Washington Capitals forward Connor McMichael scored a goal in the team’s shootout loss to Minnesota on Saturday night. The game was McMichael’s return to active play since missing Friday’s game as a healthy scratch.
“He’s a young player,” Caps head coach Pete Laviolette told WaPo reporter Samantha Pell on Friday. “Guys are pushing each other for ice time, and you get that opportunity you got to go in, and make the most of it.”
McMichael made the most of it by tipping Nick Jensen’s shot to open scoring, but he ultimately played just 11:44 on Saturday, which is still the most he’s played in more than a month. So while it’s a good thing McMichael is back in action and producing again, now the Caps coaches need to find him some real ice time.
A brief preemption: it’s fine to scratch any player every once in a while. Personally I’d like to see teams rest players more often — especially high-minute veterans like John Carlson. (They can rest Ovechkin after he hits 900 goals.) Instead of criticizing a coach’s choice, I think of this moment more of an opportunity to recognize the gap between performance and opportunity. Connor McMichael seems like he’s got the juice — even Pearl Jam fans know that — but he’s not able to show it.
Out of 293 forwards who had played at least 300 minutes of five-on-five play as of January 7, here’s how McMichael ranks in various individual rate statistics. Best/highest is at left in green, and worst/lowest is at right in red.
McMichael is what I like to call a shoot-y forward. Other current and former shoot-y forwards on the Caps include Ovechkin, Burakovsky, and Vrana. Those are players who, given the right conditions, can generate a lot of offense. Right now, McMichael is a top-ten forward in individual expected goals per hour. So you’d think he’d start getting a lot of hours to generated those individual expected goals, but he’s not. In five-on-five ice time per game, McMichael ranks 278th out of those 293 forwards.
McMichael appears to have a positive impact on his linemates as well. The table below shows the five-on-five ice times and on-ice shot-attempt percentages for McMichael’s most common linemates when they’re with McMichael versus without him.
Just three forwards (Brett Leason, Lars Eller, and Beck Malenstyn) have controlled the puck less when playing with McMichael. For Eller and Malenstyn, the ice time they’ve shared with McMichael has been a half hour or less.
The explicit results – measured in actual goals – are positive as well. The first graph below shows Washington’s goal differential when McMichael is on the ice per game. There’s no downward trend here.
(Data as of January 7)
But there certainly is a downward trend in McMichael’s ice time.
He’s been getting fewer shifts since the middle of November. Two of his last five games have been at six minutes per game. All of this suggests McMichael’s healthy scratch and low ice time isn’t tied to anything apparent in his performance in games. I looked long and hard for evidence of a drop-off in McMichael’s game, and this is all I could find:
The above is Game Score, a stat by Dom Luszczyszyn that attempts to quantify a player’s overall productivity. The labels on each bar are the number of shifts McMichael got in each of those games. By this reckoning, McMichael seems to have mellowed since November, and he has had a few stinkers in the last few weeks.
Except those stinkers came after McMichael’s ice time started getting squeezed. I wouldn’t presume that the pressure from coaching, measurable in ice time, is what caused McMichael to play worse, but I don’t think we should presume it’s the other way around either.
However you think the correlation goes, I think we can agree that McMichael has shown a lot of promise as a rookie. I want the Capitals coaching and support staff to act as stewards of that promise — both honing the player and exploiting the hell out of his specialness to win hockey games. Can’t do either if he plays six minutes a night.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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