Islanders Power-Play Cannot Continue Playing the Same Way
By Ryan Grosso
The New York Islanders power-play is a unit that just can’t get itself on track. The struggles are as well-documented as they are frustrating. Going back to March 13, the first game without Anders Lee, the Islanders are 4-for-37 on the man advantage, good for a 10.8% power-play conversion rate in that span.
The power-play quandary is one that I’ve written about several times this season, most recently in my three takeaways from Thursday’s shootout win over Philadelphia.
The power-play went 0-for-3 that night against the Flyers, but that doesn’t even really begin to explain the struggles the Islanders unit faced. First, they were held scoreless on a five-minute power-play. Then, with 1:58 remaining in overtime and an opportunity to win the game, the Isles man advantage unit came up empty handed again.
This unit’s deficiencies are not new. The team has finished in the bottom-10 of NHL PP% in each of Barry Trotz’s first two seasons behind the bench. Despite an assistant coaching change which brought power-play coaching specialist Jim Hiller into the fold, the team still finished 24th in PP% in 2019-20, and are 22nd ranked in the NHL currently. So what can be done to solve for this team’s man advantage troubles?
Islanders Power-Play Deficiency: A Problem of Structure or Personnel?
The Islanders power-play has created 7.03 Expected Goals For (xGF) since March 13, according to Natural Stat Trick. They have only scored 4 actual power-play goals in that same timeframe.
For reference, since that same date the Islanders have posted 27.01 xGF and scored 32 actual 5v5 goals.
Like the Islanders, the Boston Bruins have played 14 games since March 13. Since then the Bruins have posted 7.84 power-play xGF, and scored 10 actual power-play goals.
Breaking down the xG further, we see that the Bruins have played nine games in which they’ve created .5-1+ xG on the power-play, which are considered very good power-play performances. The Islanders have only gotten into that range four times.
On the flip side, the Islanders have played ten games in which their power-play has posted only .01-.49 xGF, while the Bruins have only had xGF marks that low in five games.
What those numbers are telling us is that the Islanders simply aren’t generating enough scoring chances on the power-play, and when they are creating chances they’re not converting on them.
I’ve seen a lot of people who hold the opinion that simply taking Josh Bailey off the power-play will magically make the unit operate as it’s supposed to again. In my mind, taking Bailey off the unit would probably have its benefits, as his holding the puck along the half-wall and drifting toward the goal line almost never accomplishes anything.
In doing this, Bailey is trying to drag a high defender down toward him and open a shooting lane for one of his teammates at the blue line. The problem is the play rarely accomplishes that objective.
But even when it does create a shooting lane for an Islanders point man, that’s not necessarily a guaranteed scoring opportunity. Point shots are, quite predictably, lower percentage shot attempts than those taken from closer to the net. Consider that the Islanders don’t have a very good point shot on their team, and these attempts are even less likely to create a goal.
With time, I’ve started to see that the Islanders power-play problem is a hybrid of flawed personnel decisions and a flawed formational setup. What I mean is, the 1-3-1, or umbrella, works for some teams very well, and it doesn’t work for others at all.
Teams like Washington and Tampa Bay have players who operate very well in the 1-3-1. The Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin is deadly accurate with his heavy one-timers from his off-side. Tampa’s Brayden Point is a high-IQ center who plays the bumper role for the Lightning power-play, and he is excellent at finding gaps in coverage to let shots rip from the high slot.
Ryan Pulock, whose shot is heavy but inaccurate, is not a good fit to line up in Ovechkin’s office. The Pulock cannon rarely hits its target or makes it through blocks, and when it does it often ends up in the goalie’s chest for an easy hold and a whistle.
Oliver Wahlstrom has a hard and accurate shot, and has operated well from Ovechkin’s office, but shouldn’t the priority be to get that shot taken from closer to the net anyway? Percentages say it should be.
The Islanders could continue swapping out personnel and trying players in different spots, but I just don’t think that 1-3-1 formation is ever going to be as effective for them as it is for the Washingtons or Tampa Bays of the world.
I’ve personally argued that I think eliminating the bumper position from the 1-3-1 and allowing a player like Mathew Barzal to roam the zone freely would be the perfect setup for this Islanders team.
But, even if Barry Trotz and Jim Hiller don’t like the sound of a less structured formation, they should still implement some changes to the power-play setup. Those changes are, at this point, pretty well overdue as the Islanders power-play has floundered for the better part of a month now.
Teams like Edmonton, Carolina, and Dallas sit near the top of the NHL in PP%. Two of those three teams, Dallas and Carolina, rank in the bottom-10 of the NHL in 5v5 GF, and their power-plays are leaned on heavily to create offense.
With the way NHL officiating works, dangerous power-play teams like these, are pretty much encouraged to break the rules. If they are called for a penalty, there’s pretty much a silent guarantee that their opposition will also be called for one to even up man advantage opportunities, and that gives their team’s highly ranked power-play more time to operate.
That’s a problem for teams with poor power-plays, like the Islanders, who can’t make opponents pay for landing in the penalty box too often. It’s something that has already worked against the Islanders in the past, (see this past summer’s Eastern Conference Final) and will continue doing so until this problem is fixed.
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The Islanders don’t need the caliber of power-play that is going to score at a nearly 30% clip, as they have scored the third-most 5v5 goals (91) in the NHL this season. But, they can’t continue to ice a man advantage unit that is going to hinder them and squander opportunities either. You simply won’t be able to beat the elite NHL teams in a seven-game series that way.