Play the cards you are dealt.
After a couple of days off, it was back to work for the Islanders on Friday, as the team gets prepared to face one of the Washington Capitals or Carolina Hurricanes in a series that will likely start late next week. The biggest news to come out of the day was that Johnny Boychuk would be out for 3-4 weeks with a lower body injury.
Boychuk out 3-4 weeks. Clutterbuck and Mayfield taking maintenance days.— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) April 19, 2019
There’s no question that losing Boychuk is a setback for New York. But as our own Dom noted, the circumstance will likely give an opportunity to Isles’ veteran Thomas Hickey. The left-handed defenseman, who signed a four-year extension hours before he would have become a free agent, had a “stop-start” kind of season with injuries and scratches impacting his regularity in the Isles’ lineup.
There’s an emotional element to the loss of Boychuk. He’s a physical player, a former Stanley Cup champion: he’s one who is “made” for this time of year. And with the Islanders, he’s played an integral role against superstars like Alexander Ovechkin and most recently, Evgeni Malkin, in playoff series. But, the situation is what it is, so the team must move on without him and with Hickey in the near-term.
Analytically, this doesn’t seem like a bad trade-off:
However, there’s more to it than just plugging and playing players based on a series of shot share metrics. Playing styles aside, the most obvious difference among them is the handedness of the players. The injury to Boychuk will tangibly alter the construction of the Isles’ defense, such that the team will play with four lefties and two righties in the lineup.
Typically, Barry Trotz has dressed a very traditional lineup with his defense: three righties, three lefties. In fact, per Corsica.Hockey, of the 12 pairings the Islanders used this season that played over fifty minutes together, only two were lefty-lefty. And those pairings, both of which Thomas Hickey was part of, played a combined 140 minutes together. So, it’s pretty safe to say Trotz preferred lefty-righty pairings, which is typically more advantageous in the long-term.
We can actually see the importance of handedness play out on the ice. Granted, some of these clips are cherry-picked, but they were also selected to show how marginal differences, such as lefty versus righty, can lead to tangible outcomes.
Below are four clips - two from Game 2 of the 2019 Playoffs against Pittsburgh and two from April 4th against Florida. Nick Leddy is paired with Johnny Boychuk in the first game and Thomas Hickey in the second game.
This goal never happens if Johnny Boychuk is a lefty. At the beginning of the clip, we can see a puck retrieval by Boychuk on his forehand side, which leads to a clean outlet to Jordan Eberle. Eberle’s able to feed Mathew Barzal with speed and the rest is history. However, if Boychuk is a lefty, that play never happens, as he’d be facing the complete other way and would have either had to no-look backhand to Eberle in a worse area to break the puck out or he’d just rim it around where it came from.
There’s a similar story on this goal, as Boychuk cuts the play off in the middle of the ice, using his forehand to poke the puck into space. Mathew Barzal is able to retrieve the puck and enter with possession, leading to the Isles’ third-period tie-breaking goal in Game 2. If Boychuk is on his backhand, his body would be turned the opposite way, which would have made that play a lot less natural. It still could have been made, but with less fluidity; a half second slower and Barzal would likely have been cut off at the blueline by Jack Johnson. Similarly, Boychuk may have backed off as a left-handed shot, as with an oncoming Penguin, the play could have been too risky to make.
Let’s now take a look at some clips of a lefty playing on their off-side.
Right off the top, we can see an impact of Hickey playing the right side as a lefty. The puck comes to Hickey in the middle of the ice, but he essentially has to shift his body across to be able to handle it as a left-handed shot. That split second causes him to push the puck too far, skating into a Florida backchecker who read the play correctly. Luckily for the Islanders, Jordan Eberle saw this unfold and provided support to keep the play going. However, if Hickey was a righty, he would have likely had a cleaner reception, opening up a multitude of options for him on the zone entry.
This clip is a more traditional D-to-D play. However, Leddy doesn’t even look Hickey’s way here, possibly because a pass that would be to a right-handed shot forehand would be to Hickey’s backhand. Instead, Leddy is forced to reverse to Hickey’s off-side behind the net, giving Aleksander Barkov enough time to effectively forecheck the play into a shoddy breakout, immediately giving possession right back to the Panthers.
There are times where the lefty-lefty pairing works out, specifically on support plays where players can shift and keep the same positional dynamic on the ice. But as we see above, there are instances in all three zones where the dynamic can be disruptive in even the extra millisecond it takes for a play to develop.
Leddy and Hickey actually played well together, and made the most of their time together. The pairing had positive relative metrics in all shot-based metrics, though the sample size is an extremely light 55 minutes. Still, this may be the Islanders’ best bet, considering how poorly Hickey and Toews played together at 86 minutes. That would also require moving Leddy to a pair with Scott Mayfield, disrupting two of the team’s three pairings. Simply inserting Hickey into Boychuk’s spot allows for the two other pairings to be unaffected by the lineup change.
It also makes sense from a role perspective. This chart, which comes from Corey Sznajder’s 5v5 data and was created by Sean Tierney, shows slightly less than 200 minutes of 5v5 data. We can see on the chart that Nick Leddy is tasked with the majority of zone exits on the team given how far right along the x-axis he is. On the flip side, both Johnny Boychuk and Thomas Hickey fall to the left of the y-axis, indicating they exit the zone with possession less often.
It’s worth noting that Hickey has a better breakup rating and zone exit rating than Boychuk, which is certainly a positive, but it’s unclear if Hickey was playing on the left or right side when these data points were recorded.
There’s also one other factor to consider:
Hickey’s best year came in a L-L pairing, and Leddy can kind of approximate Lubo in style.— (4-0) (2-3) Josh (garik16) (@garik16) April 19, 2019
This is accurate, as during their 1400+ minutes together between 2013 and 2015, Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky played to a 54.25% shot share, a 55.97% expected goals share, and a 56.42% high danger chance share per Natural Stat Trick. The two made for an elite pairing, and show an instance where a lefty-lefty pairing can work extremely effectively.
All of these factors considered, it appears logical to simply insert Hickey in that spot, as despite his physical and stylistic differences versus Johnny Boychuk, they can play similar roles in the defensive zone. And, well, should the Islanders play the Washington Capitals, there is that minor grudge Hickey still may hold against Tom Wilson…
The bottom line here is the Islanders are not heading into the next series with an optimal roster construction. As we saw above, there is a reason why coaches prefer traditional left-right pairings. But, you have to play the hand you are dealt, and surely the Islanders could do much worse than Thomas Hickey in that role.
Maybe, just maybe, they’ll be dealt an ace.
Data for this article is 5v5 and from Corsica.Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and from Sean Tierney via Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine).