Friday, February 27, 2015

The Blueprint

Another two weeks, another step closer to the playoffs as the Islanders won five out of eight games since my last post.  Sadly one of the losses was an epic game against the hated Rangers, but the game was supremely entertaining even as the Isles collapsed in the final period.  It made the entire hockey world beg for a playoff series between the two rivals.  Personally, I'd be happy to experience that series in the second round or later.  The Isles need to win at least one round this spring for the season to be deemed a success, so I'll already be plenty un-sober while dealing with any opponent they face.  If that opponent were the Rangers, well...

For now I'm cheering for the team to secure home-ice advantage for that anticipated first round series and for the injury bug to remain far away from the clubhouse.  So far so good on the first wish, but it's getting iffy on the second.  Kyle Okposo is still out (albeit on schedule to return in a couple of weeks). Casey Cizikas has missed the last four games.  Mikhail Grabovski likely suffered another concussion and Frans Nielsen (Danish god among men) hurt his ankle in the loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  Luckily Nielsen didn't miss any games, but it's moments like those that will eat away at my sanity as the season winds down.

The Islanders have enough depth to handle a single injury here or there.  Hell, they have too many decent players and have played an effective IR shell game all year in order to keep from sending extra bodies down to the minors (and through waivers).  General Manager Garth Snow seems to need at least one guy on IR to keep the roster intact.  It took injuries to three starting forwards for things to finally start getting thin up front.  Such depth is a hallmark of contending teams and one of the reasons why the hockey world is starting to come around on the Isles as a Stanley Cup contender this year.

Not too far back I answered the question of whether I'd want to have a Cinderella run to a single Stanley Cup this year followed by another decade of failure, or take a playoff loss after this season in hopes of enjoying multiple championships in the coming years.  I choose to take the Cup since in the end, nothing is guaranteed.  An important factor in the question was that the Islanders and their depth are poised for a good long run of competitive hockey.  The post took this assumption as fact.  However, I have since wondered if the details really support that assessment.

The foundations of contending teams don't always follow similar blueprints.  If you look at some of the recent top teams, there are obvious components that make up a competitive roster.  A Vezina-caliber goalie or Norris-caliber defenseman sure helps.  An elite top center with a deep top 12 group of forwards is nearly a requirement.  However, just because a team doesn't have all these things, doesn't mean it can't be a perennial Cup challenger.  The question is, how many of these pieces are needed?  If we focus on these four elements, maybe we can see how deep things need to go.  Maybe it's as simple as adding up the different pieces to see where a team sits.

For those with an allergy to numbers and spreadsheets, make sure you take your meds before continuing.  I was going to write this analysis out, but realized it's better to ask forgiveness for a table or two than ask for them to use the bathroom before reading.  Conversely, if you are a person of science and numbers and well thought out critical thinking, then my "analysis" will also make you cringe.

Here's what I feel have been the NHL's regular contenders and how many of the crucial pieces they've had on their roster:

Team MVP Forward Norris Defenseman Vezina Goalie Forward Depth
 Los Angeles 0 1 1 1
 Chicago 2 1 0 1
 Pittsburgh 2 0 0 0
 Boston 0 1 1 0
 NY Rangers 0 0 1 1
 San Jose 1 0 0 1
The first three columns are pretty obvious.  The fourth - Forward Depth - is more subjective.  A pattern emerged where the two teams that have won multiple titles (LA, Chicago) had a higher "score" than the others.  They had more of the ingredients.

The Penguins and Bruins, while not tallying as high a total in this admittedly unscientific experiment, did actually manage to each win a Stanley Cup.  How?  Well, Pittsburgh rode Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin all the way to the promised land.  Boston got an ungodly postseason from goalie Tim Thomas.  These two teams overcame their deficiencies in other areas by getting significant performances from their best players.

Teams like the Sharks and Rangers stay on all those Cup prediction lists at the start of every season because they have as many pieces as Boston or Pittsburgh.  While they may lack an elite forward or defenseman, both are deep in their top 12 forwards and top 4 defenseman.  I understand how subjective this is but I'm well into "TL;DR" territory, so I'm going to keep it simple.  For now, just trust me.  Most knowledgeable hockey folks will cite depth for both teams as a key factor in their recent success.  The Rangers are deep and have an all-world goalie.  The Sharks are deep and have usually had an MVP-caliber forward in Joe Thornton.  The fact that Thornton has declined in performance is contributing to the Sharks struggles this year.

So what do the Islanders have?  They're currently the new San Jose Sharks.  An elite top center with a deep group of forwards, but not quite all the way there on defense and in net.  This is great because the Sharks have contended every year for a while but also scary because well, this is what the Sharks have to show for all those playoff appearances:

The reality is the less of these pieces a team has, the more it relies on luck or - for lack of a better term - "career performances".  If the Isles want to become a superpower like LA or Chicago, Jaroslav Halak will have to step up more consistently than he already has or one of the top defenseman must take the next step.  Sorry, Jaro, but to me the best chance is that a defenseman develops into a Norris-level guy.  Luckily, Snow just locked up Nick Leddy, who is a decent candidate for such an evolution.  Johnny Boychuk is older and has little developing left to do, but has become a top-pair blueliner when finally given the minutes so it's not a stretch to think he could progress even farther, at least in the mid-term.

There's also young guys like Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock knocking on the roster door.  It's quite premature of me to proclaim either of those two will be award-winning defensemen, but as far as defense prospects go, at least they're near the top of the list of future candidates.

I'll be cheering for some luck and a career performance from one or two (or three) guys this postseason because the Isles will need that.  But I'll also be keeping a close eye on Leddy and Halak for signs of taking that next step into the elite-level territory that their captain currently occupies.  Only one more piece needs to get there to really have something long term in Brooklyn and beyond.


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