Welcome to a weekly feature where we have some fun with underlying numbers. We highlight a couple of trends, then dig beneath the surface to get a better sense of what these trends ultimately mean, what’s causing them and how likely it is that they’ll continue. Think of these as bite-sized deep dives.
This week, we’re going to focus on how the Islanders could improve their lineup, and what the Western Conference elite have to play for in the final weeks of the regular season. Data referenced in this piece is courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, and is up to date through the conclusion of Wednesday night’s games.
Stranded on an Island
There’s something weird brewing on the Island right now. A team playing it safe with their young players and giving minutes to their veterans ahead of them instead is nothing new in the NHL, but watching the Islanders stubbornly keep Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle buried in the AHL until recently, despite a growing mountain of evidence that they shouldn’t be there, gets stranger with each passing day.
There’s so many layers to this story, none of which makes the decision-making process any more defensible from the team’s perspective. Part of what makes it so confounding is who the Islanders are currently giving regular minutes to instead of Dal Colle and Ho-Sang. The combination of Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula has been absolutely caved in this season when playing together — except for when they’ve played with one of Dal Colle or Ho-Sang:
The Islanders have been a hot topic in hockey circles because of their fluctuating underlying numbers as the season has gone along. While there’s certainly merit to being skeptical about a team that relies as heavily on their goaltending as they have, the sneaky truth is that their shot metrics actually skyrocketed into a highly respectable neighborhood in the middle months once players like Ho-Sang, Dal Colle, and Devon Toews were called up and given a real look.
That’s what makes this entire ordeal especially mystifying. Dal Colle and Ho-Sang are not only their AHL affiliate’s leading scorers on a per-game basis this season, but they’ve actually passed the NHL test with flying colors whenever they’ve gotten a chance. While they’re imperfect players in their own right, the positive effect that the things they do well has had on their teammates is obvious. From a lineup construction perspective, the danger of having a unit that’s constantly hemmed in their own zone the way Komarov and Filppula are without them is an understated one. There’s a cumulative snowball effect there, where everyone else is now fighting an uphill battle because they’re starting their own shift chasing the puck and having to defend. That’s why it’s no surprise that the team’s underlying numbers as a collective have once again cratered, which should serve as a blaring siren for those paying attention.
With Ho-Sang, at least it’s somewhat understandable that the way he plays clashes stylistically with what Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello want from this group. While it’s flawed logic, you can see how his tendency to hold on to the puck and seek out higher-danger opportunities as opposed to making the safe play would fly in the face of the conservative, low-event game plan the Islanders have turned into a science this season. Even though his type of skill and creativity is what this group so desperately craves, it’s also almost wasted in this particular environment.
The Dal Colle part of this equation however is utterly bizarre, because he actually profiles as a perfect fit on this particular Islanders team. While he will likely never produce the kind of offense to justify the Isles taking him with the No. 5 overall pick in 2014, that also doesn’t preclude him from turning into a valuable contributor in other ways.
In his limited time in the league he’s already shown himself to be a ferocious forechecker, using his unique combination of size and speed in a functional manner to create turnovers and make life miserable for opposing defenders trying to cleanly exit their own zone. Even though that type of skill set is traditionally considered to be best suited in a bottom-six grinding role, it actually makes an awful lot of sense to pair it alongside a talent like Mathew Barzal.
Similar to the vast success that Zach Hyman has found doing the dirty work next to Mitch Marner, having someone that can create a couple of extra possessions for your most skilled player to work with — akin to an offensive rebounder or particularly effective pick-setter in basketball — is an intriguing proposition that could certainly pay dividends over the long haul. Barzal and Dal Colle have spent only 63 five-on-five minutes together thus far, but we’ve already seen what could be between the two of them: in that span, the Islanders have controlled a whopping 55.0 percent of the shot attempts, 57.7 percent of the shots on goal, and 62.6 percent of the high-danger attempts.
Regardless of how both Dal Colle and Ho-Sang are ultimately deployed in the lineup, there’s no argument based in reality that the Islanders as currently constructed have 12 better forward options than the two of them. While it was understandable that they didn’t want to spend premium future assets to add to their roster at the deadline, it’s genuinely mystifying to watch them refuse to improve their lineup when better internal options are available right under their nose.
For those looking for worthwhile story lines in this brief lull between the trade deadline and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there are a couple of rather fascinating playoff races brewing at the moment. Given the mismatch between the number of wild-card spots available and the teams in legitimate contention for them, someone in each conference is inevitably going to just miss the cut in the final days in heartbreaking fashion.
Even though it doesn’t necessarily have the same immediate do-or-die stakes as those contests, the race that may very well wind up having the most important big picture ramifications is the one taking place atop the Pacific Division, as the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks jockey for divisional supremacy.
While I’ll happily join the chorus pointing out the faults in the current playoff format, this is one instance where the seeding structure will actually accomplish its designed goal. The 82-game marathon of a regular season is an absolute grind, forcing far too many games into the schedule given the physically taxing nature of the sport. If the league is going to continue prioritizing financial benefits over the long-term health of its players by having them play so many games, it needs to stack the deck to properly incentivize winning in the regular season.
We’re getting that this season in the Pacific, where it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of winning the division for the two teams involved. The difference in playoff road maps for the team that finishes first versus the one that gets the second seed is massive. Aside from the two Eastern wild cards jockeying to stay out of Tampa Bay’s path in the opening round, it’s about as large a discrepancy in quality of competition as you’ll see in a league that prides itself on its parity. Here are the two options in this choose your own adventure:
Door No. 1: The team that wins the Pacific will likely take home the top seed in the West overall, which means that they’ll secure home-ice advantage all the way through their half of the bracket. Most importantly, they’ll get to play whoever finishes the season as the second wild card. It’s still far too early to know who that’ll be, but it looks like it’ll be one of Dallas, Minnesota, Colorado or Arizona. While all of those potential options bring some sort of matchup problem to the table, they’re all also deeply flawed teams that can be exploited in a seven-game series.
Assuming the division champs are able get through that series with relative ease, they’ll be well-positioned to take on a travelling team that’s bruised and battered after escaping the other Pacific division matchup. Which brings us to…
Door No. 2: The team that falls short gets the second seed will have to take on the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round. While they’ll still have home-ice advantage in the series, it represents a brutal draw.
While we don’t want to infer too much from a five-game sample against mostly lowly competition, the Knights have looked like a juggernaut in their first spin around the league with after adding Mark Stone at the deadline. They’ve won all five of those games since the deadline, by a combined 17-7 margin, controlling a league high 61.2 percent of the shot attempts and 59.5 percent of the shots on goal at five-on-five. Five games in isolation doesn’t mean much, but it’s a useful addendum to the overall story of the Knights’ season. They’ve been humming as a group since long before the trade, sitting comfortably as a top-three possession team this season.
Adding a player of Stone’s caliber without subtracting anything from the main roster is massive, now giving Vegas a devastating 1-2 punch of forward lines that can match up against whatever any of the other top teams in the league throw at them. Stone has not only immediately gelled alongside Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty; the three of them have absolutely stifled the opposition since being put together:
As great as Stone is himself, his presence has an equally important trickle down effect on the lineup. He allows Gerard Gallant and his staff to bump Alex Tuch down to the third line, giving it a much-needed shot in the arm by finally providing Cody Eakin with a legitimate running mate. It also frees up the trio of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith to face some lighter competition, and not have to shoulder as much of the scoring load as they had to in the past.
The Knights are a problem, and the Sharks and Flames will do everything in their power to stay away from them for as long as they can. While they’re surely aware of that already, it’ll be interesting to see how much they prioritize that over everything else, and the lengths they’re willing to go.
For example, Calgary really can’t afford to be giving away free points by starting Mike Smith routinely down the stretch, but they also presumably don’t want to put too many miles on David Rittich, either. He’s already shown a bit of wear in his performance of late, and as he goes north of 40 appearances for the season, it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s only played 24, 41, 30, 48, 32 and 33 games per season since turning pro in 2012. They’d be wise to keep him as fresh as possible, seeing as how important he will be for any potential extended playoff run they make.
In terms of schedule, the Sharks have a couple more home dates than the Flames, but it evens out because Calgary gets to face more lottery-bound competition. Considering how tight things are, it’s quite possible that the looming March 31 meeting between the two in San Jose could wind up being the ultimate difference maker.
For the teams involved, these final weeks will be tense despite the fact that they’ve long since effectively cinched up their playoff berths. Regardless of how things shake out, we’re assured an absolute heavyweight tilt between the No. 2 seed and Vegas that’s overqualified to be a first-round matchup.