If we’ve learned anything from how things have unfolded with the NY Islanders the past two years under Barry Trotz, it’s that sometimes it pays to have an adaptable coach who is willing to embrace some old-school ideas.
Last season the Islanders were the best overall defensive team in the league at 5-on-5, which led to sterling numbers for both Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner, and this season that trend has continued, with Greiss repeating his performance and Semyon Varlamov playing strong at even strength.
The Islanders are one of the most interesting teams in the league because they go against conventional knowledge by constantly dumping the puck into the offensive zone. Due to work by many in the analytics community, but originally pushed by current Carolina Hurricanes Vice President of Hockey Management and Strategy Erik Tulsky back when he was a blogger (and also a Ph.D. chemist researching nanotechnology solutions in various applications), we know that carrying or passing the puck into the offensive zone creates more shots and more chances than dumping it in does.
Some teams caught on to that strategy quickly. The Chicago Blackhawks dug in deep on it and rode that offensive strategy to three Stanley Cups, so why are the Islanders having so much success by doing the opposite?
Mike Kelly over at The Point wrote about this just recently, with a helping hand from SPORTLOGiQ data scientist David Vallett, and the answer is that while you lose some offence by not dumping the puck in, you also cut down on neutral zone turnovers, and chances against off the rush.
Which team gives up the fewest chances off the rush this season? The Islanders of course. They give up 22.3 per cent fewer rush chances than the average team. They have the highest success rate on their attempted plays in the neutral zone in the league, and are tied for the third-lowest turnover rate.
The results this season aren’t as exemplary of a relationship as David’s three-year analysis, which makes sense for a smaller sample size, but the Islanders are functioning like a well-oiled machine in this area.
In Mike’s piece, he notes that teams are dumping the puck in more over the past two seasons, accounting for 49.8 per cent of all entries in 2017-18 compared to 53.5 per cent of all entries this season. Part of the reason for that is going to be the fact that it’s a copycat league and teams are trying to replicate the defensive success the Islanders have. But there’s another factor that I think deserves some consideration.
The Blackhawks tore the league to shreds offensively by attacking off the rush with speed when they were at their peak, and even as they’ve drifted from Cup contender to bubble team, they’ve been able to maintain that offence. It’s just that they’ve been burned more and more on the counterattack as their defensive core aged, but also as the league as a whole realized how important entries are.
This sort of thing happens in hockey as certain metrics gain notoriety. Corsi was laughed at by the establishment for a long time, but while some teams balked, a lot of the cutting-edge ones implemented systems to control the puck more. Then almost every team caught on and the gap between the best teams, the average ones, and the worst ones, considerably thinned.
When teams realized how much of an impact shooting from closer to the net has on expected conversion rates, the entire league slowly but surely pushed their shots deeper into the slot. Between 2015-16 and 2018-19, the percentage of total shots at 5-von-5 that came from the inner slot rose by 31.4 per cent. as every team chased the same thing.
After teams recognized Chicago’s success, zone entries were the topic du jour for a long time, and what happens when opponents are focused on hammering you through the neutral zone on offence? You start to develop better strategies to defend against those plays, cause more turnovers, and lean more into counterstrike offence.
Seeing that develop, and taking over a team that is less talented offensively than most, Trotz played to the Islanders’ strengths. Their roster of good forecheckers don’t take unnecessary risks in order to gain the zone. The goal isn’t to dump it in, but dumping it in is favourable to making a risky play.
The results have been extraordinarily successful, and it’s not like Trotz is trying to stifle his offensive players either. For example, the Islanders’ best player is Mathew Barzal, who came into the league as a transition beast. The Islanders on average dump the puck in the offensive zone on 59.5 per cent of their entries, but Barzal? He dumps the puck in just 22.9 per cent of the time.
Only Matt Duchene, Aleksander Barkov, Connor McDavid, Brayden Point, and Nathan MacKinnon dump the puck in less often than Barzal. He clearly has free reign to create offence, and he does so with aplomb.
It’s worth noting that Trotz didn’t get the Washington Capitals to play this way — this isn’t his signature style. But it is the style he developed to best suit the roster he’s working with. That is some great tactical coaching by both the guy in charge and his entire coaching staff.
This week Steve Dangle was so happy about the Maple Leafs that he didn’t even have an angry question about them, so instead he focused on the Edmonton Oilers. Steve asks…
“McDavid and Draisaitl clearly carried the Oilers offensively for a while, but it seems like the Oilers are getting better performances out of everyone else lately too. So has their depth shown up to help carry things along as the big two continue to dominate?”
It’s a little inelegant, but I think the best way to test this is to split the season so far in half. We’ll go right at the month dividing line and look at October versus November to see how McDavid and Draisaitl performed versus the average Oilers forward not including those two.
We don’t need to go into too much detail. A general look at some key areas will tell us what we need to know.
It’s hard to fully judge a team with their two best players excluded from the picture, but we can say that without McDavid and Draisaitl, the rest of the Oilers in October performed about 16 per cent worse offensively at 5-on-5 than the worst team in the league did.
Take out every other team’s two best offensive performers and Edmonton might look a lot better, but the point is the gap between their two superstars and the rest of the roster is as gargantuan as people think.
What’s interesting as things shift to November though, is that from a passing standpoint, nothing really changes for the rest of the Oilers’ forwards. They’ve performed almost exactly the same, while McDavid and Draisaitl somehow found it inside themselves to play even better.
Looking at shooting though, the Oilers’ forwards have pressed further into the slot than before, and they’re shooting more as well. In fact, they’re shooting as much as Draisaitl is, which has bolstered their ability to create subsequent scoring chances, to the point where they’re inching closer to the league average.
I think it’s fair to say the Oilers’ forwards have been a bit better at getting chances for themselves outside of their top-two players, but those two still stand heads and shoulders above their teammates. And McDavid somehow improved his scoring chance creation by nearly 20 per cent in the second month of the season.
BUY OR SELL
• The New Jersey Devils have really struggled this season, and one reason why is failing on simple plays. They have one of the lowest D-to-D pass success rates in the defensive zone in the NHL, and are 25th in overall pass success rate in the defensive zone. That has led in part to the Devils giving up more chances off the forecheck than anyone else.
• I already wrote about the Canadiens’ struggles defensively, but another problem they have is defensive zone turnovers. Only the Senators turn it over more in their own zone.
• Turnovers are an issue for the Canadiens in the neutral zone as well. They’re tied with the San Jose Sharks in giving up the most overall. Coincidentally, or maybe not, the Canadiens are one of just six teams who are carrying the puck in more often than they dump it in this season.
• Not surprising for a team that employs Mark Stone, but on the other side of the ledger the Vegas Golden Knights rack up the most neutral zone takeaways in the NHL, so if there’s any team you want to play it safe against, it’s them.