Hemsky not ready to return tonight, still nursing ankle injury. Belov back in the lineup. NSchultz and Gazdic won't play vs. Phoenix.— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) January 24, 2014
Coach Eakins stresses Gazdic and NSchultz scratches tonight are not performance related. Simply trying to get everyone playing time.— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) January 24, 2014
I won't dwell on whether this is the right move from the on-ice perspective (it is, as Jonathan Willis pointed out on a couple of occasions). I'll simply point out that the effectiveness of Nick Schultz as an NHL defenseman has been found extremely wanting this season.
Despite being persistently bad and despite better alternatives, Dallas Eakins has (excepting those two games in late October) trusted in the "veteran presence" of Nick Schultz.
One theory goes like this: Nick Schultz is a UFA at the end of the year and MacTavish is pressing Eakins to "showcase" the talent so to speak for an upcoming deadline deal (probably for a pick). The theory suggests that an under performing player is more highly valued when playing terrible, than he is when scratched, i.e., the impression left by being scratched is more odious than actual on-ice performance.
Without dismissing this idea, which may very well be happening, I think it is worth exploring the value the coach places in Schultz.
1. A good, straightforward way we can determine how a coach values a player is via 5x5 TOI/60. Does the coach rely on this player to carry the load at evens, or not?
In the case of Schultz, the answer is decidedly not. Out of the 8 D to play 10 games or more for the Oilers (not including Smid) this year, Schultz ranks 7th in 5x5 TOI/60 with 13.86 minutes per 60.
It is clear from Eakins' 5x5 deployment that Schultz is relegated to bottom pairing minutes and others are looked to for the heavy time load.
Now, at 4x5 Eakins is much more fond of Schultz, who plays regularly on the PK and sits 3rd in TOI/60 among the players typically used (not including Smid).
All told, Schultz averages 16.4 TOI/60 in all situations, good enough for 7th on the current roster of D who have played at least 10 games. So, based on TOI it seems pretty clear that Eakins doesn't rate Schultz that highly.
2. Using Vollman's usage charts we can see that Nick Schultz sits in the "less sheltered" quadrant
When Schultz is on the ice, then, he is given moderately hard assignments. He isn't being gifted cherry, offensive starts. But neither is stapled to the defensive end and counted on to carry all the heavy wood home.
Based on TOI deployment and competition usage, we can safely say that Eakins does not especially rely upon or favor Schultz.
And yet, there are some curious things about Eakins' and Schultz
3. At the beginning of the year Eakins elected to make Schultz an Alternate Captain ahead of long time Oilers like Smid and up and coming cornerstones like Petry.
4. When faced with a rookie defensemen this season, Eakins has elected to pair them with Schultz.
In his roughly 35 minutes of 5x5 TOI, Hunt was paired with Schultz for 30 and half minutes.
In the case of Hunt, Eakins said that he wanted to pair him with some "experience." (starts at the 2:10 mark)
This is the veteran presence calming the chaotic rookie waters line of thinking. I think most hockey observers would accept this line of thinking, except in those cases where "experience" wears the loathsome visage of Nick Schultz. In both cases, it seems pretty clear that Schultz wasn't helping his reputed proteges so much as adding lead weights to their swim trunks.
If he once was, Nick Schultz no longer is a soft landing for cup of coffee hopefuls. And yet, when Eakins looks to his roster for a veteran hand-holder on the blue line, Nick Schultz is the man he cedes responsibility to.
Takeaway: I think we are seeing the struggle of the contemporary hockey mind at work here.
In points 1 and 2 we can clearly see that Eakins is fully aware of the faults in Nick Schultz' game. He is not relied upon to carry heavy minutes or competitive burdens. I also believe that if Larsen and Potter were healthier through the course of the season we'd see a lot more Schultz scratches (not to mention if he weren't being "showcased").
In points 3 and 4 we can see that despite all the available evidence -- evidence that Eakins surely takes to heart as his deployment and usage shows -- Eakins values something, let's say "intangible," about Schultz. Schultz' "experience" and "veteran presence" here are given a value that trumps what any best practices manual would suggest.
In the past, I'd suggest that the value of 3/4 carried a lot more weight. In today's game, with all the evaluative tools at our disposal, we are seeing "intangibles" lose their grip on decision making. But, they still remain strong narratives and operate as powerful motivators for decision making.
This is something to keep in mind as we see Schultz auctioned off at the deadline. Interested parties are going to be struggling with their divided hockey mind and I bet whoever ends up with Schultz relies too heavily on the assumptions built into a fungible concept like "experience."
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