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Barzal, Pelech, Bridgeport and more: 19 Thoughts on the Islanders’ first month

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Not quite 31 Thoughts… or even remotely close to it.

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Preface: There has been a lot swirling this month in terms of Islanders news. None of it is necessarily intensive enough for a long-form article, but there’s plenty to start discussion. As a homage to Elliotte Friedman’s irreplaceable “31 Thoughts” piece each week, I jotted a bunch of things I’m thinking about below.

Ah, Halloween.

The end of October has arrived, which means we are about a month into the 2019-20 NHL season. The Isles are playing quite well, boasting an 8-3-0 record heading into Friday’s home matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning. So, as one does, I have some observations. Here they are:

1. Mathew Barzal is shooting more than he has in the past.

He’s up to 29 shots on goal on the season, ranking second on the team. He’s also on pace to shoot over 200 times for the first time in his career. The result? He’s scoring more (albeit with a somewhat inflated shooting percentage). He’s become dual threat in the offensive zone, and when combined with his skating ability and buy-in to the Trotz system, he appears to be on the verge of a real breakout. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by Trotz himself - he leads all forwards in average ice time (19:09) by over 30 seconds per game.

2. The second October of the Trotz experiment has been more advantageous for the Isles than the first.

From an underlying perspective, the team again started off fairly slow going 1-3-0 out of the gate,, but the shot-based metrics are not nearly as low as last year. Here are some year-over-year metrics through 11 games, 5v5 score-venue adjusted from Natural Stat Trick:

  • Attempts: +1.81% (44.87% this year)
  • Expected Goals: +6.59% (48.59% this year)
  • High Danger Chances: +12.80% (54.32% this year)
  • PDO: -3.9 (101.9 this year)

Barry Trotz has always preached quality over quantity, and so far in Year 2, that methodology appears to be holding up.

3. At large, the Islanders are trending up.

Way up. They’re on a seven game win streak, and while that always does require a bit of luck, they’ve genuinely played quite well. Over the course of their winning streak, their expected goal share is 53.30% and their high danger chance share is 58.86%. These rank 6th and 2nd in the league, respectively.

Don’t get me wrong, their PDO is high at 103.7, and while that will go down, it won’t matter if the team can continue to play at this type of level. They look like they’ve turned the corner and look as good as last year’s Isles did at their peak.

4. There’s a long-standing sports trope that too much rest is bad. But...

We read a lot of that between last year’s Pittsburgh series and Carolina series. Obviously, the narrative was “validated” at the hands of a Hurricanes sweep. So, with their second long break, it will be interesting to see how the Isles come out this weekend.

I had thought that last week’s break might create some rhythmic rust so early in the season, but the Isles went out and won three games anyway (playing real well in the process). Now against two tough opponents in Tampa and Buffalo, it feels like deja vu. This isn’t so much an analytical thought but more about the quirks of the season and how teams deal with them.

5. I’ve mentioned this a few times on Twitter, but the play of the Devon Toews - Scott Mayfield pairing is growing a bit concerning.

They are far behind the other two Isles’ primary pairings in all shot-based metrics, not just from a share perspective but also in chances against per hour. In terms of their relative metrics, score-adjusted 5v5, they rank negatively across the board:

  • Attempts: -2.32% Relative
  • Expected Goals: -5.77% Relative
  • High Danger Chances: -10.68% Relative

6. A lot of people are going to point to Mayfield as the cause of this issue, but I’m not so sure Toews is “innocent,” so to speak. I’ve been challenging my own thinking and biases on this, in particular.

In the three Isles games Corey Sznajder has tracked this season, both Toews and Mayfield lead the team in failed exits. That will create more opportunities against as the players get tired, and though Toews still shows his transition upside (which has led to tangible production), zone exits are a huge part of the “possession” game and it’s an area both guys need to clean up.

Source: Corey Sznajder

7. Last year, it felt like no Isles were ever hurt. This year, it’s been a line to the injured reserve list. It’s kind of a prime example of “regression to the mean” in a weird way - but it’s something the Isles have had to deal with. That’s led to opportunities for players like Oliver Wahlstrom and Cole Bardreau, who have both done good things during their time on the roster. Credit here goes to both the players and the coaching staff, whose stability in systems have almost certainly created less barriers to entry for two guys making their NHL debuts.

8. On Oliver Wahlstrom, who has been pretty solid this season: there’s a clause in the CBA where his entry-level contract is eligible to slide because he signed his first NHL contract and is playing professional games before 20 years old.

The Isles should be asking themselves if it’s worth it to keep Wahlstrom playing games if he’s only going to see 7-8 minutes of ice time a night. My gut tells me it seems counter-intuitive when he could be playing on Bridgeport’s top line and developing his game there without the consequence of burning a year off his entry deal.

But the most important thing is Wahlstrom’s development, and if they feel that should happen at the NHL level.... fair enough.

9. The Isles are no stranger to this clause, actually. In 2007-08, when the team pulled Kyle Okposo out of the University of Minnesota, they ensured a call-up only when the last 9 games of that season began. That allowed Okposo’s contract to slide and his first year of his entry-level contract actually hit in the memorably bad 2008-09 season.

By the way, it’s real nice to see Okposo reclaim his career with the Sabres under Ralph Krueger’s direction.

10. Speaking of Otto Koivula, he’s had somewhat of a rough start in Bridgeport this season, but shot out of a cannon in 2018-19 scoring 21 goals in his AHL rookie season. He’s a big guy with good offensive instincts, and should his skating hold up, he could be a solid NHL player. This is a good opportunity for him on a team that could use all the offense it can get (despite their recent run of goals).

11. Bridgeport is off to a tough start this season.

After a surprising run to the playoffs last year, they currently sit at 1-5-2-1 and have scored just 17 goals while allowing 35 in just 9 games. It doesn’t help that the Isles have called up half their top-six forwards, with others who remain in Connecticut in-and-out of the lineup due to injury. But, there’s no question the Sound Tigers are nowhere near their current potential.

From my observations, a lot of what’s going on there is systems based. The Sound Tigers are ultra conservative, relying on a lot of clears and a lot of dump-ins. There is enough AHL skill to be more aggressive in carrying the puck both on zone exits and entries, and they just don’t seem to believe in that philosophy. It’s one thing to preach a lunch pail type of style, but it’s another to be overly reliant on it.

12. One interesting management transaction the Isles executed was the swap of Linus Soderstrom and Jakub Skarek from the AHL to the ECHL (and vice versa).

I had suspected the primary motive was to get Soderstrom some playing time (he has an .857 save percentage in 2 games for Worcester), but Skarek ended up playing a game against the dominant Hartford Wolfpack for Bridgeport. The Isles have some solid goaltending depth and their progress will not be linear, so if nothing else, how they maneuver through playing time across their two affiliates will be an interesting (minor) storyline this season.

13. The Islanders’ NHL goalies have been… really good this season.

There was a lot of speculation and narrative (including from me) that neither Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss would be able to recapture the magic that Greiss and Robin Lehner put together last year. It’s still very early, but that theory has essentially been neutered. Per Hockey-Reference, the Isles have a team save percentage of .922 on the season, which is lower than last year’s .925 but still quite good and ranks 6th in the league.

14. Switching gears, the move to wing for Derick Brassard looks like a stroke of genius. He’s scored in three straight games and has found some chemistry with Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier, his two new linemates. The three of them have a 56.91% attempt share, score-adjusted and an even better 62.78% expected goals. Brassard’s skating ability and puck skills allow him to focus on the offensive side of his game, which has translated into some big time results.

It’s also shown that Brassard has versatility, which is something that the coaching staff will undoubtedly take into consideration when the Isles start to get healthier. But for now, the expectation as a top-six wing is to provide offense… and he is doing just that.

15. Pour one out for Brocktober, which is officially over as of Friday’s game.

Nelson led the team in shots (with 36), and produced 10 points in 11 games. He’s always had strong starts, but this season it feels especially productive, given how much the Isles are counting on him to be an offensive producer. Nelson ranks second on the team in Game Score with 0.84, which feels right given his offensive impact.

One interesting note? Nelson is tied for the team-lead in individual high danger chances (16) and leads the team in individual expected goals (2.73). He also ranks 13th in individual expected goals and 7th in individual high danger chances, which is… really good. He’s bought into the shot quality philosophy and it’s showing in the data.

16. Pour another one out for Dennis Seidenberg, who retired officially this week and will join the Isles’ Player Development team. Seidenberg was kind of a polarizing figure at times, as his eye test skillset never really matched his analytical output. But by all accounts, he’s a great guy who has now housed two (2) Isles rookies in three years and seems to enjoy being in the organization and on Long Island. So, a hearty congratulations on a long career that included a Stanley Cup championship.

17. Adam Pelech is casually developing into the next top shutdown defenseman that no one has heard of. There’s a lot to like about his quiet game, and both he and Ryan Pulock have been aces during this current streak.

There was one play in particular during Sunday’s game against the Flyers that shows how smooth he has become, which I have decided to memorialize with this gif below:

Credit: MSG Networks

Everyone, including myself, laughed Garth Snow out of the building when he protected Pelech during the Vegas expansion draft. Somewhere, Garth is getting the last laugh.

18. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the month to come is the lack of games at the Nassau Coliseum. The Isles will play in Uniondale just two times in November, the first coming this Friday (the other is a mid-month extravaganza against the Toronto Maple Leafs). They won’t be playing a ton over the course of the season in Brooklyn. But this month is full of those games, and how the team fares with a separate routine and those same uncomfortable feelings is an additive dynamic that the team will need to deal with.

19. Finally, a cool thing I found when doing some research on this piece. On the Isles’ subreddit was a TSN interview with NHL Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne. In it, at the five minute mark, Selanne calls out Mathew Barzal as one of his favorites to watch in the league.

That…. That’s really freaking cool.

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All data from this piece from Hockey-Reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, EvolvingHockey.com, Corsica.Hockey, and HockeyViz.com.

If you liked this format, let me know and I can consider doing this as a weekly thing instead of the long-form deep dives (which will still happen but be more infrequent). Any feedback would be great, thank you!