In New York: The Islanders are Ripe with Young Centers

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQVuaKF1dN8&w=420&h=315]

What to do with struggling Oilers’ center Sam Gagner? That’s one of Craig MacTavish’s great headaches this off season.

It seems clear as day to everyone watching that Gagner cannot in good conscience be played at center in Edmonton anymore. Less clear, but becoming more so everyday, is the idea that Gagner cannot in good conscience play in Edmonton anymore. Either way, MacTavish’s hands are tied. He has to find a center to play in the two spot on the depth chart.

This has to be someone who can center some combination of David Perron, Nail Yakupov (and potentially Gagner himself). This player has to be defensively responsible – capable of protecting and nurturing the young misadventure-prone Yakupov, while giving Ryan Nugent-Hopkins some breathing room at the top of the batting order.

Arcobello presents a less than ideal internal option. He filled the role adequately through the first 3rd of the 2013-14 season (very well when considered relative to Gagner’s efforts). A variety of other free agent and/or trade scenarios have been bandied about. Perhaps the Islanders have a solution?

Bailey is a name that has been trending for a variety of reasons. Lowetide has followed the work of fancy lady-pants on the same track. Jonathan Willis has entertained the idea a couple of times recently over at OilersNation. Over at Coppernblue, Alan Hull takes a look at potential landing spots for Gagner, including Bailey.

So, there’s some connections here already from a player-relations POV: Gagner and Tavares know each other well and Hall has a familiarity with Bailey. That may explain something about how the players would receive news of such a trade. But, it tells us very little about the plausibility of such a trade, or whether such a trade would be worthwhile.

Numerous reports are suggesting Islanders’ owner Charles Wang is in talks to sell the team (yesterday a rumor circulated that he had sold the team to a Philadelphia-based lawyer). Assuming he sells in the near future, we have to also assume that Garth Snow may no longer be at the helm. Regardless, the Islanders and their fan base appear to have mixed thoughts about Bailey. The words you come across most conspicuously attached to Bailey’s name are “disappointment” and “underwhelming.” Here’s some reading on the player:

Last year’s Lighthouse ranking.

A recent review of the player also by Lighthouse.

A decidedly pessimistic take on the player from Isles’ Nation.

And, an review of the Isles’ development program by way of Bailey by the Hockey Writers.

So, we’re talking about a young(ish) player, once highly-touted, who’s still trying to establish his bona fides as a top 6, scoring NHL forward. That he is an NHL forward is no longer in doubt. Whether he’s a role player or a top 6 scoring option remains to be seen.

In many ways, Bailey’s situation mirrors that of Gagner’s. Both are still young centers (Gagner was drafted 6th OV in 2007; Bailey 9th OV in 2008). They were once highly regarded as prospects. They have spent several years in the NHL. And, they haven’t quite managed to live up to expectations. In Gagner’s case, the failing is really his defensive coverage (7 years of NHL play and he seems ill-suited to play center). In Bailey’s case, however, it is a lack of offence (through 6 full NHL seasons Bailey has yet to tally 40 points).

The idea of a Gagner-Bailey swap then… starts with the idea (always popular in hockey circles) of giving players a fresh start. The real push for such a move, however, is the idea of swapping defensive acumen for scoring. So, let’s take a look!

(Frequent Lowetide poster, VANOIL has been a booster of rookie center Brock Nelson for some time. For the sake of exhaustiveness, I’ve also taken a long look at him here*).

*NB: while both are considered centers, neither played much center this past season. According to Sportingcharts.com Nelson only took 451 draws this year, Bailey 228. Full-time NHL centers typically take north of 700 draws through the course of a season.

The Players

Josh Bailey’s Vitals: 6’1″ 194. Center. Drafted 9th OV, 2008.

Boxcars: 77 8-30-38 (.49 PPG)

P/60 5×5: 1.72 (149th of NHL Fs >40gps); P/60 5×4: 4.07 (111th)

Brock Nelson’s Vitals: 6’3″ 196. Center. Drafted 30th OV, 2010.

Boxcars: 72 14-12-26 (.36 PPG); he also had a very nice run at the World Championships for USA this year (8 5-2-7).

P/60 5×5: 1.41 (226th); P/60 5×4: 3.25 (163)

Neither player is an impact player at evens or on the power play. I wouldn’t expect either to show a great scoring touch in the NHL. That said, both seem to provide solid complementary scoring and neither relies exclusively on the power play to pad their boxcars.

For reference Gagner’s P/60 numbers this season were 1.47 (5×5) and 2.15 (5×4).

Contract Status

Bailey has 4 years left on a 5 year deal, over the course of which he’ll make 16.5M (3.3M cap hit; actual dollars rising year-over-year to 4M in the 2017-18 season). He has no clauses and will be a UFA when his current contract expires.

Nelson has one year left on his ELC and could see an extension as early as this Summer. His cap hit is only 900K, but like most ELCs, his contract is bonus laden and he’s likely to hit on many of them. He’ll be an RFA when his current contract expires. Given the strength of his rookie year, the Islanders (or whomever acquires his rights should he be traded) would be wise to sign him long term and buy a couple of UFA years on the cheap.

The Underlying Numbers

Josh Bailey’s ExtraSkater player card:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 9.55.38 AM

(click all images to embiggen)

What really stands out here is Bailey’s strong possession season. Not only were the Islanders a + Corsi team with him on the ice (52.4%), Bailey is +3.9% relative to his team. Despite flagging boxcars, it looks like this year the puck started to head the right direction with him on the ice.

Bailey’s behindthenet player card:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 10.46.21 AM

This card gives us a longer look at the player over the course of his NHL tenure. We can see that year-over-year his TOI has increased. And, his strong possession numbers this year stand out more starkly. Prior to this season, more often than not the puck hasn’t been going in the right direction with Bailey on the ice.

Brock Nelson’s Extraskater player card:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 9.57.31 AM

For a rookie season, it’s hard to complain about Nelson’s player card. We have limited data (a single NHL season), but so far this looks like a really nice player.

Of Islanders’ forwards who played at least 40 games, Nelson (+4.5) and Bailey (+3.9) clock in at #1 and #2 on the team in CorsiRel%. This means that not only were they positive Corsi players (both c. 52CF%), they were positive relative to their teammates (in other words, they outplayed their team, which had a CF% of 49.5 overall).

Time On Ice Stats

Bailey’s Total Minutes: 4th among Fs; TOI/60 5×513.12 (3rd among Fs >40gps)

TOI/60 5×41:48 (6th); TOI/60 4×50:27 (8th)

Bailey is getting a lot of even strength minutes. These are the hardest minutes to play and one of the best ways to gauge a coach’s own ranking of his players is by who he trusts to play 5×5 minutes. Clearly, Islanders’ coach Jack Capuano relies upon Bailey to give him the 3rd most 5×5 minutes per game. Aside from playing a major role 5×5, Bailey is given a minor role on the power play and doesn’t register much time at all on the penalty kill.

Nelson’s Total Minutes: 7th among Fs; TOI/60 5×511.21 (6th among Fs >40gps)

TOI/60 5×4: 1:51 (5th); TOI/60 4×5: 0:50 (5th)

Capuano slided rookie Nelson right into top 6 5×5 minutes this season. That in itself is a sign of the coach’s trust. He also played roughly the same amount of specialty teams’ TOI as Bailey (some PP, little to non PK).

Neither player has yet been tasked with incredibly heavy minutes (though Bailey’s 5×5 number approaches it). Neither were relied upon for penalty killing, which typically is something coach’s place in the hands of 2nd line centers.

With of Without You

Bailey’s WOWY Chart:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 10.26.25 AM

(Bailey’s WOWY for the past 3 years)

What WOWY charts attempt to account for is the team effects that are embedded within corsi numbers. They show a players’ CorsiFor percentage with and without his teammates. From Bailey’s chart we can see that most players did better WITH Bailey than when they played WITHOUT him. This is a sign that Bailey probably helped to drive puck possession numbers north.

Nelson’s WOWY Chart:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 10.23.55 AM

Nelson’s WOWY chart is practically a mirror image of Bailey’s. Both improve the play of their teammates.

Bailey and Nelson from an Islanders’ POV

Islanders’ behindthenet stats:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 10.49.05 AM

This chart shows the Islanders’ team (>40 gps) ranked in terms of their CorsiOn numbers. From this chart we can see how Bailey and Nelson stack up relative to their own teammates. Looking at the CorsiOn and CorsiRel numbers, it is clear that Bailey and Nelson appear to have a positive influence on puck possession for the Islanders.

Islanders’ player usage chart:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 9.59.00 AM

This Usage Chart attempts to qualify our possession impressions of players by taking into account (visually) things like zone starts (horizontal axis), quality of competition (TOI based; vertical axis), TOI (size of bubble) and possession numbers (color of the bubble). And, it puts all the players on a team into relation to one another.

From this chart we can see that Bailey is charged with fairly tough zone starts and quality of competition relative to his team and his possession numbers do no appear to be flagging because of it. This section of the chart we might refer to as the “shut down” role, where the tough sledding is.

Nelson, rookie that he is, is facing less severe zone starts and quality of competition. He’s in the “less sheltered” area of the graph. Still, you can see the postive possession impact the Islanders enjoy when he is on the ice.

New York State of Mind

Nelson is still something of a new toy in Islanders’ land, one that early on looks like a nice player to have. He’s still on his ELC, has years of RFA status ahead of him and ought to be considered “value” from a contract perspective going forward. I can’t imagine the Islanders trading him unless they happen into something they can’t refuse, or manage to lose track with reality (which, let’s face it… is kind of an Islanders’ thing to do).

Bailey on the other hand has been around long enough to suffer the slings and arrows of disappointing high fan and management expectations. He’s signed long-term to a reasonable deal, which may be seen as a stumbling block to making other roster changes (never underestimate a fan-base or a GM’s ability to spite a player his contract). While he’s appears to be rounding into form as a good depth NHLer, it’s clear that the Islanders hoped he would represent a top 6 scoring solution for the future (something Bailey may still become). What’s holding him back now is his failure to produce offence.

From the outside, the appeal of a swap (offensive Gagner for defensive Bailey) makes a lot of sense. Two young, somewhat hobbled players, move on to get a second look with a new organization. A new organization that perhaps values what they are and finds a way to insulate their failings.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think swapping Gagner for Bailey solves the center depth question for the Oilers. That said, a center depth chart that goes RNH-Bailey-Arcobello-Gordon does look like an improvement on RNH-Gagner-Arcobello-Gordon. But, these eyes have seen Gagner jump the zone early too many times to be free of bias.

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