After several years of good fortune in regards to injuries, the Washington Capitals have been bit by the injury bug early in the 2017-18 season. Matt Niskanen has missed substantial time in the opening month of the season due to an upper body injury and his absence on the backline has been harrowing. The team’s injuries at forward have also challenged the team’s overall depth. Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, and Tyler Graovac have all missed time due to injury or sickness.
Considering that context, Barry Trotz’s decision to scratch Nathan Walker lately is all the more confounding.
After Brett Connolly went down due to an unspecified upper-body injury late last week against Vancouver, Trotz opted to play minor-league journeyman Anthony Peluso in back-to-back road games over giving Walker a sniff in the lineup.
It doesn’t make much sense. Walker was one of the Capitals best players in training camp and has had very encouraging possession numbers early this season. Yet the rookie forward has only played in four of the team’s first 12 games.
Here are Walker’s possession numbers early this season:
This is only a four-game sample (tiny!) and regardless of how good Walker may be, these numbers are almost certain to come back down a bit. But the fact remains that, through four games, Walker’s done just about all he can do to earn more playing time.
Trotz explained his rationale for benching the Aussie Sunday night before the Capitals took on the Calgary Flames.
— Washington🎃Capitals (@Capitals) October 29, 2017
Trotz talks about the decision at the 3:30 mark.
“I actually talked to Walks, different things about his role,” Trotz began. “He’s just like a young player. We talked about being really accurate on your wall plays, being a guy who brings energy all the time. You’ve got the speed, now we’ve got to make you a real productive player. He didn’t kill penalties in Hershey; he’s going to have to learn to kill penalties here and gain trust from us coaches, too. It’s something that we’ll have to work together with.
“Just like any other player, stay positive,” Trotz continued. “He’s used to playing all of the time and when he’s in and out of the lineup, sometimes as a young player, you wonder, “What can I do more because I want to play more?’
“Sometimes it’s just a coach’s decision, it’s not quite your time or we don’t have a full-time role for you. I just think with him, it’s staying positive, believing in himself, and I think that’ll be easy for him because there’s no way he would ever be in the position he is right now without believing in his abilities and his determination. So as long as he has that part of his DNA, I think he’s going to be fine.”
Trotz, citing Walker’s lack of a role on the penalty kill, is worthy criticism. Walker may not have a future as a top six player, and he will need to kill penalties to be a productive player on the bottom lines to stay in the NHL. It’s that simple.
But Anthony Peluso didn’t receive any playing time on the PK over the weekend and barely played in either game. Peluso had four PIMs in 5:32 of TOI on Saturday (three hits) and received a team low 4:32 of ice time on Sunday (one hit). Why not give a young player who is playing well and could grow into more of a role in the future the experience he needs?
This screenshot is for those of you who asked me before the game what Anthony Peluso brings to the Capitals pic.twitter.com/nCobbK7K7P
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) October 29, 2017
The Capitals, who are under .500 after two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, are beat up and scuffling. The team needs whatever small advantages they can find in the lineup. Instead, Barry Trotz, like he did last season with Nate Schmidt, is missing an opportunity to make the team better.
Trotz, who has never advanced past the second round of the NHL playoffs during his two decades coaching, was brought to Washington to end the chaos of Adam Oates’ reign and get the team over its postseason hump. He did the former, but he has not done the latter in three seasons. And in micro decisions like these with Walker, I question if he’ll ever be up to the challenge of fully optimizing his own roster.
Nathan Walker and his +22% relCF% are probably wondering what it takes to a get jersey occasionally https://t.co/OQWJ8J2z6c
— Pat Holden (@pfholden) October 30, 2017
Additional reporting by Patrick Holden.