September 11 2012 09:53AM
The New York Islanders have been one of the worst teams in the NHL over the past five seasons, finishing with less than 80 points and dead last in their division each and every time. This is, at least in part, intentional, but it's not hard to see why fans might be frustrated after five years of losing. Just look at these comments from Garth Snow in November of 2009:
I don't use that word rebuild. We're trying to make the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup like every other team. We don't go in with the mindset that losing is acceptable, and when that word is used, sometimes winning doesn't matter. I don't think I've used that word too much and if I have, it's been very limited. We're trying to win every hockey game we play in. The group that we have in that locker room, it may be young, but that doesn't mean it can't have success.
Three losing seasons later, Garth Snow remains at the helm, and he's quite a bit less leery about using the word rebuild to describe the 2009-10 season:
If we can move prospects to get a player that is going to come in and going to help us and get us where we want to be, we’re going to make that move. It’s a situation where we’ve gone through a rebuild, we have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, so now it’s an easier decision for me to make moves to get us help immediately.
That comment was made in June of 2012, just before the draft and the opening of unrestricted free agency. So have the Islanders made the necessary moves to compete for a playoff spot, or are we going to hear more about how deep the prospect pool is this time next year?
In order to answer that question, I think we need to first take a look at how the team performed last season. Were they unlucky to finish in last place, or were they there on (de)merit? One way to get a quick read on that is by looking at their goal differential.
It was -55.
So that's not promising. On the bright side, when you've done that poorly, it's easy to find one or two things that absolutely need to be improved. So let's take a quick look at the team's goal differential by game state:
Power Play: 2011-12 Islanders +40; 2011-12 Avg +40.8
Penalty Kill: 2011-12 Islanders -42; 2011-12 Avg -40.8;
Even Strength: 2011-12 Islanders -53; 2011-12 Avg Even
The biggest problem is pretty clear. The Islanders were about average on special teams but were horrendous at even strength. Of course, sometimes teams look bad because of poor possession metrics, while other times they look bad because of poor percentages. As you might expect, the Islanders weren't great at either, but it's really the percentages that were getting them down. The team's share of all shots taken at even strength was a quite respectable 49.5%. The Fenwick and Corsi rates were quite a bit lower (48.7% and 47.6% respectively), so there's still substantial work to do, but the big problem was goaltending:
Overall EV Save Percentage: .909
Evgeni Nabokov EV Save Percentage: .917
Everybody Else EV Save Percentage: .901
In a situation like this, you'd hope that the team would be playing Nabokov - who's a few points below average himself - almost exclusively. That didn't happen. Nabokov faced 978 shots at even strength in 2011-12, slightly fewer than the rest of the group combined (1065). Over the last four seasons, Nabokov has an EV save percentage of .921 on 4,449 shots, which is right around average. If the Islanders were able to keep him around and bring in another 1A goalie they'd be in pretty good shape, or at least a few steps above terrible.
A respectable back-up is an obvious area of need, and one that isn't particularly difficult to fill, so that would have been near the top of my summer list. Garth Snow, it seems, didn't agree. The Islanders haven't signed anyone to pair with Nabokov and will likely go with either Anders Nilsson or Kevin Poulin. It's not impossible that this turns out well, but it's not a good bet.
Defense And Forwards
What about the other positions? I thought one good way to do this was to start by looking at ten-game segments in an effort to find out what went right when this team was playing well:
Keep in mind that each point on the graph is a ten-game segment so that the first point is games 1-10, the second is games 2-11 and so on. As we all know, teams tend to do better with these shooting metrics when they're behind, so I was looking for a ten-game segment in which all three of these possession metrics were above 50% and in which the Islanders had a winning record.
Unsurprisingly, the very top of the chart is one such occasion. From December 29th to January 17th, the Islanders earned 55.5% of the shots, 53.4% of the Fenwick events, and 51.7% of the Corsi events, posted a goal differential of +5 (all situations except the shootout) and a a record of 6-4. As you'd expect, they played more at home than they did on the road over this time (the same 6-4 split), which reflects the fact that the team did better overall by these metrics at home (50.3%, 49.2% and 48.1% compared to 48.7%, 48.3% and 47.1%).
During this stretch of games, the Islanders weren't particularly diligent about match-ups, but the pairing of Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald generally played the toughest opposition and came out ahead, while Mark Streit was dominant against lesser minutes. That wasn't always the case this season, but that's a core that the Islanders should probably count on.
The top six also performed quite well, and again, that was leaning towards playing tough competition with a mix of players that will be around for a while. Generally, the Isles had Tavares, Moulson, and Okposo in one group with Nielsen, Parenteau, and Rolston in the other. Unsurprisingly, those were also the best possession performers on the season as a whole. These players were dominant in this section, and that's what made them tough to beat. But that won't always be the case. In order to be good consistently, the Islanders need some depth, which is where problems arise.
Even in this segment of ten games where the team was playing very well, the depth players don't look very good. Let's look at the defense first:
Mark Streit was able to carry Milan Jurcina to a good result, but the rest of the depth players were hammered. Most of those players are stop-gap veterans, so this isn't really a major concern for the rebuilding squad. The results are similar up front, but with the added concern that many of the players who are struggling are young players that the Islanders are hoping will develop into important contributors going forward:
The fall-off is huge. To some degree, this kind of thing is going to be true of all teams, but there are a few players here who are of particular concern. Michael Grabner regressed some after a terrific season in 2010-11 (it wasn't entirely surprising given that he shot a career-best 14.9% in 2010-11). Josh Bailey had his fourth consecutive rookie season, again strugging to establish himself as more than simply a young player with promise. There have certainly been spots available for him if he could step up and grab one, but he's been beat out by older players (Grabner in 2010-11 and Parenteau last season) consistently. At this point, I think it's fair to be concerned about the former first rounder.
Then there's Nino Niederreiter, who had one of the toughest rookie seasons imaginable. Like most teenagers, Niederreiter was overwhelmed when he arrived in the NHL, and he struggled with possession as much as the rest of New York's bottom six forwards, but when you add rotten luck to the equation, it just looks ugly. Niederreiter's five-on-five PDO number of 89.8 was actually the worst in the entire league among forwards who played at least forty games. One half of the PDO equation is on-ice shooting percentage: Niederreiter's was less than 1%.
That, my friends, is how you end up with a -29 rating in just 55 games. There are a lot of players Niederreiter's age who might benefit from a half-season lockout, and he's definitely one of them.
All that said, there are some encouraging things here too. John Tavares, in particular, is an excellent player. He got a zone-start push at evens, but he also spent a lot of time against the other team's best players. In that situation, he managed his first (near) point per game season. At 22, he's still likely going to get even better. He's the franchise.
If I was Garth Snow, I'd be looking to lock up this core and add depth via free agency to build around that franchise player. A lot of the work toward the first half of that goal had already been done the year before. The most important part (signing Tavares) happened in 2011 at a very reasonable ticket. Kyle Okposo, and Matt Moulson were also signed in 2011, as was Michael Grabner. Snow furthered that goal in 2012 when he re-signed Frans Nielsen before the trade deadline on a contract that looks very good for the team.
He was unable to come to terms with P-A Parenteau who left for Colorado as an unrestricted free agent, which is tough loss and shows what kind of fiscal pressures the team is under. If the Islanders were spending to the cap, there's no doubt that Parenteau stays, but with the team hovering at the floor, they simply couldn't afford to make him the team's second highest-paid forward and still have the room to address their other issues.
More of the Same
One problem: they didn't really address the team's other issues. The acquisition of Lubomir Visnovsky was fantastic, and should help enormously. Visnovsky is getting older, but was a contender for the Norris trophy as recently as 2010-11. Picking him up for a second round choice at the draft was a wonderful start and looked like a harbinger of things to come.
But that was it for additional proven depth on defense aside from Matt Carkner, and the forward additions were even more sparse. The Islanders made one very reasonable bet on Brad Boyes having a bounce-back season, but didn't add much of anything beyond that. Even the Visnovsky trade may all be for naught if he is successful in his attempt to void the transaction (though that seems unlikely).
So why didn't they do more? Is the issue money? We can begin to answer that question by looking at where the Islanders are spending. I like to use a guideline to help me through this process, so we'll start with that:
Top 3 Forwards – 27.5%
Middle 6 Forwards – 20.0%
Top 4 Defenders – 27.5%
Goaltending – 10.0%
Bottom 8 Players – 15.0%
Next we'll fill in the chart using the players that the Islanders currently have under contract, assuming that the team cares more about salaries than cap numbers (another reason that the Visnovsky trade was so good) and that they were planning to spend about 80% of the current floor ($43.4M):
Top 3 Forwards – Tavares, Moulson, Okposo
– 9.00M or 20.7%
Middle 6 Forwards – Nielsen, Grabner, Boyes, Reasoner, Bailey, Niederreiter 8.60M or 19.8%
Top 4 Defenders – Visnovky, Streit, Hamonic, MacDonald – 8.55M or 19.7%
Goaltending – Nabokov, DiPietro, Poulin – 7.86M or 18.1%
Bottom 8 Players – Joensuu, Boulton, Ullstrom, McDonald, Carkner, de Haan, Wishart, Yashin (BO) – 7.97M or 18.4%
Now, I didn't include any of the performance bonuses here. Between that and the inevitable injuries (and therefore injury replacements), the Islanders will actually end up spending a little bit more. On the other hand, this model includes $6.7M being spent on Rick DiPietro and Alexei Yashin. It's unbelievable how much bad contracts hurt a team trying to make things work on a tight budget.
With another $6.7M to spend, the Islanders could make significant improvements to their depth at every position, which would likely be enough to make them contenders for the playoffs and for a really excellent season if their bets all came up roses. With what they've actually got, they'll need most things to break right just to be in the playoff hunt.