We interrupt our weekly “Extension Talk” series to bring you some playoff-related content.
Admittedly, that was pretty fun to type. The Islanders clinched a playoff spot over the weekend, decisively beating the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Coliseum by a score of 5-1. It cemented a chance for the Isles to compete for the Stanley Cup, which would have been a ridiculous notion to pretty much everyone had it come up in conversation back in September.
Such as it is, it’s time to start looking ahead. After Monday’s 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Islanders are still sitting on the precipice of hosting a Game 1 for the first time since 1988. Before that gets decided, however, there are still two games that need to be played to determine the final standings.
One of the things Head Coach Barry Trotz will need to start thinking about is how he wants to line his team up for Game 1, which will presumably be against one of Pittsburgh (most likely) or Carolina.
Given some recent injuries and lineup adjustments, Trotz has landed on two lines and one pairing that have looked outstanding during the time they have played together. With so much in flux when it comes to lineup construction, here are the three combinations the Islanders should look at locking in before the playoffs begin next week.
Devon Toews - Scott Mayfield
The Islanders are a defensive team, so we’re going to start off with the defense. Ever since Devon Toews debuted at the end of the December, he’s proven exactly why he was so highly touted by so many surrounding the Islanders’ organization.
These two guys have played 496 minutes together, which is a pretty decent sample size at this point. Their raw score-venue adjusted shot share backs up their performance, as we can see above. But their rates relative to the team are where this group really shines. Mayfield and Toews have a relative shot share rate of +6.57%, a relative scoring chance rate of 4.14%, and a relative high danger chance rate of +6.10%. In other words, the Islanders are objectively better when this pairing is on the ice.
What’s especially exciting about these guys is that their styles fit a traditional model of what constitutes a successful pairing. Toews, a left-handed offensive minded defenseman complements Mayfield, a right-handed defensive-minded crease clearing guy about as well as can be expected. But moreover, both of them have strong hockey sense and skate efficient routes, creating a level of support for each other that allows Mayfield to jump into the play offensively when given a chance.
As we’ve noted in the past, the Islanders like to generate offense from the right point. That gives their right-handed defenseman additive responsibility on the offensive side of the puck. Along those lines, it should come as no surprise that Scott Mayfield ranks third on the Isles in 5v5 shot attempts (263), which is 34 more than Anders Lee who is fourth on the team. The two guys ahead of Mayfield? Johnny Boychuk and Ryan Pulock…. That’s right, the other right-handed defensive shots on the team.
Devon Toews’ skating ability allows Mayfield to accept and thrive with that responsibility. It shows on the ice when you watch them play and within the underlying numbers, making them the Isles’ most consistent and important pairing heading into the playoffs.
Anders Lee - Mathew Barzal - Jordan Eberle
#Isles 2018-19 "Season Summary" (CF% Rel vs. Avg Game Score)— Carey Haber (@habermetrics) March 19, 2019
Mathew Barzal is getting a lot of chances with Anders Lee. It feels like there's going to be a lot of points coming from 13 over the next 10 games. pic.twitter.com/e7GpMYm19S
The Islanders’ new look first line has been outstanding since they were put together a few games back. Another example of players who should work stylistically, they have essentially been shot out of a cannon with the production they’ve given the team. Jordan Eberle, who sleepwalked through the majority of a contract season, has five goals in his last five games. But more importantly, their play has been one of the big reasons the Isles’ have catapulted themselves back near January/February shot quality share levels.
Similar to the Toews-Mayfield pairing, the relative metrics with this line show them in a very positive light. From a shot share perspective, the Barzal line is +8.76% relative to their teammates. They are also +8.96% relative on scoring chances and an astronomically high +14.46% relative on high danger chances.
The results seem to make sense, not just from a metrics perspective. Mathew Barzal is the most dynamic player on the team and can play multiple roles in the offensive zone. Anders Lee, a left-handed shot, is an elite NHL power forward with the ability to use his body positioning to create more space for Barzal and Jordan Eberle, who as a right-handed shot poses a cerebral threat from the other side of the ice. When you talk about traditional, prototypical lines that have worked in NHL folklore, this construction is a square peg in a square hole. It just fits.
Now, it is worth noting that this combination of players has only played 173 minutes together, which isn’t a totally fulfilling sample size, but their performance to date has been simply fantastic. And given that the playoffs are just two games away, there’s no real reason to even consider switching them off especially because of how difficult goals can be to pile up during the postseason. For the first time all season, the Islanders have a true first line - they’d be wise to keep them together.
Josh Bailey - Brock Nelson - Michael Dal Colle
An Andrew Ladd torn ACL is the reason these three are together, but a handful of games in and they are performing quite admirably. Admittedly, this section is a bit of a projection. This combination has played a grand total of 44 minutes together, but their results are quite encouraging.
From a team-relative perspective, this line grades out well. With a +3.15% shot share relative, a +5.53% scoring chance relative, and a +3.09% high danger chance relative metric, it’s clear that in their short time together the Isles have been better off with these three on the ice.
Where they have really thrived, however, is on the defensive side of the puck. We’ve talked a lot about the defensive work of Michael Dal Colle, but he’s been on another level with this group. During their time together, the Islanders are allowing just 41.95 shot attempts per hour, 19.14 scoring chances per hour, and 8.02 high danger chances per hour.
As a whole, the Islanders allow 56.42 attempts per hour, 27.43 scoring chances per hour, and 10.9 high danger chances per hour. We can see very clearly that the Bailey, Nelson, Dal Colle line is grading well above those benchmarks to the point where Barry Trotz may want to consider them in shut down situations.
To be clear, it is hard to project out where this line could be after a full playoff series. The amount of time they have spent together is not substantial, significant, nor material. But they’ve shown signs of being a strong line for this team, and that’s worth rolling into Game 1 with this line right behind the Mathew Barzal line.
All data from this piece is from Natural Stat Trick
CF% = Shot attempt share (percent of total attempts the Islanders take while a combination is on the ice)
SCF% = Scoring chance share
HDCF% = High danger chance share