The New York Islanders were a surprise participant in this year’s playoffs to say the least. Without John Tavares, how was the team going to compete? Many pegged them for a bottom-of-the-conference finish despite hiring Barry Trotz, fresh off winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals. They didn’t look like a team that could score or keep the puck out on paper.
And then the season started.
The Islanders made it to early May before getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. Going into that series, most of the hockey analytics crowd backed Carolina due to their impressive metrics during the season. The Islanders continued to ride strong goaltending into their second round matchup. Something had to give. However, in terms of gameplanning for the series, there was at least one area the ‘Canes may have targeted to exploit a weakness in the Islanders’ game – their breakouts.
Today, I’m going to illustrate how a coach could use data analysis to scheme around disrupting their opposition’s breakout.
Solo v Assisted Breakouts
One of the biggest issues with evaluating how good backs are at exiting the zone is that a player’s controlled exit percentage won’t take into account the team’s structure during that phase of the game. Using detailed event data from Corey Sznajder, we can look at how often teams have assists on zone exits. What is an assist? According to Corey’s tracking, an assist is simply when a player passes to a teammate inside the defensive zone prior to attempting an exit. It’s a way to share credit for the zone exit and it also tells us a little about the team’s breakouts.
We can also look at whether or not it was a forward or back that assisted on the zone exit. Why does this distinction matter? Well, zone exits with an assist lead to a controlled exit 45% of the time. Without an assist that figure is 35%. If breaking out cleanly is a goal, it’s likely you want your players to assist with that process, right? That number is even higher when a forward assists on the exit (49%) compared to a back (42%). Clearly there is evidence to suggest if a team wants to improve their breakout, it’s best to move the puck rather than use the glass and for the team to get at least one forward deep enough to present as an option.
So, how good were the Islanders with Trotz last season? Let’s have a look.