By Peter Hassett
Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson returned to the Washington Capitals active roster one week ago today. Then the team went on to have their worst week in more than a month, including dropping back-to-back games to the Philadelphia Flyers.
For two of those games, Anthony Mantha was a healthy scratch. For the third, it was Dylan Strome who was the odd man out. Head coach Peter Laviolette has had to make some hard choices lately, and I think we can help him.
Here now are all the reasons to scratch – and not scratch – each Caps forward.
Why the Caps should scratch him: He doesn’t play much special teams, but more importantly he doesn’t play the right way, which I think means winning board battles. Not sure. You tell me.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: Regardless of how he does it, he unmistakably drives play in Washington’s favor. Mantha’s 54.9 percent on-ice shot-attempt percentage is highest among full-time Caps forwards, marred incidentally by Caps goalies saving 89.5 percent of shots behind him, lowest among Caps forwards.
Why the Caps should scratch him: His seven points during five-on-five play is the lowest among full-time forwards.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: Johansson has demonstrated himself to be excellent in the neutral zone and is often a key asset of the power play. His goals-above-replacement (GAR, according to Evolving Hockey) is second highest among forwards.
Why the Caps should scratch him: He’s a depth guy who averages the lowest ice time among full-time forwards (12:06), while also getting busted for the most penalty minutes.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: Hathaway’s lines with Nic Dowd are the team’s simply the team’s most dependable – and among the best in the whole league when measured by expected goals.
Why the Caps should scratch him: Milano went unsigned last summer. Aside from waiver-wire pickup Nicolas Aube-Kubel, he’s the last player the team added. Last in, first out.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: Milano has been an offensive dynamo, racking up point rates behind only Kuznetsov and Sheary, while scoring goals at rate behind only Ovechkin (and Dowd, though that’s a different thing).
Why the Caps should scratch him: As a bottom-six center on a team suddenly flush with centers, Eller does not stand out as a play-driver. His $3.5M AAV contract expires this summer, so he’s likely not in the team’s long-term plans.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: He might have been Washington’s best forward against the Flyers on Saturday night, with that one nonsense penalty excepted. Eller has showed a lot of chemistry when teamed up with Milano and Mantha.
Why the Caps should scratch him: When apart from Garnet Hathaway, Dowd’s lines have not been very good at all.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: Dowd has been phenomenal. His next goal will tie his career high for a single season. His goal-scoring rate during five-on-five is higher than Ovechkin’s, and when he’s on the ice opponents score at a rate lower than all but four full-time forwards. Critically, he plays on the PK and takes faceoffs.
Why the Caps should scratch him: Kuznetsov’s defensive play has taken a noticeable downturn since his renaissance last season. Opponents generate expected goals against Kuznetsov at a higher rate than any other forwards except his most common linemates.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: Out of 475 forwards, Kuznetsov’s primary-assist rate ranks tenth best. He’s a genius-level passer, which proves that given the right support he’s still a game-breaker.
Why the Caps should scratch him: Rest? Load management? I don’t know. Something about getting him out of the All-Star game? I don’t know. He’s indestructible and does not age. I literally do not know.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: He’s the face of the franchise, and he’s got 84 goals to go.
Why the Caps should scratch him: He doesn’t take faceoffs. He doesn’t kill penalties.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: Strome has been the best center for Alex Ovechkin this season. Their trio with Sheary has controlled 55 percent of on-ice expected goals when on the ice. Strome has the primary assist on five of Ovechkin’s 30 goals.
Why the Caps should scratch him: In addition to the obvious reason (smol), Sheary’s defensive shortcomings (oh dear) sometimes dwarf (oh goodness) his offensive stature (what have I done).
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: To the endless frustration of everyone wishing the Caps would develop their youth better, Sheary continues to outperform expectations, specifically with his offense during five-on-five play, where Sheary trails only Ovechkin in on-ice expected goal rate. Sheary trails only Kuznetsov and Mantha in primary-assist rate among Caps forwards.
Why the Caps should scratch him: The Capitals have possessed the puck the least when Oshie’s on the ice (47.1 percent of total shot attempts). HockeyViz does not think highly of Oshie’s offense this season, and I’m wondering if maybe he’s playing through an injury.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: During both even strength and the power play, Oshie is a presence in the crease, which makes him either an effective screen or a dangerous passing partner.
Why the Caps should scratch him: Something something Ryan Reaves? I’ve got nothing.
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: He just got here.
Why the Caps should scratch him: Have you seen him skate?
Why the Caps should definitely not scratch him: He’s still unbelievable with the puck.
I do pick on Peter Laviolette. Though I think he’s made some major goof-ups, I have to acknowledge that he’s in a tough situation. All of a sudden, the team got everything they ever wanted: Backstrom back, Wilson back. And, in classic monkey’s paw fashion, it has utterly destroyed the team’s winning momentum.
These are not easy decisions that Laviolette screwing up. And it would be very, very difficult to do what needs to be done.
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Headline photo: Alan Dobbins
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