How the Islanders proved everyone wrong

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No sport seems to lend itself to unexpected results quite like the NHL.

The New York Islanders returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and opening up their Round 1 series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on home ice, has to qualify as perhaps the unexpected result in the NHL this season.

Go back to the start of the season, look at the situation they were in, look at their roster, and it would have been almost impossible to have lower expectations for this team as almost nobody had them projected as a playoff team.

The 2017-18 version of the team was one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era, and it lost one of its steadiest defensive players in Calvin de Haan.

Even worse, they lost John Tavares, their franchise player, in free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs and were entering this season with three of their top-five returning forwards, including new captain Anders Lee, all in contract years. All can still unrestricted free agents on July 1. Given the makeup of the roster, the preseason expectations, and the contract situation for so many of their top players it seemed almost inevitable that they would be sellers at the deadline and an afterthought come playoff time.

Not going to lie, I thought this team was going to be a disaster at the start (especially given their offseason — which I hated!), and even as they kept winning games early in the year kept waiting for the inevitable regression in the second half. Even though they did slow down a little bit, they never fell off the cliff and continued to fight for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. In short, I was very wrong about this.

As was pretty much everybody else, I am guessing, outside of their own building.

Welcome to life in the NHL, where nobody really knows anything, and the sport itself can make you question everything you think you know. At least in the short-term.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

How did the Islanders do it?

Well, let’s start with new coach Barry Trotz, who is getting most of the credit for the turnaround.

This was the Islanders’ biggest offseason acquisition, if for no other reason than they were hiring away the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach. That is always a big deal and a notable move, and the results were immediate. The Islanders’ turnaround has only strengthened Trotz’s reputation as a defensive coach, and the numbers show just how much of an impact he has made.

Remember, this is largely the same defense that played for the Islanders a year ago when they were, unquestionably, the worst defensive team in the league and one of the worst defensive teams in the past 25 years.

There is a lot of significant improvement in pretty much every category, going from the bottom-three (and in some cases last) to the middle the pack in some, and the top-10 in others.

Obviously there was nowhere else to go but up for this team, but that is still a significant move in the right direction, especially considering the personnel.

But I still think the perception of this team as being a total shutdown team defensively is a little off. You look at the goals against numbers and immediately want to think “best defensive team in the league,” because that is just what you always think about the team that gave up the fewest goals in the league. But when you look at the other areas that are actually a representation of their defensive play, specifically their ability to limit shots and scoring chances, they are simply … good.

They are certainly not bad, they are definitely better than they were, but I am not quite sure they reach the level of *great* defensively.

They are average (shot attempts against, high-danger scoring chances against) to above average (expected goals against).

This where the goaltending factor comes in, because goaltending can change everything for an NHL team. It is also one of the biggest reasons the sport can be so unpredictable and volatile with its results.

Islanders fans didn’t like a few weeks ago when I gave the goalies more credit for the team’s success than Trotz, but that was not an attempt to take credit away from Trotz. It was just trying to look at things objectively.

When you do, it is hard to not give a ton of credit to the play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss for just how far the team has climbed.

For the season, they finished with the best combined save percentage in the NHL, and when the Islanders did have a defensive breakdown in front of them, they consistently bailed them out at a rate better than almost any other goalie for any other team in the league.

Some more numbers, and again, a comparison versus their performance from a season ago.

Not only was the defense awful a season ago, but so were the goalies. Put those two things together and you have a recipe for madness.

For as much as the team improved defensively, the goalies saw their performance improve even more, especially as it relates to their 5-on-5 save percentage and their save percentage against high-danger scoring chances.

Those are massive, massive, massive jumps. Game-changing jumps. Season-changing jumps.

Yes, seeing fewer chances helps, but even when they did see chances they played significantly better and stopped more of them than they did a season ago. That is still where a lot of the improvement comes in and the biggest reason the Islanders went from absolute worst goal prevention team to the absolute best goal prevention team, and not merely a “good” goal prevention team.

That is also okay.

Sometimes that is how you have to win. The goalies are part of the team and get paid a lot of money, too. They are allowed to impact a team’s fortunes (and often times do).

The thing of it is, we probably should have seen this coming, and if there is an area where we (or at least me) got it wrong with this team prior to the season, it was with the goalies. We should have known they would at least have a chance to be pretty good.

Greiss’ performances stands out, but it is not the first time he has played at this level.

He has appeared in at least 20 games five times in his career and has finished those seasons with the following save percentages: .927 (this season), .925, .920, .913, .908, and .892 (a year ago). He has consistently been an above average goalie outside of this past season, which was the obvious outlier in his career.

While Lehner was coming off of a disastrous season in Buffalo, he, too, had shown the ability to play at a fairly high level in the NHL and behind some pretty shoddy defensive teams. His save percentages in seasons with at least 20 games played: .930 (this season), .924, .920, .913, .908 (a year ago in Buffalo), and .905.

Again, pretty consistently league average or better.

You are not wrong if you are skeptical about the long-term outlook of the Islanders beyond this season, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle and their contracts. Will they be back? And if not, who are the Islanders replacing them with?

Plus, every year there is a team that greatly outperforms its underlying numbers and thinks they stumbled upon the secret on how to do it. Then they eventually badly regress the next season when the goalies regress. It happens like clockwork.

Maybe that happens with the Islanders.

Or maybe Trotz keeps improving the defense enough to make up for whatever slight regression might happen in net, or maybe they find improvements in other areas. A lot can happen in a few months. But right now none of that matters this season for this team in these playoffs because this team has made it work. They improved enough defensively with the help of their new coaching staff to be competitive. Their goalies improved enough on top of that to make them a contender, proving pretty much everyone in the league wrong, and a team that is going to be an extremely difficult team to knock out in the playoffs.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Penguins vs. Islanders Round 1 preview

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

NHL, NHLPA agree to four-year CBA extension, Return to Play MOU

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We’re another step closer to hockey resuming after the NHL and NHLPA reached a tentative agreement on a Return to Play Plan and a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the Collecting Bargaining Agreement.

The deal adds four years to the current CBA and updates the league’s off-season critical dates calendar. A four-year extension means the new CBA would expire Sept. 15, 2026. The current agreement was scheduled to expire Sept. 15, 2022.

The next step is the approval process, which means the NHL’s Board of Governors, the NHLPA’s Executive Board, and then the full union membership need to sign off on it.

[MORE: NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season]

Once all approvals are in order, training camps for the 24-team tournament will begin Monday, July 13 in their home cities. On July 26 teams will then travel to their respective hub cities — likely Toronto or Edmonton — and the Qualifying Round will begin on August 1.

While the hub cities have yet to be officially announced, it’s expected that Edmonton will host the Western Conference and Toronto will serve as the main site for the Eastern Conference. Rogers Place (Edmonton) will likely be the site of the conference finals and 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

WEST
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

QUALIFYING ROUND
No. 5 Oilers vs. No. 12 Blackhawks
No. 6 Predators vs. No. 11 Coyotes
No. 7 Canucks vs. No. 10 Wild
No. 8 Flames vs. No. 9 Jets

EAST
• Capitals
• Flyers
• Bruins
• Lightning

QUALIFYING ROUND
No. 5 Penguins vs. No. 12 Canadiens
No. 6 Hurricanes vs. No. 11 Rangers
No. 7 Islanders vs. No. 10 Panthers
No. 8 Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Blue Jackets

The Qualifying Round series will be best-of-five, while the top four teams in each conference will play three games with points percentage used as a tiebreaker to determine seeds Nos. 1-4 in the East and West. All series beginning with the First Round will be best-of-seven and teams will be re-seeded.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results
A look at the Western Conference matchups

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Power Rankings: Fun ways the free agent frenzy could go

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With at least some of the NHL future getting less muddy, it sure looks like the next “Free Agent Frenzy” will take place on or around Nov. 1. Unfortunately, an expected flat $81.5M salary cap could make the NHL “Free Agent Frenzy” more of a flurry.

But managing a flat salary cap — likely by shedding players they didn’t want to expel — is a job for overwhelmed GMs, particularly of big-market teams. For the rest of us, we can fill some time by daydreaming about different NHL free agent scenarios. (Some more realistic than others.)

Back in April, Adam Gretz ranked the top 20 (possible) NHL Free Agents. Being that Sean Leahy recently looked at the best destinations for assumed top 2020 NHL Draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, how about we combine those ideas?

In other words, what are the best destinations for some of the NHL’s top free agents? Actually, scratch that. Let’s go with the most fun NHL free agent situations. They occasionally might even make sense!

1. Avalanche go on one-year NHL Free Agent Frenzy with Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NHL fans have watched too many “super teams” form in the NBA. In some of those cases, said NBA stars flexed their leverage by agreeing to shorter deals. LeBron James left Cleveland after getting a hometown ring. Kawhi Leonard can eat apples elsewhere if the whole Clippers thing doesn’t work out.

In the case of this hypothetical scenario with the Avalanche, it would be more of an “everybody wins” scenario — except maybe Colorado’s competition. Consider these factors:

  • Pietrangelo would just block promising young defensemen like Bowen Byram working into the mix with Cale Makar if Pietrangelo signed a long-term deal. But if it was short? He buys Colorado time and can maybe hand down some life lessons to those kiddos.
  • Taylor Hall has suffered enough. Let’s get him on a good team, which Colorado … at least has a good chance of being for the foreseeable future. Right? Possibly?
  • Let’s be honest, with all of the financial turmoil going on, Pietrangelo and Hall might not enjoy much of a market. Truly, Pietrangelo might be better off taking a one-year deal to stay in St. Louis. But that’s not as fun (unless you’re a Blues fan).
  • The Avalanche figure to have a lot of money to burn, but I’m not sure that it would be wise to risk Hall and Pietrangelo hitting the aging curve. This scenario basically buys everyone some time for longer-term solutions, while taking a big swing at a 2020-21 Stanley Cup.

Now, some will point to that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, and that was kind of a disaster.

To which I retort: we’d get to talk about that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Was it as much of a disaster as we thought? (Sounds like quality content either way.)

2. Buffy to Buffalo

Just imagine the bad puns and headlines that could come from Dustin Byfuglien reviving his career with the Buffalo Sabres.

As much as anything else, the Sabres and their fans need some joy. Adding a much-needed defenseman who’s as flat-out as unusual as Byfuglien would be pretty fun, if you ask me.

Could it be another disaster? Sure, but in that scenario, at least cruel people would have fun? I think it’s worth the risk. (<— Person not signing any of these checks.)

3. Hurricanes and Robin Lehner, an NHL Free Agency story of “Finally”

Despite putting up fantastic numbers for two seasons, Robin Lehner can’t seem to get the sort of stability he wants. Despite putting together deep and talented teams, the Hurricanes are always a few netminding meltdowns from throwing all of that shrewd team-building away.

Frankly, I was a little surprised the Hurricanes shrugged their shoulders at Lehner last summer. Sure, they’re analytics-leaning with Eric Tulsky calling a lot of shots (although I wonder if Don Waddell “went camping” by acquiring Brady Skjei and his not-particularly-fancy-stats?). But Lehner seemed like a buy-low candidate, particularly in signing a low-risk, one-year deal with the Blackhawks during the 2020 offseason.

Maybe it’s finally time for Carolina to take the plunge?

OK, so the smarter move might be to continue going shorter term. Perhaps Corey Crawford would take a shorter deal than what Lehner is clearly seeking. Jacob Markstrom might be the craftier addition, if the Canucks let him walk.

Lehner and the Hurricanes would rank as the more interesting story, though.

4. Can Braden Holtby halt the sinking of the Sharks?

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Speaking of interesting narratives that might not be as wise as they look on paper, Holtby to the Sharks would be fascinating.

Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been disastrous for the Sharks lately. Of course, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument, though, as the Sharks defense often hangs its goalies out to dry.

In Holtby, you have a Stanley Cup winner whose overall body of work is highly impressive. For a Sharks team tormented by playoff letdowns, Holtby’s postseason resume shines especially bright (Stanley Cup win, .928 save percentage over 89 career playoff games).

Yet, on the other hand, things have been bumpy for Holtby for some time. His game had already been slipping, but it really dipped badly in 2019-20 with a disturbing .897 save percentage. Holtby probably will demand a hefty contract thanks to his prior work, too.

So … there are a lot of red flags here. That said, the Sharks are pretty desperate. At minimum, it would be interesting to see if that gamble would pay off for San Jose.

Assorted fun NHL free agent scenarios of varying realism

  • As interesting as it would be for Joe Thornton to ship back up to Boston, I keep going back to Thornton with the Winnipeg Jets for some reason. The Jets would actually be a sensible landing spot for someone like Torey Krug, but Thornton chasing a Stanley Cup with the Jets just feels right.
  • The Maple Leafs are going to experience an agonizing cap squeeze. If Kevin Shattenkirk took another one-year, low-dollar deal, maybe Toronto would come calling? He’s the sort of double-edged sword defenseman who could help the Maple Leafs more than hurt them. But oh, how that hockey-crazed media and fan base will overreact to those mistakes …
  • The Blackhawks seem pretty deep in a “just try to outscore their problems” phase. Is there a better defenseman for that pursuit than Tyson Barrie? I mean, probably, but that could make for a white-knuckle ride.
  • Let’s get Evgenii Dadonov to a California team. With any luck, Dad would attend a Padres game.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL announces nine additional COVID-19 positive cases

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The National Hockey League says 35 total players have tested positive for the coronavirus over roughly the past month.

The league says 23 of 396 players checked for COVID-19 at team facilities have tested positive since voluntary workouts began June 8, a 5% rate. In that same period of time, it is aware of 12 additional positive test results.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association on Sunday night agreed on protocols to start training camps and resume the season. That includes daily testing once games get under way for players, coaches and staff.

Resuming is contingent on each side approving an extension of the collective bargaining agreement and the return to play agreement.

PHT Morning Skate: Four Blues players, one coach test positive for COVID-19; Future for Rask

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Blues players test positive for COVID-19, and other return-to-play issues for NHL teams

• Four Blues players and one coach tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the team to cancel practices late last week. It sounds like the Blues will attempt to resume activities on Monday. [According to various reporters, including Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

• Beyond trying to start things back up, what’s next? Lou Korac of NHL.com reports that the Blues players who tested positive for COVID-19 are likely to miss the beginning of formal training camps (aka “Phase 3”). [Korac on Twitter]

Last Monday, the NHL announced that 26 players (15 of at least 250 who participated in Phase 2; 11 who weren’t participating in activities and team facilities) tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 began on June 8. This bumps the player count to at least 30 during Phase 2.

• Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan recently said that assistant Jacques Martin is expected to be a full participant during the potential NHL return. Plenty of coaches are at a noteworthy age, considering the heightened risks for serious complications from COVID-19 for older people. At 67, you’d understand if Martin decided not to participate, or to scale back in some way. That’s not the case, at least according to Sullivan. [Pittsburgh Hockey Now]

Other hockey links

• Some early thoughts on the proposed changes to how the CBA works as the NHL and NHLPA work to hash out an extension. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• Jim Matheson believe that it is “big gulp” time for prospective NHL free agents. Go ahead and scratch off some 7-Eleven jokes, then read up on the predicament many are in. [Edmonton Journal]

• Last week, PHT evaluated how the Kings might use the No. 2 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. While we discussed a few scenarios, the piece focused quite a bit on Quinton Byfield vs. Tim Stutzle. Mayor’s Manor goes deep on that comparison, too, and adds a wrinkle: assessing Lucas Raymond as the possible second pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, too. [Mayor’s Manor]

• Speaking of going deep, Joe Haggerty breaks down what the future might look like for Tuukka Rask. With retirement sounding unlikely any time soon, what happens after Rask’s contract expires following the 2020-21 season? The Bruins could extend Rask as soon as this summer, but there’s a lot of cap uncertainty going on right now. [NBC Sports Boston]

• As far as Finnish hockey has come, Aatu Raty has a chance to break new ground. Could he be the first Finnish player to go first overall? It’s a long way until the 2021 NHL Draft, but Mark Masters spoke with Raty about the possibility. [TSN]

• Did the David Clarkson contract set the stage for the Maple Leafs to turn things around? For all we know, it may have accelerated certain processes, such as hiring Brendan Shanahan, who cleaned house of many of the people who … well, thought that Clarkson contract was a good idea. [Leafs Nation]

• Kevin Kurz shares the fascinating story of Ned Colletti. “MLB GM to NHL scout” isn’t a common career path, so expect an uncommon story. [The Hockey News]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.