The sports world has been captivated by the rise of the Atlanta Hawks this season, after the franchise shook off an ugly racism scandal and seven years of concentrated treadmill-running to unexpectedly become one of the NBA’s best teams. Less attention has been paid to a similar story unfolding in the NHL, with another long-downtrodden franchise experiencing unforeseen success this season.
Over the seven seasons leading up to the 2014-15 season, the New York Islanders were not just mediocre, they were the NHL’s second-worst team by winning percentage. They boasted the league’s worst goal differential. Those years yielded a grand total of one playoff appearance, a six-game first-round ouster at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013; more often, the typical Isles season ended with a last-place divisional finish and an early offseason.
To put it more succinctly, they stunk.
This year, though, coach Jack Capuano’s Islanders find themselves leading the Metropolitan Division — three points clear of the Penguins and five ahead of the crosstown rival Rangers, a pair of teams expected to contend for the Eastern Conference crown before the season. The Isles have the NHL’s fourth-best record, and its fifth-best goals per game differential after adjusting for strength of schedule.
Normally, when a team experiences such a meteoric rise, statistical analysis has a tendency to be suspicious. Particularly in a sport like hockey, it can be difficult to distinguish talent from luck, and that normally means we should be hesitant to drastically update our prior expectations — in the Islanders’ case, low expectations based on years of struggle.
But the advanced metrics don’t suggest these Islanders have been doing it with smoke and mirrors. Their PDO (a measure of shooting and goaltending luck) is almost exactly league-average this season, so it’s not as though they’re playing an unsustainable brand of hockey. Instead they’ve been extremely successful at puck possession, leading all NHL teams in Fenwick percentage (a proxy for possession that measures a team’s share of all unblocked shots directed at either net during its games) during normal game situations. Offering more hope, that metric is traditionally associated with deep playoff runs, something Islanders fans haven’t known in more than two decades.
Perhaps the signs of a renaissance started to show last year. Despite posting the league’s fifth-worst winning percentage and allowing the third-most goals of any team, New York was actually an average possession team in 2013-14. It was mainly undone by poor goaltending, a low even-strength PDO and struggles on special teams.
And the Islanders have also made legitimate improvements from last season. Healthy again, center John Tavares ranks 10th among all forwards in goals created. Backstop Jaroslav Halak has given the team a chance to win far more often than last season’s motley collection of goaltenders. Young forward Ryan Strome has been one of the league’s best at driving possession, as have blueline newcomers Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. Winger Kyle Okposo combines strong traditional production with much better on-ice puck possession than he’d shown in previous seasons. The team has even been (slightly) better on special teams. If we didn’t know these were the New York Islanders, it’d be tough to find much fault with their performance in the season’s first half.
Of course, this is all uncharted territory for a franchise without a lot of good experience to call upon in recent years, and only time will tell if these Islanders are the real thing. For now, though, fans of New York’s “other” hockey team should enjoy the ride. Their squad hasn’t looked this good in a long, long time.