Saturday, 15 October 2016

Scratching Koekkoek Takes One of the Lightning's Better Defenders Out of the Lineup

Per Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, there will be no lineup changes for the Tampa Bay Lightning for tonight's game against the New Jersey Devils aside from a goaltending switch.  That means that 22-year-old Slater Koekkoek, the team's first round pick from the 2012 draft, will once again find himself on popcorn duty.

The good new for the Lightning is that they don't have a history of scratching supremely talented young players who have proven that they are ready to contribute at hockey's highest level.  They don't have a history of driving those players to the brink, resulting in a showdown between player and management.  They don't have a history of needing a magic breakfast meeting to smooth things over, either.

Oh, right.
While still incredibly early, this is eerily reminiscent of the situation Jonathan Drouin found himself in last year.  It looks like the Drouin situation ultimately worked out for both sides, though there is still no excuse for the coaching staff's misuse of him early last year, but if the team keeps playing with fire it's eventually going to get burned.  No, I'm not suggesting that Koekkoek is on the verge of asking for a trade.  No, I'm not suggesting that the coaching staff is going to run him out of town.  Rather, I'm simply arguing that continually handling young players in a less-than-ideal way will hurt the team in the long-term in one way or another:
The reality of the situation is that Slater Koekkoek is already a really, really good NHL defenseman.  He doesn't need to "prove" that he deserves a chance to anyone.  He's already done that.  This is a guy who skates like the wind and has the ability to contribute on many teams in the league right now.  Consider his performance from last season as evidence:
And, for people who like fancy bar graphs:

Measured here is Corsi-for percentage, Corsi against per 60 minutes of playing time, scoring chances-for percentage, and expected goals-for percentage.  In short, higher bars are better for all metrics except the green one.  The picture painted by that chart should tell anyone willing to ignore the "prove it/earn it" narrative that Slater Koekkoek is ready for a chance at full-time duty.  The sample size for Koekkoek is small, but has he given you a reason to think that he doesn't deserve a shot?  I find it incredibly difficult to fault a player for minutes he hasn't been given.  We can only evaluate the minutes he has played, and most of them have been very, very good.

Simply, there's a legitimate argument to be made that he might be the third-best defenseman on the roster right now.  Scratching him in favor of anyone other than Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman is a decision that makes the team worse on the ice.  Unless there's some health reason behind the decision, all of the evidence we have suggests that it's inexcusable.

In summary, coaches have an obligation to ice the lineup that gives their teams the best chance to win; for Tampa Bay, there is little doubt that said lineup should include Slater Koekkoek.  The point here isn't to suggest that Koekkoek is perfect or that he has nothing left to prove.  Instead, it's to highlight that he's done more than enough to warrant a legitimate shot at top-four NHL minutes with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As always, thanks for reading.

(All statistics cited are courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, a premier source for hockey analytics.)

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