When Casey Cizikas was injured two weeks ago (he was taken off IR today), it seemed a big blow to a New York Islanders team whose early-season success at 5v5 was largely due to the performance of their centers: Brock Nelson, Mathew Barzal, Valtteri Filppula, and Cizikas. Entering the season there were big questions surrounding Nelson and Filppula, but each has far exceeded expectations, scoring goals while setting up teammates and even drawing some penalties.
Still, there is no obvious fifth center for the Islanders, and that has been evident the past six games. Thirty-five year-old Stephen Gionta only has nine points the last three years in 40 AHL games, while 27 year-old Tanner Fritz, after an impressive run of games on the right wing of Andrew Ladd and Brock Nelson the end of last season, has a better tool-set for pressuring up high in the defensive zone as a winger than clamping down around the slot area as the third defensive player.
Let’s revisit the five-game rolling average chart from a couple weeks ago, highlighting the on-ice expected goals percentage for each of the four centers. Barzal’s line has held steady above 55%. The Nelson and Filppula lines are currently 47% over the past five games. With the top-9 forwards on the ice the Islanders have been very near 50% for expected goals the past couple weeks, which is great considering each line struggled in October.
However, it only took four games of Gionta at C4 for the “Cizikas line” to fall from north of 70% to down under 30% for their five-game running expected goals-for percentage.
The Islanders have played reasonably well as a team at 5v5 since Cizikas’s injury. (The ineptitude of the 5v4 power play has been the killer lately.) But they have done so without much help from Gionta or Fritz at center.
Cizikas is often thought of as defensive-oriented. While he is typically solid defensively, what is more remarkable to me is his ability to produce points at 5v5 as a bottom-6 center, without much scoring talent on his wings.
Cizikas is off to a scorching-hot 2.9 points per-60 at 5v5 this season, but it shouldn’t be entirely surprising when we look at his rate the past three seasons. Before ending up 1.2 last season he finished above 1.7 each of the prior two, which places him in the company of Nazem Kadri, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mikael Backlund, and Mika Zibanejad.
Kadri, RNH, Backlund, and Zibanejad have faced stronger defensemen, at times, and have played heavier minutes (at least at 5v5), but they also have benefited from higher-scoring wingers, as we can see on the table below:
This is not to say that Cizikas could necessarily succeed in the NHL as a top-6 center, playing heavier minutes each game. Rather, Casey is very useful in that he is one of the very few bottom-6 centers who is capable of producing points at a high rate, even without particularly offensively gifted wingers. If Cizikas is chipping in on a regular basis at 5v5, that provides the Islanders with a unique advantage over many other NHL teams.
Whereas 34 year-old Valtteri Filppula’s scoring spree has been a very welcome surprise, it is perhaps easier to envision 27 year-old Cizikas maintaining a high scoring rate over the course of the season, once he returns from injury.
The Islanders’ 5v5 game has been good the past couple weeks, but they still very much missed Cizikas. He’ll be a welcome sight back in the lineup Thursday in Boston.