There are a lot of highly-enjoyable storylines to follow during the playoff chase. During the Game 48-to-Game 82 stretch in a normal season, a couple of teams that don’t belong fall out of the chase (last season it happened to be the Minnesota Wild and the Toronto Maple Leafs) but this season there’s some added excitement because teams that specifically don’t belong are in the chase.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will make the playoffs for the first time in nine years—the playoff team with the worst shot differential numbers since the 2002 Montreal Canadiens, as per Elliotte Friedman at Hockey Night in Canada. The hockey blogosphere is abuzz with the success of the new-look Columbus Blue Jackets, or “New York Rangers West”, or quite simply “Lumbus” and as of Sunday night, they hold a slippery grip on the 8th spot.
The more games are played, as in, if there were a normal season, I think those two teams might fall out of the race. I’d be a little worried about the Anaheim Ducks. That being said, some math is being re-written this season. I wrote over at my PDO post on NHL Numbers last week that:
after 40 games or so games, we should expect just 5% of the teams in the league to be outside 1.025 or .975 (great work here by Snark SD). The actual number is 23%, as this is officially a silly season and has made an absolute mess of things.
So it’s not the low number of games that is keeping Anaheim and Toronto in the playoffs, Pittsburgh and Chicago picking up points like gangbusters, and Florida unable to make a save while the New Jersey Devils could become the best team to miss the postseason probably ever. There’s something else happening this season. Perhaps the short turnaround, the extra days off, the more four- and five-game weeks is giving an added boost to certain teams. Who knows.
I don’t like it. Let’s start the playoffs.
Hopefully the New York Islanders were in them.
Not sure how many of you caught Saturday afternoon’s thriller between Long Island and, uh, Winnipeg. It shouldn’t actually be surprising that these two teams played a pretty good game. The Jets take some un-due heat, and I’ve felt like this for a while. They have some great forwards, two excellent lines, are a plus-possession team and were held out of the playoffs last season because Ondrej Pavelec is secretly not a very good NHL starting goaltender.
But neither is Evgeni Nabokov in recent years. Just looking at his even strength save percentages in recent years… .917 a year ago, .915 this season, while the NHL average has deviated between .920 and .921. Essentially he’s an overqualified backup, but he’s playing behind a team that’s both competent, and built in the New York Islanders-iest way possible.
It’s difficult to look at the Islanders’ roster and find a player who came to the team with high accolades. John Tavares is the team’s points leader and was a No. 1 pick. The team’s captain is Mark Streit, who was signed as a fairly high-profile free agent four summers ago to a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal. He’s an anomaly, however.
Consider this sequence of events in the Saturday game: Tied 3-3 midway through the third period in a real important game against the Jets, Tavares starts in the offensive zone with linemates Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson.
Brad Boyes scored 43 goals once upon a time, as a 25-year old in St. Louis. He scored 33 the next season, and hasn’t hit 20 since. In his last two seasons, Boyes scored just 25 goals and missed 13 games due to an injury. The Sabres let his contract expire and he landed on the Island on a one-year deal for a slim sum of $1-million, a 75 per cent paycut. That’s a deal far cheaper than the one given to the last guy who played on that wing, P.A. Parenteau, who went chasing dollars in Colorado. Parenteau scored 20 goals for the Islanders making $600K in 2011 and 18 goals in 2012 making $1.25M. He’s had an excellent season in Colorado, but at $4-million per four years, he’d better be.
Matt Moulson’s story is dissimilar. Before showing up on Long Island, Moulson jumped up and down between Los Angeles Kings and affiliate Manchester Monarchs, playing just 29 games and scoring six goals. At 25, he became an unrestricted free agent and went to Long Island for a little over league minimum. Since signing that deal, just ten players have scored more goals, and only five have scored more goals for a single team: Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Marleau, Corey Perry and Phil Kessel.
But there’s Tavares, a phenom at age 14 who became the first “exceptional player” to be allowed to be drafted into the Ontario Hockey League at age 15, centrering Boyes and Moulson, two players with enough offensive talent to be good for general manager Garth Snow that went unrealized the years before they became free agents. The Islanders would never be able to out-bid the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers for top-flight talent. They need to look for the players that nobody else would think to sign. Boyes hadn’t been productive in years. Moulson was a three-time 20-goal scorer in the AHL and led his Cornell University team in goals in his sophomore, junior and senior years. He was drafted by the Penguins but went unsigned.
Behind Tavares, Boyes and Moulson are the two defencemen that lead the Islanders in on-ice shot differential, although they do get the easy offensive minutes. Those are Thomas Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky.
I’d like to sit down and pick Snow’s brain over why he chose to trade for Lubomir Visnovsky at the draft. Visnovsky had one season with a Relative Corsi number in single digits: 2012 in Anaheim. He’s always been a high-minute, high-offence player who thrives in situations with scoring players. A prime offensive talent, Visnovsky scored 45 points in 2010, 68 in 2011 and then just 27 in 2012. What Snow saw, I presume, was a player undervalued because of his recent results, and not what the same player had accomplished at age 33 and 34. The Islanders traded for him and Visnovsky refused to report, stating that the Anaheim Ducks had no right to trade him to New York. Snow stuck to his guns after an arbitrator ruled that Visnovsky’s no-trade clause was no longer valid because it had been waived when he chose to go to Anaheim from Edmonton. Visnovsky reported, and then signed a two-year extension.
And Thomas Hickey? A former fourth overall pick who had the talent to be picked high in 2007 who captained Team Canada to a World Junior title. Hickey found himself on waivers after being unable to crack the Kings’ defensive lineup in six seasons.
Other than Tavares, this is a rag-tag group. Strange circumstances brought all five together but they’re out taking an important face-off. Tavares wins it to his wing, and Moulson puts the puck back to Visnovsky, who dumps it in deep for Brad Boyes to pursue. He beats the high-priced Dustin Byfuglien to the puck but passes it inadvertedly behind his back and James Wright clears for the Jets. Evander Kane can’t corral it at centre and Byfuglien’s partner Ron Hainsey has to clear it again, but Tavares, in perfect position, reads the play and knocks Jets’ centreman Kyle Wellwood off the puck, bringing it back in over the Jets line.
There’s really nothing special here at work, only there is. Combined, Winnipeg’s first line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler make about $11-million. The first line of the Islanders, who have been just as good and exciting make a little under $10-million all considered. It’s not like the Jets are a big market powerhouse team—and their defensive unit of Byfuglien and Hainsey that combines for $9.7-million in salary cap dollars can’t clear the puck against a line of three players than a defensive unit made up of two players.
Tavares can’t get it deep and is knocked off the puck by Byfuglien. But he clears it, and while Evander Kane finds space, he’s stood up by Hickey and Wright, who recovers the puck, has to slow down as Kane gets onside. Tavares, faster than Wright, overtakes him and sends the puck back towards Winnipeg’s end.
By now, Zach Bogosian and Grant Clitsome are the new pairing for the Jets. They’re considerably cheaper than Byfuglien and Hainsey, and Boyes doesn’t forecheck, opting to go off for the change. No Corsi events in the shift for either team, and the Islanders get to change. Rare for a team in the financial position of the Islanders, they actually have some depth.
Clitsome banks the puck into the zone off of James Wright. Again, Hickey and Kane are on a collision course to recover it. The defenceman who couldn’t crack an NHL roster for six years muscles off a fellow fourth overall pick in Kane, pinning it against the boards and letting Keith Aucoin come recover.
The line that has just come on for the Islanders may be called “the waiver line”. Keith Aucoin was grabbed off waivers after he was cut from the Maple Leafs in January. 29 teams passed on Colin McDonald the day before the lockout as he was waived to become eligible to join the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The third member of the line is another former first round pick from 2006, Michael Grabner. After the Florida Panthers acquired Grabner along with a pick for Keith Ballard in 2010, the Panthers didn’t find a use for him, and the Islanders grabbed him. McDonald, Aucoin and Grabner play more than 11 minutes of effective hockey a game, and the three have combined for 28 goals so far on the season.
Aucoin recovers and sends it around behind for Visnovsky, who has a lot of space, eludes the new Winnipeg forechecker Alex Burmistrov, and safely clears it to McDonald. McDonald drop passes to Grabner who skates onto the puck with a lot of speed… but he loses the puck on his stick. Burmistrov gets nowhere though. After he recovers, Hickey, now a minute into his shift, calmly pokes the puck to the wing and Aucoin recovers back to Visnovsky who clears the zone again.
This time, the Isles get it deep. Visnovsky headmans to McDonald, who gets stood up by Clitsome at the Winnipeg line, but McDonald fights around the check. Nobody marks Grabner, who gets to the front of the net unimpeded. McDonald centres the puck and Ondrej Pavelec, who has difficulty on some of the easy ones, has no chance as a natural goal scorer makes it 4-3 for the Islanders, easily tapping one far side.
The Islanders have five players in their top nine forwards and top six defencemen who have been on waivers in the last two seasons. The other one is Brian Strait, a 25-year-old former Penguins draft pick who played just 12 games for Pittsburgh in 2011 and 2012 before the Isles claimed him a day before the 2013 season started.
While Nabokov has been less-than-stellar this season, the Islanders are not. As of Sunday, the Islanders are 11th in the entire league in Corsi Tied, a shot statistic that measures puck-possession and has a higher predictive value of future wins than current win-loss record. In score-tied situations, the Islanders are 7th in the NHL in shots for, and 8th in shots against, fewer than more traditional defensive teams like Nashville, Vancouver and Minnesota.
There’s an odd bit of trickery going on in Long Island. Garth Snow, who was left off NHL.com’s list of the best general managers, has quietly built one of the most economical teams in hockey. While teams have had success in the past with consecutive high picks, the Islanders’ success stems from getting great seasons out of players nobody had counted on. Brad Boyes is one thing, but Frans Nielsen becoming one of the best two-way players in hockey helps. Moulson has been a gem and Grabner has been putting up points in Long Island a way he couldn’t do in Vancouver. It’s as if Snow walked into a produce store and the first of every type of fruit he touched was perfectly ripe.
This has happened without a big budget. It’s happened with the spectre of relocation hanging over the team and with an eccentric owner who wanted to sign Rick DiPietro to a 15-year deal. The team is still paying Alexei Yashin buyout money from a by-gone era. Yashin, at $2.2-million, is the sixth highest paid forward on the Islanders.
In an effort to better position themselves against the salary floor in case they had to trade Visnovsky, they acquired Tim Thomas and his $5-million counts-against-the-cap-but-we-don’t-have-to-pay-him suspended contract. But they never had to trade Visnovsky.
They’ve even kept some of their best prospects on the farm, keeping their entry-level deals short and sweet and signing them in their offensive primes for cheap. Brock Nelson and Nino Niederreiter will both have presumably little bargaining power when it comes time to negotiate their second contracts. Driving Play had a good rundown of how the Islanders were positioning themselves to act smarter with their prospects in regards to the new collective agreement.
But even without Niederreiter, Nelson, Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart, the Islanders are competing. Every single economic piece has seemed to work.
Best of all, they’re actually kind of fun to watch. If they can make the postseason, they could be a trap team in the first round. Who had the Islanders first out of the three New York teams, and second in the Atlantic Division, coming down the home stretch?
Even in a shortened season, it’s tough to not admire what Garth Snow has done. Time to give him a little love.