I'm a firm believer in the Yzerplan. In the long run, it will work out. But recently, I've started to have some doubts about some of the thought processes and moves. General Manager Steve Yzerman's job is to provide head coach Jon Cooper with the best roster and roster composition he can to fit what Cooper thinks will help win. That translates to preference for a certain number of players like Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, Alex Killorn and Erik Condra on the front end that play defensively responsible hockey. Once Yzerman sets the roster though, it's up to Cooper to use the players as he sees fit.
The repeated scratching of Jonathan Marchessault from the lineup has been pretty well documented. Marchessault's a skill player that unfortunately has lost his spot in the lineup. It's not all his fault and it's not all Cooper's fault either. When you're setting up a forward lineup, there are certain roles that you want filled. You cannot expect to make up an entire team of Steven Stamkos-like scoring forwards and win consistently. You cannot expect to make up an entire team of Brian Boyles and win consistently. Those players have their roles and you have to balance the different roles a forward might have through your lineup; scorer, grinder, defensive specialist, faceoff specialist, power play, penalty kill, overtime, and shootout.
Marchessault's role has typically been that of a scorer and power play element. With the return to health of Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat at the end of December, that bumped Marchessault out of a top six role he'd garnered during their absence. In the month of December, Marchessault had 5 goals and 4 assists for 9 points in 13 games. 5 of those points came on the power play while he was averaging 12:30 TOI. Additionally, he had a minus-6 plus-minus rating in that time and has a minus-8 overall this season.
With the return of Johnson and Palat, we also saw a major shift in the composition of the top six and the third line. Valtteri Filppula was bumped, along with Marchessault; Filppula formed a new third line with J.T. Brown on left wing and Ryan Callahan on right. Third lines usually can go one of two directions: an offensive line or a defensive line. This third line is firmly defensive and has often been called on by Coach Cooper to take on the hardest competition where they've often succeeded, limiting opposing top lines shots, scoring chances, and goals.
That's made Marchessault's only potential landing spot on the 4th line, a role that he is not well suited for. He's a small forward and does not have the grit and size to be on a checking line. Marchessault's offensive abilities are not complemented in the role either like they'd been during his successes in December. Marchessault is ideally suited for being the winger on a third line that is an offensive line. Right now, there simply isn't room for him in the kind of role that he needs to succeed. For that, I do have faith in what Yzerman and Cooper are doing. Fans are in love with Marchessault because of his point total in a small sample, but it's also obvious that there are deficiencies in his game that Cooper is not a fan of as evidenced by his low plus-minus.
On the other end of the faith scale though, I'm having doubt. Jason Garrison was injured February 8th in Ottawa, playing a grand total of 4:10 before the first period injury forced him out of the game and out of the lineup for three to five weeks. In his absence, the team's other defensemen were pushed into a heavier workload than normal for the night, with the exception of Brayden Coburn who only played 14:43.
For the game the next night against Montreal, the team chose to not recall a player and instead put Matt Carle, a consistent scratch in recent weeks, back into the lineup. It's clear in watching him this season that he's lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but he's not the same player he used to be. He's struggled with positioning, with skating, with shooting, with passing. Really just all phases of the game and it's clear that he's not an NHL caliber defensemen any more. That's a shame.
He played decently in the game against Montreal, but logged the least amount of ice time among defensemen with just 14:46 and was an even plus-minus on the night in a 4-2 loss.
Then the team announced the recall of defenseman Slater Koekkoek. Koekkoek's had a lot of adversity in his young career, suffering through three separate shoulder injuries and surgeries. He's in his second pro season and has had a bit of a sophomore slump, but in reality none of the Syracuse Crunch defensemen outside of Matt Taormina have played particularly fantastic this year. I was excited about the recall though, as Koekkoek's part of the Lightning's future, a part of the Yzerplan. The former first round pick is a future top four two-way defenseman that should provide reliable minutes to the team for years to come. Great, he's going to replace Carle in the lineup, right? Nope.
Instead, the team decided that he needed to sit and watch for a little bit; at least two games apparently. He was recalled before the February 12th game against the Nashville Predators and was promptly scratched with the decision to leave Carle in the lineup, where his 15:56 TOI only exceeded Nikita Nesterov's ice time among defensemen. Nesterov was at least a plus-1 in the game and had an assist. Carle though was a minus-2 with no points. The team won 4-3, but Carle helped make it more interesting than it should have been.
Then came the St. Louis Blues on Valentine's Day... Surely Koekkoek will draw into the lineup now. He's out there for warm ups with six other defensemen. Instead with Vladislav Namestnikov feeling okay despite recovering from the flu, Koekkoek was scratched and spent another night watching from the press box. Carle somehow had more ice time than Coburn and Nesterov with his 18:19 and minus-1 rating. He again did not look good, often being out of position and getting beat.
It's very hard for me to see how bringing up Koekkoek as a warm body to sit in the press box is beneficial to the organization or to him. You're essentially saying that somehow, Koekkoek sitting in is more beneficial than playing over Carle in Tampa or continuing to play with Syracuse for a Crunch team that's struggling on the blue line. If all Lightning management wanted was a warm body for an emergency, then why not bring up Luke Witkowski or Matt Taormina? Both are veterans with little growing left to do. They are serviceable in the short term for emergencies or as a 7th defenseman.
If Jon Cooper didn't want to play Koekkoek, why bring him up? If he doesn't get into the lineup on Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks and then continue in the lineup, the questions are only going to get stronger and angrier. I'm already very confused by these decisions and having my doubts about the decision-making process. Continuing to sit Koekkoek in favor of Carle will only deepen those doubts.