.83% ranks 23rd. That’s not great, but it’s also barely worth calling out given the fact that they’ve played three games.

The team does hold a solid 53.40% high danger chance percentage ranks 11th, but there is a very small sample size (just over 20 in total over the three games), which effectively makes this metric currently negligible.

At the end of the day, it’s been three games! As the next two months progress, we’ll have a better understanding of where the team sits. For now, I’m keeping my eye on the above three things and simply seeing how the next handful of games play out.

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Metrics for this article courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com (@NatStatTrick)