On Wednesday, the Lightning decided to send Slater Koekkoek back to Syracuse. The young defender was a healthy scratch in each of the first three games for the Lighting. The popular and probably correct perception is that head coach Jon Cooper chose Nikita Nesterov as the sixth defender ahead of Koekkoek.
A quick look at Lightning Twitter will quickly confirm that fans think this is the wrong decision. The popular narrative is that Nesterov has regressed and Koekkoek should be starting ahead of him. I have several points of disagreement with this line of thought and I will try to walk through them methodically.
The first point of disagreement is that Nesterov has regressed. He’s 23 years old and made his NHL debut at just 21 during the 14-15 season. If we look at his numbers since coming to the NHL, we do see a dip in his second season. He was recovering from that decline and trending in the right direction before he lost his spot in the lineup to Koekkoek permanently during the playoffs.
When I look at last season’s numbers, I don’t see a player who is regressing. I see a 21-23 year old learning at the NHL level. By the end of his playing time last season, his 25 game rolling averages of relative CF% and relative xGF% had both risen into the positive, indicating that the Lightning were performing a bit better with him on the ice than off the ice.
That effect is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Cooper avoided using Nesterov in high pressure situations and provided him with the highest percentage of offensive zone starts of any player on the team according to corsica.hockey. However, that context does not negate the positive progress he made toward the end of last season.
My second point of disagreement is that Nesterov and Koekkoek should be competing for the sixth defensive spot on the roster. Andrej Sustr has not separated himself in any meaningful way from Koekkoek and Nesterov. I am not certain why he seems guaranteed a spot in the lineup every night while the argument rages about Nesterov and Koekkoek.
Below is a comparison of the same numbers from above showing Sustr and Nesterov. These graphs include reference lines that show the average for each player during this time period. Using that as a guide, I am not sure how an argument can be made that Sustr has clearly outperformed Nesterov. And on top of the relative similarity in their numbers, Sustr is two years older than Nesterov. Based on their ages and performance, I would argue that Nesterov has a higher ceiling.
My final point of disagreement centers upon why any of these players should be competing for the sixth defensive spot at all. Cooper has been at the forefront in using 11 forwards and 7 defenders instead of a traditional 12/6 lineup. With Ryan Callahan hurt, the Lightning are in a perfect position to play Sustr, Nesterov and Koekkoek every night until Callahan is ready to return. Instead of speculating about who deserves playing time, the team could let the three young defenders compete for minutes.
At the Rochester Institute of Technology Hockey Analytics Conference last month, Eric Cantor presented on why 11/7 lineups have the potential to offer better balance. He used the Lightning as his case study. When using an 11/7 lineup since 13-14, the Lightning have a better CF% and a better xGF%. And more importantly, all 18 players have more balanced TOI.
Traditionally, teams have expected defenders to play more minutes because they skate less. With defenders now expected to transition the team to offense and join the rush, that paradigm is shifting. Finding more balance makes sense and using an 11/7 lineup achieves that. So not only would using 7 defenders solve the Lightning’s inability to get Koekkoek in the lineup, it would also likely be the optimal lineup structure regardless of the players involved.
If the Lightning did decide to go to an 11/7 lineup, Cooper would need to choose a forward to be a healthy scratch. Cedric Paquette is the obvious choice given that Brian Boyle and JT Brown both integral and versatile parts of the Lightning lineup. The only argument against sitting Paquette to get Koekkoek minutes is that Paquette is finally healthy after a season of injuries. One can understand why Cooper would want to give Paquette a chance to show what he can do now that he has recovered from ankle and rib injuries. But if given a choice between playing Paquette or going 11/7 and being able to evaluate all three young defenders, I would prefer to see the team go 11/7.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this entire situation is that in all likelihood, Koekkoek is the best defender among the three players discussed in this article. If Cooper did utilize an 11/7 lineup, I expect that Koekkoek would establish himself as the player who deserves to play every night while Nesterov and Sustr compete for minutes just as they did when they first arrived in Tampa.
Koekkoek hasn’t played enough games to use 25 game rolling averages as I did above. But in his small sample of games played, he’s been one of the best defenders on the team as shown in this recent article by Michael Stuart.
Ultimately, the Lightning have made the traditional choice when it comes to the development of young players. They don’t feel they have room for Koekkoek in Tampa so they’ve sent him back to Syracuse to get consistent minutes. While that isn’t the worst decision, I do think a better alternative exists. And given Cooper’s fondness for 11/7 lineups, I don’t understand why he isn’t using one now.