31 in 31 NHL Season Review: New York Islanders
For the next 31 days, AFP Analytics is going to take a critical look back at how the season played out for all 31 NHL teams, starting with the last place team (Buffalo Sabres) and ending with the Stanley Cup Champions. In addition to a season recap, we will look at some major decisions the team will be facing this offseason.
New York Islanders
Next up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the New York Islanders, who face a franchise defining offseason. The Islanders started off the season incredibly well but limped to the finish line. Season long struggles on the blueline and in net were offset early in the season by a high-powered offense. As the season wore on, the backend struggles continued and the offense also slowed down. With superstar John Tavares an unrestricted free agent this offseason, top goal scorer Andres Lee unrestricted and super rookie, Mathew Barzal, a restricted free agent next offseason, the Islanders have some major decisions to make.
Season Bright Spots
The Islanders seem to have found a keeper in Mathew Barzal, who they traded Griffin Reinhart, a player who appears to never be a full-time NHL player, for the right to select him 16th overall in 2015. What a steal that trade appears to be for the Islanders. Barzal seems to be a lock for the Calder Trophy (given to the NHL’s top rookie player). Barzal led the Islanders in 5v5 scoring, scoring at a rate of 2.88 points per 60, which amounts to 54 total points. Not only did Barzal lead the team in scoring, he also was one of the team’s best possession players. During 5v5 play, Barzal had a Corsi For % of 52.33%, second to Jordan Eberle. The Islanders also were 6.83% better in possession when Barzal was on the ice, good for second place behind Eberle. This certainly seems like a good time for the Islanders to have a young, top center to emerge given the uncertainty surrounding John Tavares. The best news is the Islanders still have Barzal cost controlled for two more seasons, though they certainly must be aware of the likely big contract he will command.
The next player that must be highlighted is Andres Lee, who has quietly become one of the top goal scorers in the league. He scored 23 at 5v5 and another 17 on the power play, giving him 40 goals for the season. Lee showed that last season’s 34 goals were not a fluke as he has quickly become one of the league’s premier net-front players and a prototypical power forward. His underlying numbers though are a little concerning. The biggest question surrounding Lee is whether his success comes from playing with superstar John Tavares. The answer is quite possibly. Lee’s possession numbers away from Tavares are 4% worse than when he played with Tavares. He also finished the season below 50% in Corsi For %, though he was well above that for approximately two-thirds of the season. However, you don’t score 40 goals by accident. It will be interesting to monitor Lee’s production if Tavares leaves the team this offseason. Though probably not quite on the level of Tavares, the Islanders likely don’t want to go through the questions of will he stay or will he go for two seasons in a row. The addition of Lou Lamoriello and the other major holes on the roster may leave Lee in flux this offseason.
I don’t completely want to continue to gloss over John Tavares because he was really good once again for the Islanders. I am not going to spend much space on him because he performed at the level that would be expected out of a player his caliber. There of course will be plenty of space dedicated to him in the offseason plan as well.
The other two players I want to highlight here are Jordan Eberle and Josh Bailey, both players who produced at a level that may have been higher than anticipated. Islanders fans must be thrilled with the Ryan Strome for Jordan Eberle trade. Eberle was awesome this season while Strome struggled once again. It appears a theme in this bright spots section is starting to emerge. Two of the players who were great for the Islanders came to the team as results of trades with the Edmonton Oilers. If Garth Snow had exclusively made trades with the Oilers, maybe Lamoriello wouldn’t have been brought in. Anyways, I digress.
If you have read everything I have previously written, you should already be aware that Eberle was the Islanders’ best possession forward. The reason for Islander fans to be most excited about Eberle is that it is unlikely his strong possession play this season was a fluke. For most of his career with the lowly Oilers, Eberle was a positive possession player during 5v5 play. That success continued with his move to Brooklyn. The other reason for optimism is that Eberle played as well away from Mathew Barzal as he did with him. Eberle played the most 5v5 minutes with Barzal. Like Anders Lee, Eberle is also due to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and is likely looking at a contract with a cap hit of at least $6M again.
Josh Bailey is the final player that I would like to highlight here. Bailey ran on the wing with Tavares and Lee and may have benefited. Bailey’s Corsi For % was 5% worse when he was away from John Tavares versus when he played with him. However, he did demonstrate some play-making skill as he finished third among regular players with .74 primary assists per 60. The Islanders were also able to sign him to keep him at a reasonable $5M cap hit but he will be on the books for six years. If they could have shaved a year or two off at that price, the deal would look good for the team. Though there certainly must be concern if Tavares leaves the team and Bailey struggles to find chemistry with a different center.
This section is very easy to determine who belongs. I don’t know how much time to spend beating a dead horse here. The Islanders’ struggles were directly the result of poor defensive play and poor goaltending. The goaltending may not have been quite as bad as many have made it out to be. Rather, their struggles are more likely the shot quantity and quality the goaltenders based.
Jaro Halak played 54 games in net and saved 6.53 goals above average, good for 16th out of 51 goalies who played at least 1000 minutes. The major problem is when Halak did not play. Thomas Griess mightily struggled giving up nearly eight more goals below average. Couple that with Chris Gibson’s two goals below average and the Islanders’ backup goaltenders saved 10 goals less than would be expected of an average goal. For those unfamiliar with the goals saved above/below average stat, it is basically looking at how many goals were saved or given up by a goalie compared to what an average goalie would do. The reality is though the team was, statistically getting above average goaltending in approximately 60% of their games. To me, this signals more of a problem with the defense and the numbers back up that claim.
I can’t wrap my head around why the Islanders thought they needed to protect five defensemen and make a trade with Vegas to steer them to take free agent goalie JF Berube. The Islanders probably had the worst defense in the entire league this year and felt the need to protect five of them and one of those was not Calvin de Haan who looks to be the most competent, as he led all defensemen in Corsi For % (though still under 50%) and gave up the second least high danger scoring chances.
The reason I think the Islanders biggest problem was their defense is the fact the team gave up the highest danger shots in the entire league. When I say shots here, I am referring to every shot toward goal, which includes misses and blocks. Constantly allowing the puck to work its way into high danger areas, in my opinion, signals a major problem with their defensive talent. This also puts added pressure on your goalies and likely is the reason the goalies’ advanced statistics are not as bad as would be expected.
The additional of Lou Lamoriello may significantly change the Islanders’ approach to this offseason. As an outside observer, it seems Garth Snow’s biggest problem is he overvalued players in the organization. He has overpaid many of the players he has re-signed and felt the need to give up a first round draft pick to protect a handful of marginal players. With Lamoriello calling the shots, he has no loyalty to any of the players so he likely will have no problem making sweeping changes to the roster, which is needed for the team.
Lamoriello’s top priority must be John Tavares. In today’s NHL, you can’t let superstar players leave your franchise. If you have read everything previously written, you will also see how important Tavares was to the success of Lee and Bailey. The going rate for Tavares is likely going to fall between the $10.5M of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Connor McDavid’s $12.5M. Putting that contract on the books with Andres Lee and Mathew Barzal due for extensions that will likely carry high cap hits as well in subsequent, the Islanders will need to make some tough decisions. It would be better if they must make them versus Tavares making it for them by leaving.
The team has $28M in cap space, needing to sign four forwards, two defensemen, and a goalie. That space will of course be quickly eaten into if they are successful in bringing back Tavares. I think many of those other roster spots should be filled internally. One of the players that would be obvious for internal promotion is Josh Ho-Sang. He has developed a reputation as being a player that has all the skill in the world but may never make it in the NHL because of the way he approaches the game. His possession numbers are decent though not great. The Islanders have shot themselves in the foot when it comes to his value. His constant bouncing between the AHL and NHL has to give other teams an uneasy feeling. Lamoriello cannot let that continue. If he wants to move on from Ho-Sang, he needs to do it this offseason. He could probably be included in a package deal with another player and yield a decent return.
The Islanders have highly touted forward prospect Kieffer Bellows who seems poised to make the jump to the NHL. Bellows is a player that should slot immediately into the team’s top six and would probably be a perfect fit riding shotgun with Mathew Barzal. Bellows is a dynamic goal scorer who needs a play-making center to set him up. Barzal perfectly fits the bill. If the team brings back Tavares and follows my suggestion on Barzal, their top six would be the following: Lee-Tavares-Bailey, Eberle-Barzal-Bellows. That would leave Andrew Ladd to play third line minutes with Anthony Beauvillier and maybe Michael Dal Colle baring any trades. That forward group looks very impressive on paper.
As earlier discussed, the biggest issue the team has is addressing the backend. They first need to shore up their net. To put things frankly, Halak is probably the best option among goalies who are currently slated to become unrestricted free agents and I don’t see him being an option to bring back. I think there are three other goalies to watch here, Robin Lehner, Petr Mrazek, and Phillip Grubauer. In his offseason game plan piece, Scott Cullen of TSN though Robin Lehner might be the fit for the Islanders. I think that makes a lot of sense but I think Islanders’ fans will likely become frustrated with Lehner very quickly, given his wild inconsistency. I think the Islanders should do all they can to pry Grubauer out of Washington (or Holtby if the team feels Grubauer is the long-term answer). Either of those options will likely solve the Islanders’ problems in goal for years to come.
The biggest weakness Lamoriello should address is the defense. Unfortunately for him, his hands are pretty tied when it comes to Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, who are both players the team should be looking to move on from, especially as they age. There might be a small market for Leddy (maybe the Blackhawks would like to reacquire him like they have other former players), but I can’t see any team interested in adding a 34-year-old defenseman getting paid $6M per year for the next four years. Moving him likely would require the team to eat some salary and/or include some quality assets for another team to take on that contract.
The Islanders could spin the wheels and retain most of their own defensemen and promote from within. However, outside of maybe Sebastian Aho and Ryan Pulock there aren’t any defensemen worth getting excited about. The same is mostly true for free agent defensemen. There is John Carlson and potentially Mike Green, but both of those players are going to demand too much money to potentially fit in with Tavares. If Tavares leaves, the team could look to use that money on one of those high-priced defensemen, but I don’t think that would be a wise decision, unless it is for a short term.
I think the best way the team could improve their blueline is by swapping one of their talented forwards for a defenseman. No move could be made without Tavares signing on the dotted line, but a trade of Andres Lee or Jordan Eberle could be in the cards this offseason for the Islanders. They have the forward depth to move one of those two players and could add even more depth if Ilya Kovalchuk follows Lamoriello to Brooklyn.
I am just spit-balling here but I wonder if a trade with Anaheim, Buffalo, Carolina, Calgary, Nashville, or St. Louis where the Islanders acquire a defenseman in exchange for one of Eberle or Lee. Anaheim or Calgary would seem like the most logical partners. I don’t know if Buffalo is quite a fit but as we discussed in our review of them (https://afpanalytics.com/2018/05/17/nhl-31-in-31-season-review-buffalo-sabres/) Rasmus Ristolainen and/or Jake McCabe are very logically to be moved and the team needs another top winger. Calgary is rumored to be looking to be fielding offers on Hamilton and a swap of him for Eberle, could be a good “hockey trade” for both teams. Our Calgary review will be posted in two days and in it we discuss why the Flames would be smart to have a quiet offseason. I don’t think a move like that qualifies as quiet. The same goes for Nashville. I think a trade that makes the most sense is one that brings Colton Paryako to Brooklyn for Jordan Eberle, assuming Eberle agrees to an extension before the trade is made. On the surface, Andres Lee in Anaheim seems like a match made in heaven but I don’t think the team has the cap space to keep him around long-term. Carolina could also be a great fit but I don’t think the two teams would trade within the division.
This offseason is going to define the New York Islanders as they prepare to move into their new arena. I think it was wise to bring in a fresh voice to reshape this roster, though I’m not entirely sure Lamoriello is the best man for the job. This offseason becomes a whole lot easier if the team can get Tavares locked up early but that probably won’t happen. The team will have to go into the offseason with two completely different plans, neither of which will be able to be executed until after Tavares has signed a contract. Regardless of if he stays or goes, the Islanders need Tavares to make a quick decision. I think he will at least respect that for the team.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Carolina Hurricanes. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.