This is an editorial, and may not represent the views of the On the Forecheck staff as a whole.
There’s a truism among the 200 Hockey Men™: if a skilled player isn’t performing up to your expectations, bench him in-game or scratch him between games. Give one of the grit guys his icetime instead. Let someone who’s willing to get in there and work for those goals...
Well, you get the idea.
It’s a philosophy I’ve always been skeptical of, not just because of the people who espouse it but because it doesn’t make sense.
A lot of the time, a highly-skilled player who isn’t scoring is just having bad luck, and isn’t going to have better luck if he’s getting nailed to the bench every time a shot doesn’t go in. Shooting percentage regresses to the mean, in general; some players have particularly good shots, and are more likely to convert on them, while other players struggle to get shots past a goalie. But all that just means there’s a slightly different mean for them to regress to, it doesn’t mean they’ll either keep scoring on every third shot or never score another goal again.
It’s also hard to do your job well for a boss who’s always finding fault with you. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting paid eight million a year or eight dollars an hour; salary has nothing to do with human nature. Taking a struggling player and making them hyper-conscious of every mistake, and making them second-guess every decision, is more likely to make them play worse than anything else.
And a lot of the time, taking a highly-skilled player who isn’t scoring out of the lineup means that a worse player will be getting that icetime instead. That’s rarely a good idea, as it weakens the coach’s ability to get favorable matchups. Beyond that, you always want to give your best players as much time on the ice to impact the game as possible and practical. Ideally, you won’t have anyone on the roster who’s such a bad player that their time on the ice is a liability (yes, I did say “ideally”), but even so: if you replace someone who’s likely to score a point every twenty minutes with someone who’s likely to score a point every forty, how does that help the offense?
In short, benching is often meant to punish and to show off, instead of to actually change the outcome of a game or series. It says, “look, we’re doing something! We’re trying!”
And so, even as a long-time Matt Duchene skeptic, I’m not sure that what the Nashville Predators really need to be doing is healthy-scratching him, despite the recent debate.
Is it possible that someone like Calle Järnkrok or Austin Watson might do better on the second line? Maybe. Both have had a decent series so far and are doing all right in terms of their individual shot quality—but they’re having that decent series on the fourth line, against weaker competition and playing mostly with competent defense pairings. Moving either of them up would risk their being placed on a forward line expected to compensate for the weaknesses of Jarred Tinordi and Yannick Weber, which are considerable. It’s also worth noting that Järnkrok seemed to be playing hurt at camp.
Is it possible that Craig Smith, former second-line staple, might do better in his old spot? It’s certainly possible, but I don’t love the idea of rewarding Smith—who’s had a rocky series himself anyway—for headshotting one of the Coyotes players last game by moving him up in the lineup. Whether or not you feel as strongly as I do about head contact, it was undisciplined and dirty, and someone who’s going to take that nasty a frustration penalty when his team is trailing isn’t someone who needs to be given more chances to do that. If the Preds manage to force a Game 5, and if Smith plays with discipline in Game 4, that might be a conversation worth having.
What about Rocco Grimaldi? Frankly, I’m skeptical. The Preds’ entire third line seems held together with luck, at the moment. They’re losing both possession (using shots at goal/CF% as a proxy) and quality battles at even strength, and Grimaldi doesn’t seem to be an obvious standout.
Colin Blackwell? Oof. That’s a gamble.
Eeli Tolvanen? Yakov Trenin? That’s a gamble too, though one with a lot more unknowns.
An even bigger problem is that it isn’t just Matt Duchene who’s been struggling on that second line. Duchene has been the obvious problem, of course.
The much-coveted center has a single secondary assist—on the power play—through three games of a playoff series. First-line center Ryan Johansen has four points (three primary, three at even strength). Johansen scored a goal, something he usually appears to hate doing, though that might just be shooting percentage falling in his favor: he and Duchene have shot the puck the same number of times this series. On the other hand, according to Corey Sznajder’s incredibly useful tracking data, Duchene has made the same number of passes resulting in a shot on goal this series at 5v5 as Austin Watson has. So there’s that.
Even if it is just shooting percentage out for Duchene, he’s gone from being an impactful player in transition to...well, nothing. Looking again at Sznajder’s tracking data, Duchene has struggled to get out of the defensive zone and rarely attempted to enter the offensive zone. That’s bad, from a player who brought those to that line as his biggest strengths.
To those flaws in his game he’s added an unnecessary penalty in Game 1 that allowed the Coyotes to broaden their lead to 3-0 on the ensuing power play and a deeply frustrating offside in Game 3 that took Kyle Turris’s go-ahead goal off the board. If there’s a single player from the couple of years before the NHL implemented offside reviews who could be pointed to as a reason for them, it’s Duchene, whose offside goal against Nashville several years back became a meme; you’d think—you’d hope—that he’d be more aware of where he is on the ice relative to the puck now. That was careless, that was lazy, that may very well have swung the series, and I don’t have any qualms about making a player second-guess their decisions if their first guesses are going to be that bad.
However, Mikael Granlund has also been having a terrible series. Duchene has been visible in all the wrong ways; Granlund has just been invisible. He’s been lucky enough to avoid the worst of Duchene’s high-profile errors, but he’s been painfully ineffective: in the same neighborhood as Duchene in offensive production measured both by manually-tracked counts and by expected goals formulas, and getting about the same reward for it, though without even that lone PP secondary assist Duchene has to his name.
It’s possible Granlund is playing hurt, though Shaun didn’t see anything at training camp, but it seems more likely that he’s just not the right fit for the Predators, as he hasn’t really been since he was traded for. It’s frustrating, because he’s a good player, but I don’t know what can be done about it. Kevin Fiala is excelling in Granlund’s old spot, and Granlund, like Fiala was, is struggling on the Preds’ second line.
What that means in the more immediate sense is that the second line doesn’t have two good players and one bad one. It has Duchene, who has added poor decisions to his current underperformance; and Granlund, who’s been underperforming for longer than Duchene; and Turris, who has been moving up the ice and creating offense much better than either of the others—and who is one of only six Preds skaters yet to take a penalty at all this series—but who is defensively a lot weaker than Granlund and even Duchene, both in general and in this series.
If Granlund were being the playmaker we know he’s capable of being, or even just a little closer to it—and maybe also if Turris were a little better defensively—then we’d be in a very different place for a conversation about whether the Predators should bench Duchene and move a bottom-six player up. Two good second-liners with complementary skillsets could help boost a weaker player to success while Duchene sorted out whatever he needs to sort out.
That isn’t what the Predators have. Smith might fit in all right in Duchene’s place, but that discipline concern, and the related issue with rewarding a player headshotting his opponents, are very real. Järnkrok’s anemic offense, Watson’s questionable defense, and both players’ struggles in transition would be exposed by whatever matchup the Coyotes assigned to that line. Grimaldi is almost as questionable defensively as Watson, though he’s at least been better at getting up the ice this series. Blackwell, Tolvanen, Trenin? Mm. Concerning.
One thing that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, come into this conversation is Duchene’s salary. Sure, he’s on a contract with an AAV of eight million a year—one which continues for six seasons after this one—but if paying players more money made them better at hockey, there would be no bad contracts. Sometimes you sign a guy to a deal he isn’t worth. Sometimes you sign a guy to a deal he was worth, but injuries, illness, or age affect him more than you expected.
If taking a player out of the lineup makes the team better, you should do it, whether they’re a fringe NHLer making league minimum on a one-year deal or the free agent prize of last summer making more than ten times that and signed for term. What you shouldn’t do is take a player out of the lineup just to make a point or show you’re doing something.
Has Duchene been bad? Yes. Careless? Yes. Undisciplined? Yes. Worth his contract? Absolutely not. But right now, with the players available to them, it doesn’t feel like the Predators have a better option than Matt Duchene on that second line.