Photo: Bruce Bennett
Nate Schmidt recently found himself watching from the press box for two games while Jack Hillen took his spot beside Mike Green. Hillen is an adequate player, but should be seventh on the Caps defensive depth chart among those healthy.
That isn’t to say that Hillen should never get a sweater. Over the course of a season, it’s fine and good to work in a guy like Hillen here and there so rust doesn’t build up, but Barry Trotz has made it clear that the reason Hillen was given a sweater recently is because, in his opinion, Schmidt had played his way out of the lineup. Schmidt’s recent benching is another questionable lineup decision by Barry Trotz, wherein he seems to focus on the “big mistake” as opposed to the underlying processes and actual patterns of play.
Please note that this is not an indictment of Trotz as a coach. He’s done a lot of great things for this team and seems like a really great guy. For all of his his confounding decisions, the Capitals are still a drastically improved team compared to last season.
If Trotz insists on using ice time as a weapon, it might behoove him to focus less on the “big mistake” and more on patterns of play. If he were to do so, there are a couple Caps defenders who might deserve to be benched before Schmidt. For example: Karl Alzner.
Schmidt has flat out been better than Alzner so far this season. If Trotz is going to make benching players his “thing,” there is no reason Schmidt should be watching from the press box instead of a player such as Alzner.
The most important part of this Vollman usage chart is the color of the bubble. Schmidt’s blue shade indicates the Caps take more of the overall shot attempts when he’s on the ice as opposed to when he’s not. Alzner’s red indicates the Caps take fewer shot attempts when he’s on the ice as opposed to when he’s not. Specifically, the Caps see 2.9 percent more shot attempts with Schmidt on the ice and 2.2 percent fewer when Alzner is playing.
While zone starts can help put a player’s minutes in context, it doesn’t account for much of the difference between Alzner and Schmidt’s possession. The same can probably be said for the difference in the competition they face.
Schmidt also makes his teammates better. Eight of the ten skaters who Schmidt has played the most minutes with this season see an improvement in possession when on the ice with Schmidt as opposed to without him. Only four of ten can say the same for Alzner. And while Schmidt benefits from playing many of his minutes with Green, there’s reason to believe Schmidt can hold his own away from Green.
If you prefer goals instead of shot attempts, 56.7 percent of goals scored belong to the Caps when Schmidt is on the ice, highest among the Caps six regular defensemen. Alzner is fifth at 46.2 percent.
Trotz noted inconsistencies and untimely mistakes in Schmidt’s game that led to his benching. Despite those errors, the Caps are still seeing 2.1 percent more of overall shot attempts with Schmidt on the ice over the past month, second only to John Carlson. Alzner ranks 4th at -1.8 percent.
Now, about the”big mistake” theory mentioned above, which was first cited by Tyler Dellow (former hockey blogger, current Oilers analyst) and sometimes repeated by JP at Japers Rink. It goes like this:
If someone asked me what I think the biggest failing of the eyeball test is, I’d respond that it’s the emphasis on the big mistake. There are gigabytes of information contained in a hockey game. So much information that I think it’s difficult for anyone to take it in and organize it rationally. The way that our brains deal with that is by focusing on the big mistake.
Trotz tends to use those singular “oops” moments as justification for benching at the expense of a wealth of information that might say the player is doing well overall. In Schmidt’s last game before he was scratched, he was on the ice for a goal against in which he played a noticeable role.
These things happen, and perhaps this example alone is not reason enough to scratch Schmidt or anyone else, so long as the underlying pattern of play is strong. For Schmidt, that pattern has been stellar.
But if a defensive lapse like that were a good reason to scratch someone, then why was Alzner not scratched for this?
This is one of the most egregious “big mistakes” by any Caps player this season.
Trotz benches some players for dubious reasons while others escape his wrath. I doubt we’d ever see Alex Ovechkin benched for making a bad turnover, but those big mistakes certainly happen. It’d be best if Trotz would rely less on compelling, tangible details for player evaluation decisions.
Nate Schmidt has played too well to be watching from the press box. It’s important for any coach to use ice time as a cudgel, but one has to worry about the process behind Trotz’s decisions.
Stats are current as of the start of play on 12/22/14 and courtesy of War on Ice and Hockey Analysis.
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