clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Planned Chaos: How the Islanders mix things up to keep their opponents off balance

Jack Capuano is using the unique skills of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo to keep their opponents off balance.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

So much of what NHL teams learn about one another is discovered on tape. Preparation, especially against teams with some of the top skill players in the league, is done in the film room before the puck ever drops.

The only problem for teams trying to study the New York Islanders -- and primarily their top offensive weapons, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo -- is that there's not too much to learn.

Returning this season after tearing both his MCL and meniscus in last year's Olympics, Tavares has the Islanders poised to play postseason hockey in the Nassau Coliseum's final year. Where the Islanders get their offense from isn't much of a secret, and it's not as if opposing teams struggle with deployment of their shutdown defensemen against the Isles.

While most teams have tendencies or habits that their opponents can identity and game plan against, Jack Capuano's club relies on planned chaos, making it so hard to predict anything about Nos. 91 and 21 and helping them excel in any situation.

One line, but two faceoff threats

During his days at the University of Minnesota, Okposo centered the Golden Gophers' top line. Yet since turning pro and joining the Islanders, Okposo has played almost exclusively on the right side. Still, that hasn't stopped him from taking and winning a very high number of draws for a winger, and is a wrinkle in what the Islanders do quite well.

To date, this chart shows the breakdown of the different situations and zones in which Tavares and Okposo have taken their faceoffs this season, almost exclusively with both players on the ice.

Even Strength Power Play
Player O-zone Faceoffs D-zone Faceoffs N-zone Faceoffs O-zone Faceoffs D-zone Faceoffs N-zone Faceoffs
John Tavares 35 20 34 11 -- 2
Kyle Okposo 20 4 -- 21 -- --

The Islanders power play has been converting at a strong 23.3 percent clip (yet only 10th in the league as of Sunday since it's still early in the year).

One element of their special teams that has buoyed their success has been the variety even on the top unit alone, with Okposo taking 21 offensive zone faceoffs and Tavares taking 11. Considering the Islanders have had 28 power play opportunities, the combined draws between the two players represent most of what the team has taken.

On this power play goal, the Islanders' very first tally of the season, Johnny Boychuk scored off a sequence directly following a faceoff win.

Okposo lined up for this draw in the right circle with Tavares to his right. Everything that followed was choreographed and executed to perfection.

Okposo Draw

As Okposo leaned in to win the puck, it's pretty clear the play is to move it toward Tavares. But that's not all that's supposed to happen in a matter of seconds. Boychuk, directly behind Okposo, and Ryan Strome at the far point, cycled over and allowed Okposo to peel back toward the blue line. Tavares got the puck and began orchestrating the action.

Okposo Draw 2

Tavares worked the puck back to Boychuk, and Okposo made his way toward the top of the zone. Meanwhile, Carolina's penalty killers set up to complete deny the right side, where both of the Islanders' big weapons were situated.

Okposo Draw 3

Boychuk fed the puck to Okposo and made his way to the middle of the point. Okposo sent the puck toward the goal and back to Tavares, while the Hurricanes collapsed toward the wall, even with Tavares at an off-angle.

okposo

Carolina was completely out of sorts. Two penalty killers were trapped in the right circle, and with Okposo in a shooting posture, they weren't going anywhere. But not only was Boychuk open atop the opposite circle, there's no one in the same area code to step into the shooting lane.

Okposo Draw 5

Boychuk received Okposo's pass and had all the time and space to do whatever he wanted. Andrej Sekera was still playing off Tavares, and Jay McClement was in Okposo's hip pocket. The Islanders were able to neutralize two-thirds of Carolina's penalty kill simply with spacing off the faceoff.

Okposo Draw 6

While Tavares and Okposo are the centerpieces on special teams, the Islanders can take advantage of the space they create for their teammates. In year's past that was a more arduous proposition, but adding a host of skilled offensive players this offseason really allows Capuano to get more creative with what he does.

Same players, dramatically different look

On this offensive zone power play faceoff, a game later against the same opponent, the Islanders were stationed in the opposite circle. They completely switched up the scheme.

Nielsen Draw

This time, Okposo lined up to Frans Nielsen's (who was taking the faceoff) left, while Tavares was behind the circle on the opposite side of Okposo.

Nielsen Draw

As the puck was won back to Boychuk, Okposo swooped down toward the goal line. Tavares looped out toward the far point. As opposed to the first power play goal when the Islanders overloaded both players on the same side, they were spread out on this look.

Nielsen Draw 2

Boychuk fed the puck to Okposo at the goal line, and it forced both Carolina penalty killers down low to rotate toward the puck. Tavares, in the top right of the frame, began to break back door to the slot. On paper, by forcing Carolina to focus on Okposo and hiding Tavares for the beginning of the play, it opens up space for the Islanders captain.

Nielsen Draw 3

Okposo attempted to feed the puck into the slot. Whether the pass was intended for for Nielsen or Tavares is unclear, especially because Carolina is able to break up the play.

Nielsen Draw 4

Keeping defenses guessing

For a winger, Okposo is a volume faceoff-taker. Over his first two pro seasons, during which he played 74 games (nine and 65, respectively), Okposo wasn't asked to line up for that many draws. He took none in his first year and 14 in his second season, according to Hockey Reference.

But then beginning in the 2009-10 season, Okposo saw a pretty dramatic uptick. Over the next five seasons (one of which was lockout-shortened), Okposo took 656 face offs, also according to Hockey Reference. Over the same span, there were 239 players in total who took at least 500 face offs. Most of them were centers, with not many wingers taking the same number of draws as Okposo. Many players listed at left or right wing with higher totals than Okposo spent some time at center or now play the position, like Claude Giroux, David Backes and Jamie Benn.

Tavares and Okposo aren't new linemates: since Okposo's sophomore season of 2009-10, Tavares has been on the ice for more even strength minutes with Okposo than any other Islander. But again, the flexibility created this season with a more talented group allows Capuano to use different looks, and generate chances through variety.

And Capuano trusts his players to execute. In a 15-second span late in the second period of a game against the Bruins this season, the Islanders went through somewhat of a bizarre sequence. It began with just over 41 seconds to go, as Okposo lined up opposite David Krejci for an offensive zone faceoff. Tavares lined up to Okposo's left at the hashmarks.

Okposo v Krejci

Krejci won the faceoff rather easily, but Boston iced the puck. The Islanders elected to keep the same group on for the subsequent draw. But while Capuano stuck with Okposo in the face off dot -- he was 2-for-3 on face offs up to that point but had just lost one pretty convincingly against Krejci -- he tweaked the Islanders shape behind the draw, moving Tavares into a shooting spot.

Okposo v Krejci 2

Okposo won the puck back, but goalie Niklas Svedberg swallowed up Tavares' shot, creating another offensive zone face off. So Okposo and Krejci got their rubber match -- their third head-to-head draw within 15 seconds. On this iteration, Tavares again lined up over Okposo's right shoulder with Nikolai Kulemin behind him.

The Islanders went with three different looks in succession from the same exact faceoff spot.

Okposo v. Krejci 3

The Islanders are getting better goaltending this year with Jaroslav Halak. Their defense, with the additions of the aforementioned Boychuk and Nick Leddy, has been somewhat stabilized.

But the Islanders will go as far as Tavares and Okposo can carry them, and Capuano knows that. So as teams try to pinpoint and minimize the damage the duo can inflict on any given night, Capuano is working hard to keep defenses guessing.

* * *

Note: Thanks to Hockey Reference for perfoming an independent query for the purposes of this story, compiling a list of every forward that took at least 500 faceoffs between 2009 and 2014.