John Tavares was touted as a generational talent leading up to the 2009 NHL Draft and had an impressive resume that included being granted exceptional player status allowing him to play in the OHL at age 14, dominating the junior level and scoring at approximately a point per game pace in International tournaments. Since joining the Islanders organization, Tavares has continued to be a highly productive player, ranking 7th in the entire league in goals scored (235) and 9th in total points (537).
Tavares has performed very well but not to the hype he generated tearing up Junior hockey. He has only been voted in the top 10 for the Hart Trophy twice (finishing third in both 2012-2013 and 2014-2015) and has been named to just one postseason All-Star team (first team in 2014-2015). Tavares has also seen downfalls at the team level as the Islanders have only qualified for the playoffs in three of Tavares’ eight NHL seasons and made it out of the first round only once.
A lot of Tavares’ shortcomings can be blamed on Islanders’ management for not surrounding him with the players necessary to take the team to the next level. For teams at the bottom of the league, it is crucial to hit on top draft picks in order to restock talent within the organization and build a young core capable of competing for the Stanley Cup further down the road. Let’s look how the Islanders used their top draft picks to supplement Tavares in the lineup.
The Islanders potentially found a strong winger for Tavares in Nino Niederreiter near the top of the 2010 draft but instead gave him a fourth line role and shipped him off to Minnesota after he failed to produce alongside aging forwards Marty Reasoner and Jay Pandolfo. 30th overall selection Brock Nelson has had a productive NHL career to date but primarily has dressed further down the lineup. Drafting in the same fifth overall slot the following year, the Islanders drafted Ryan Strome to slot in behind Tavares on the depth chart then added defensemen in the following two drafts, both whom have failed to make an NHL impact as they have combined to play just half a season in the NHL to date (Griffin Reinhart in 2012 and Ryan Pulock in 2013). 2014 and 2015 first round draft picks Michael Dal Colle, Joshua Ho Sang and Matthew Barzal have bright NHL futures but in terms of their development, they weren’t previously ready to make the leap to the NHL.
The Islanders have failed to draft a winger to play alongside Tavares with any of their top picks since 2009 or acquire one via trade. Alternatively, the Islanders paired Tavares with players having been obtained in the preceding drafts. This approach is less than ideal as the organization isn’t matching players to compliment Tavares but the other way around. The presence of these players in the organization may have swayed Islanders management away from adding a player on Tavares’ wing but rather filling holes elsewhere in the lineup.
Over the past four seasons, Tavares has played over 4500 5v5 minutes. His linemates have been very consistent in this time frame as he’s only played more than 750 minutes with just three players: Kyle Okposo (2000 TOI), Josh Bailey (2000 TOI) and Anders Lee (1150 TOI). The above graph shows Tavares production with and without his three most common wingers. No matter who is on Tavares’ line, he is scoring at the same rate (for our analysis, any P/60 around or over 2.0 is considered elite). Ideally, a strong line would feature players who score at a higher rate together than they would separately but clearly no teammate is pushing Tavares to that next level.
On the flip side of this graph, Tavares’ three most common wingers benefit greatly by playing alongside him. Playing with Tavares turns these fringe second line players into elite point producers. Tavares is boosting his teammates but hasn’t seen any of this benefit himself. Looking at other top centers in the league, both Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom have found a strong mutually beneficial chemistry with several of their most common linemates. Crosby, another generational talent, is able to reach another level when paired with complimentary players. This is the type of line combination the Islanders management should have made a priority when building the team around Tavares.
Earlier in the offseason, the Islanders were able to identify a player capable of taking Tavares to the next level and obtained him. In a one-for-one swap with the Edmonton Oilers, the Islanders acquired Jordan Eberle for 2011 first round draft pick Ryan Strome. On the surface, it seemed that both players could use a fresh start as Strome’s last two seasons have been underwhelming after a strong sophomore year and Eberle scored at a career low pace this season but when digging deeper, Eberle has a lot to offer.
For his standards, Eberle is coming off of a down season, one that saw him register 51 points in 82 games and rank in the middle of the league in terms of 5v5 production rate. It appears that a majority of Eberle’s decline can relate to poor puck luck as his even strength and powerplay shooting percent dipped over 33% below his career average (8.97% SH% this season compared to a career 12.28% SH% at 5v5 & 8.82% SH% this season compared to a career 15.57% SH% at 5v4). It is much safer bet that these percentages will regress towards his career average next season and Eberle will have a strong bounce back season rather than worrying if his overall play is starting to decline.
How well could Eberle perform slotting in the Islander’s top line alongside Tavares? Luckily for our analysis, Eberle has played with some very talented forwards in his time in Edmonton.
Two of Eberle’s four most common linemates over the past four years are legitimate superstars (Taylor Hall & Connor McDavid) and he has performed very well with and without them centering his line. One immediate difference is looking at Eberle’s numbers away from his superstar linemates compared to Islanders’ players without Tavares. It is clear how much consistently higher Eberle’s numbers are.
While this is true, we must acknowledge Eberle was gifted with steadily playing with strong linemates (when Eberle wasn’t playing with Hall, he likely was playing with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or McDavid whereas Bailey for example played with Lee, Frans Nielsen, and Brock Nelson when not paired with Tavares).
More importantly, let’s see how Eberle has impacted his teammates’ production as Eberle is being brought in to compliment Tavares.
Eberle’s three most common linemates all saw production spikes when paired with him (McDavid being the exception but he was ranked at the top of the league either way). Nugent-Hopkins has been a bottom of the barrel player away from Eberle, but when the two are paired together, Nugent-Hopkins scores at a much more serviceable rate. When looking at the previous two charts together, the most impressive is the Eberle-Hall line combination that produced elite level point totals for both players. If Eberle can find a similar chemistry with Tavares, they both could see their production spike this upcoming season.
Ryan Stimson has done tremendous work recently identifying player types and using them to optimize a team’s lineup. In his piece, he defines the Islanders’ top line of Tavares, Bailey and Lee as playmaker, balanced and dependent player types respectively. This line archetype only has an xG% of 48.9%. It seems that Lee is severely dragging the Islander’s most dangerous line. Swapping in Eberle in place of Lee (ignoring the fact that Lee has primarily played LW where Eberle is a RW), gives the Islanders a better line design as the balanced-playmaker-balanced combination has a 52.2% xGF%. This is improved but still not great. To complete the Islanders top line, Ho Sang, who burst into the lineup late last season, should get a strong look alongside Tavares and Eberle (as both Eberle and Ho Sang are right-handed shots on the right side, this would force one to play on their off-wing). Ho Sang didn’t have a large enough sample size to be identified in Stimson’s piece but he has the potential to blossom as a playmaker player type. If that is the case, the Islanders’ top line would boost a playmaker-playmaker-balanced combination. This line archetype is the second most dominant combination with an average xG% of 57.2%. An Eberle-Tavares-Ho Sang line would be very dangerous in the offensive zone and would allow Tavares to reach new heights in terms of production.
In summary, Eberle has a track record of producing at a higher level when paired with superstars while simultaneously boosting their production as well and is exactly the kind of player Tavares needs on his wing. Further proving this combination can be successful, Tavares and Eberle’s player type mesh well together. Eberle has achieved great success with Taylor Hall in the past and Tavares and Hall are eerily similar players. Finally, Tavares and Eberle have already connected for a crucial goal together, so there is no saying that they can’t do it again.
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