The Golden Moment
Saturday started out full of promise: the Nashville Predators were already in Chicago, the Blackhawks fans were still as salty as country ham, and we, here at the Smith house, were ready to partake in the long-awaited rematch that we all hoped would continue the sweep with a decisive 5th victory in a row. As game time neared, I checked twitter to see if I could get an update on our lines for the night and, lo and behold, I found this:
This was it, the Golden Moment! The moment when I realized that the one and only Wesley Cody McLeod was not...in...the...lineup! It was like the no-good boyfriend that slimed his way into your daughter’s teenage heart and your living room had finally been shown the door! Not only that, but the line in his place, Miikka Salomäki, Colton Sissons, and Austin Watson seemed to be a veritable 4th Line Dream Team, an early Christmas present from Jesus himself! I had to think about it, the smooth attack of Sissons, the toothless wrecking ball that doesn’t outright brawl and can still take some sweet shots on goal that is Watson, and the extra letters and umlauts of Salomäki! It was everything I had been hoping for and it was mine, mine, MINE!
Then the game came. And while they definitely didn’t set the world on fire, they certainly didn’t watch it burn (or cause it to burn, for that matter). Although the pain of the loss stung, I couldn’t hang it on the fourth line’s shoulders. Really, aside from sloppy play in the third period and the horrific missed call on the stick that went into orbit, we probably would have won the game.
Sunday was a blur and while I had my own case of the “if onlys”, I couldn’t and didn’t direct my anger toward any one individual on the team. Then, Monday morning, I saw this:
#Preds practice lines:— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) October 16, 2017
There he was. It was like I had returned home from work one afternoon to find my daughter curled up on the sofa with that same no-good ex-boyfriend who had somehow weaseled his way back into my living room...with his shoes on...on the couch...eating my food and saying, “Hey Mr. Smith! I heard you missed me. I’m baaa-aack.”
“Couldn’t she find anyone else? Was there no one else at school she could have been interested in?” But instead of bad boyfriends, we’re talking about hockey players. (I’m fully aware the opening is due to the Bonino injury.) But, I’d ask the same questions. Is there no one else? Are there no other forwards in the locker room? Or Milwaukee? I know you need a guy like Cody on your team to come in and throw the punches (or take them), but that doesn’t mean he has to be on the fourth line! There’s no denying he was a warrior versus Stephen Johns for us, but we have to have some boundaries!
Surely, Nashville can do better at this point than Cody McLeod as a permanent fourth line fixture. Right, Kate? Why can’t Nashville just break up with Cody already?
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
Well, unfortunately, Shaun, hockey teams don’t seem to be immune to the siren song of a bad boy either—and by “bad boy” I mean “bad hockey player, but at least he’s a rebel without a cause.”
I’m not sure there is any argument for keeping McLeod in the lineup other than the #grit he brings. The only thing he’s particularly good at for an NHL player is fighting a lot, which suggests to people that he keeps his teammates safe.
Whether fighting actually works to protect an enforcer’s teammates is debatable (there’s some evidence that if anything it does the opposite), but it’s definitely true that in the modern NHL players almost never retaliate for a bad hit that happened in a previous shift. In order for a guy who’s willing to drop the gloves and avenge a teammate to have any effect, he needs to be on the ice right then.
We were spoiled by having Shea Weber, who could play 26 minutes a night in all situations against top competition and throw some punches if anything happened in those 26 minutes that shouldn’t. Cody McLeod...should definitely not be playing 26 minutes a night, in any situations, against any competition. He spends most of every game not on the ice, for good reason.
All that said, this season his fancystats haven’t been that bad. He’s just about treading water with a 5v5 CF% of 49.2 (unadjusted—it drops to a still-respectable 47.7 when taking the score and whether it was a home or road game into consideration). Meanwhile, his shot quality stats actually look pretty great right now. Using Corsica’s expected goals stat, which looks at how likely events are to become goals, McLeod is in the better half of the team in terms of xGF/60, and has been downright good in terms of xGA/60--that is, when he’s on the ice the Preds are getting okay shots themselves, while giving up exactly the kind of shots that Rinne probably wants to be facing.
However, he’s also played fewer 5v5 minutes over six games than Samuel Girard played in three. To make the contrast even clearer, McLeod has played fewer total minutes so far this season (38:27) than his fellow winger James Neal did just in the 3OT win against the Sharks two years ago. (Thanks, Hockey Reference’s Player Game Finder.)
For obvious reasons, this raises some questions about sample size.
I’ve had to drop TOI filters in order to even be able to see McLeod while researching this—the default on corsica.hockey, as well as the standard for full-season team graphics on hockeyviz.com, screens out skaters with under 50 minutes 5v5 TOI. The less time a player or even a team has, the more likely a few chance events are to lead to some pretty big fluctuations in their percentages and rates. 50 minutes is an arbitrary cutoff, but pretty much anything would be—and no Pred has ever quite skated 50 minutes in a single game, so it’s got that going for it too.
It might be possible that McLeod has suddenly learned how to play effective hockey, but I don’t want to get carried away here. With the few statistics I have, it does like McLeod is actually playing very well for a fourth-liner—that kind of defense is what you want from your fourth line, and the puck progression is fine too. This makes it a lot easier to be okay with his nightly presence. However, the sample size is so small that I’m not convinced he’s really turned his entire game around, and I’ll say differently if he turns back into the black hole of awful hockey from which no good hockey emerged that we saw last season.
Everyone except Cody Bass, an AHLer, and Vernon Fiddler, who has since retired, was better without McLeod than he was without them. Watson carried last year’s fourth line defensively, but think how much better the fourth line could have been without McLeod (and, to be fair, without Fiddler).
While the old adage urges you to not let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch, whoever coined that phrase clearly didn’t know that Cody McLeod actually has the capacity to do so. Last season he was a massive drag on everyone he played with, keeping them from generating offense while steadily giving up shots. If (I hope it’s if and not when) he returns to last year’s form, you’ll have a valid argument. But for now, since he’s not destroying the team, it could be worse that Laviolette likes how willing he is to give—or take—a punch to the face.