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19 Islanders Thoughts: Great Greiss, Pulock-Pelech, Trotz Effect and more

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The second of what’s now a weekly column based off your poll results!

NHL: NOV 05 Senators at Islanders
So much fun when everything is clicking.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Preface: I ran a Twitter poll earlier this week to garner some user feedback on the go-forward style of my articles. There was a resounding preference to keep going with the shorter ‘31 Thoughts’ style weekly pieces, so that will be continuing on a weekly basis. I still plan to write at least one or two long-form pieces each month as topics arise, but given how fast things move and how well the team is playing, expect a lot more of these types of articles ahead.

With that, let’s get to some reflections:

1. There’s no doubt what the top story this week is. The Islanders (!) have won 10 straight games — the last few coming in definitive fashion. This is the first time in 37 years they have accomplished such a feat, which is a reason to marvel at how rare something like this actually is.

Surely, there are some areas where the team can improve upon, but I think I’m going to keep the rest of these thoughts pretty positive. When sports are fun, they are really great. And this sure is fun.

2. The goaltender in Tuesday’s victory was Thomas Greiss, who now sports a .937 save percentage. He’s been ridiculously good this season, as has been the case during the vast majority of his Islanders’ tenure. Is it time we start talking about Greiss as one of the best goalies in franchise history?

It’s kind of hard to process, but Greiss ranks pretty high in a lot of trivial categories:

  • Games Played: 170 (8th)
  • Wins: 91 (5th)
  • Save Percentage (Min 50 GP): .917 (1st)
  • Hockey-Reference Point Shares: 30.8 (5th)

He also was one of the main drivers of the 2016 playoff run (especially the victory against the Florida Panthers), putting up a .923 save percentage in 11 games. At the very least, it seems like a conversation.

3. On the analytics front, the Evolving Wild twins released their first outputs of the 2019-20 season on Wednesday. Their most prominent metric is Goals Above Replacement, which essentially measure how far above defined baselines a player’s individual impact is to a game. Think of it as a form of the old baseball metric, VORP (value over replacement player).

For the Islanders, the top player is Anthony Beauvillier (3.2). I’ve seen a lot of commentary about how Beauvillier looks like he’s turned a developmental corner, and this is some tangible evidence that backs up that claim. Mathew Barzal (3.0) comes in at second and the re-emerging Nick Leddy (2.7) is right behind him in third.

You can find the full list here and a full explanation of what the metric entails here (note: this is very statistically-oriented).

4. Getting back to the win streak, one of the most striking elements of all of this was a series of anecdotal quotes that took place after the Isles lost 5-2 in Carolina. Both Barry Trotz and the players talked about how well the team had played in the loss. The shot quantity and shot quality metrics showed nothing of the sort, and a lot of people (including myself) called them out on this.

Well, since that game the Islanders have lost a total of zero times and they’ve taken their expected goal share from 40.23% to 49.75% in a span of 10 games.

Perhaps it is anecdotal, but something clearly clicked during that game.

5. Since that game, the Islanders have legitimately been one of the best teams in the league. They rank fifth in 5v5 score-adjusted expected goal share (53.71%) and lead the league in high danger chance share (59.78%).

Surely, any team that wins 10 in a row gets some bounces here and there, but the Islanders’ process has come a long way. They are honing in on winning the shot quality battle on a nightly basis, and that focus has led them big success on the ice and in the standings.

6. So much of the rhetoric around the Islanders continues to be about how the team “defies analytics.” I’m here to argue that is not actually the case. It is true that the Isles struggle with shot quantity (Corsi), but that’s also not the style of game they play. Barry Trotz has repeatedly stressed the idea of shot quality, which grades out more in the aforementioned high danger and expected goal metrics you see above.

Now, certainly an area of improvement for the team is in the shot quantity area. But it’s a secondary success factor. If the team is out-chancing their opponents on a consistent basis, they seemingly are accomplishing what the coach is asking them to do.

That’s not a defiance of analytics. The metrics that would define success for the Islanders simply back up what Trotz has been saying all along.

7. Speaking of analytics, new Mets manager Carlos Beltran recently said that he prefers to call analytics “information” because it resonates more with baseball players. I think that is a real astute way to present data that is actually actionable for players.

There are two types of metrics: predictive and descriptive. Descriptive tell a story of what has already happened, while predictive metrics tell a story of what could happen with levels of confidence.

It’s highly unlikely these things matter to players. But by demystifying the term “analytics” into actionable information, the level of adoption becomes a lot higher. This does not just apply to sports, but in other areas (such as business) too. Communication and socialization are a huge part of data science. How information is positioned is integral to getting a data-driven message across.

8. Okay, back to the Islanders. One of the things that has jumped out to me is how well the team has played in third periods. In the last three games, the team has allowed just three high danger chances in third periods. They’ve played all of those periods with a lead, which accounting for score effects (or, a team’s “push” late), is pretty astounding. They’ve just been able to clamp down on other teams, which must be…really frustrating. For the season, their metrics with the lead are quite strong. Their ranks:

  • 55.42% Expected Goals (5th)
  • 60.74% High Danger Chances (3rd)

Depth: It’s Pretty Sweet

9. The most incredible aspect of the latter portion of the streak is how solid the roster looks from top to bottom. That’s reflected in the numbers, too. There are just two players on the Islanders have who an expected goal share under 46.50% during this run: Leo Komarov and Tom Kuhnhackl, both of whom have been out injured for the last chunk of games.

Perhaps even more impressive, only Kuhnhackl and Derick Brassard have high danger chance shares under 50% during this run. All 21 other skaters who have appeared in games during this streak are above that threshold, which is pretty astounding. There’s anecdotal evidence everywhere describing how the team has bought into Trotz’s message, but this is one of the most striking given their recent results.

10. Michael Dal Colle has been an excellent addition to the Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck duo. They have played just 41 minutes together, but their shot based metrics are pretty ridiculous.

  • 64.14% Attempt Share (+18.37% Relative)
  • 76.78% Expected Goals Share (+25.92% Relative)
  • 84.29% High Danger Chance Share (+27.54% Relative)

It’s early, but the returns here are pretty crazy. It’s another question that will need answered once guys start to return from injury, but there’s a real case to be made that this line - basically the de facto third line - should continue to exist as constructed while they are playing at this level.

Pelech-Pulock: The new Jonsson-Aucoin?

11. On the defensive side of the puck, enough cannot be said about Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. As the season has unfolded and I’ve watched them more and more, I’m struck with how much they remind me of the Kenny Jonsson — Adrian Aucoin pairing from the early part of the century. The skill-sets are similar: Pelech is a smooth skating, jack-of-all-trades defenseman while Pulock carries a big body and an even bigger shot. They play the most minutes on the team, typically in a shutdown role against top-level competition. Their shot quality metrics are quite good as well:

  • 52.29% Expected Goals (+3.48% Relative)
  • 59.62% High Danger Chances (+5.22% Relative)

These numbers are not as drastic as the Cizikas line above, but this is played over more games at a much larger minutes sample. As long as Pelech and Pulock continue to do their thing by keeping opponents at bay, the Isles are going to be in good shape as they move through the season.

12. By now everyone has seen and spoken about this, but how cool of a moment was it for Cole Bardreau to get his first NHL goal on a penalty shot?

Bardreau was called up minutes before a weekend game in Columbus and has appeared in all 7 games since. He’s been quite good during his time, highlighted by expected goal share of 56.09% in his limited amount of time. It’s easy to tell that he’s a hard worker who is not taking this opportunity for granted. One of the coolest parts? The body language and reaction of his teammates as he got back to the bench.

13. One of the things I watch closely over the course of the season is body language. I’m not in the room nor at practice, so it’s hard to get a true sense of the psychological dynamics of a season. These are not necessarily things that directly show up on any spreadsheet or in the metrics. But as the mental part of the game becomes more pronounced, these types of cues are becoming important factors.

Obviously with things going as well as they are, the Isles’ body language has been pretty great. But way they have conducted themselves through 96 games of Barry Trotz’s tutelage tells me that wouldn’t change if/when they do hit a rough patch. They seem to be a pretty resilient bunch.

What’s Best for Wahlstrom’s Development?

14. Oliver Wahlstrom has seen his minutes somewhat increase over the last few games after playing very sparingly through some of this streak. He’s now at 8 games played, which puts him two away from exercising the first year of his entry level contract. Wahlstrom hasn’t produced any points, but you can start to see the “Trotzian” development in his game. It’s an interesting scenario: Do the Islanders decide to send him down to be “the guy” on a struggling Bridgeport team or stay the course under the guidance of Barry Trotz?

I have said in the past that I think playing in the AHL is better for him, but now I’m not as sure. The NHL team is currently a winning environment with a legendary coach, whereas the AHL team is pretty bad and lacking in a lot of skill. There’s no question he could perform well there, but would he develop as quickly and to the Isles’ liking? That’s the real important question to be answered.

With guys starting to come back from injury, he might be “forced” out given his lack of production, but he certainly hasn’t necessarily earned a demotion either. The only thing the team cannot let happen? Letting him playing his 10th NHL game only to then subsequently send him down. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out with that elusive tenth game coming up on Saturday.

15. Speaking of rookies, Noah Dobson is really good. You can see it in his game. He is supremely poised with the puck, makes smart decisions, and has shown the ability to effectively play both the left and right sides of the ice. His strong metrics are the results of all the things he is doing: 53.02% attempt share, 60.80% expected goals share, 74.20% (!) High Danger share.

He’s also shown a bit of a better shot than what was initially expected. At just 19 years old, he’s doing more than any young Islander defenseman has this century. He’s looking like a real keeper.

16. Just like with Wahlstrom, the Islanders will have a decision to make on Dobson. Nick Leddy’s injury will have Dobson playing in his sixth NHL game against Pittsburgh on Thursday. That puts him just four away from having his contract kick in. But unlike Wahlstrom, there is nowhere for Dobson to go other than juniors. For me, this one is an easy answer -- he’s going to learn more and develop more at the NHL level than he will in the QMJHL. And the fact that he has been as effective as he has been? It’s a no-brainer.

17. This week is going to be extremely interesting from a roster perspective. Andrew Ladd is expected to be added to the NHL roster on Thursday. Jordan Eberle is practicing and will be back soon. Leo Komarov seems to be on the mend, and Matt Martin is already skating (though seems weeks away, still). NIck Leddy presumably won’t be out too much longer. So, this core lineup that has contributed to this incredible win streak? Looks like there are going to be some changes to come.

It creates a fair amount of intrigue in terms of what’s to happen. These guys are noted as a tight-knit group and while no one is obviously working against each other, there is always unspoken internal competition for playing time and responsibility. How the team and its leadership handle all of these proven NHL players coming back at once will be a good measure of their team dynamics.

Again, not necessarily anything quantifiable but it’s qualitative information that is integral in team-building. In other words, how the team handles situations during the season is important.

18. Bode Wilde is expected to return soon and play for Bridgeport, which is a good sign for the organization. Wilde has been ranked highly for a while and has a ton of offensive skill. He’s an interesting prospect that if developed correctly, could be a nice addition to the NHL roster down the road. Brent Thompson has done a good job developing defensemen during his time with the organization, but I don’t remember anyone coming through the system with as much raw offensive talent as Wilde. How Thompson handles his unique style will be something to watch.

19. Lastly, good friend Kevin Schultz put out this Google Trends view of searches by New York team across the country over the last calendar year. As a marketing data guy by trade, I obviously found this quite interesting. With the amount of brand equity the Rangers have, that the Isles could be more “trendy” over a full year even with their playoff appearance is unexpected…. But very cool!

All metrics from this piece are 5v5 score-adjusted from NaturalStatTrick.com unless otherwise noted.