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Who should Cedric Paquette replace when he returns for Tampa Bay Lightning?

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I think it’s pretty clear.

NHL: APR 16 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Lightning at Blue Jackets Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cedric Paquette was injured on a high hit during the pre-season that has caused him to miss the first seven games of the season. He’s been practicing this week and could see his return to the line up before long for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But that begs the question of who will he replace in the line up?

As I see it, there’s one strong option, one mediocre option, and one unlikely option for who he replaces. Let’s go through each one.

The Unlikely Option - Mathieu Joseph

Joseph has averaged 11:44 TOI. The only players currently in the line up with less TOI per game than Joseph are Carter Verhaeghe and Luke Witkowski. Pat Maroon is the only other player that has gotten less even strength ice time, but has more overall ice time because of his play on the power play. He’s gotten some ice time on the penalty kill and has the fourth most per game among forwards at 1:12.

Joseph has produced some points though having netted two goals and an assist for three points. I still have questions about his hands and how well he can finish shots. He has the speed to create his own chances, but I don’t trust his ability to regularly find the back of the net.

Looking to the advanced statistics side of the ledger for Joseph, he fares pretty well. He’s third among the forwards in Expected Goals For Percentage. In terms of offensive possession, he has been middle of the pack for the Lightning, but he’s up near the top in shots against.

With all of that said, I think he’s kept himself in a fine position to remain in the lineup on the third line. Replacing Joseph with Paquette would mean that Verhaeghe would be moved up to the third line. While that might be beneficial for Verhaeghe going forward, I don’t think at this moment that he’s better than Joseph in that spot.

The Mediocre Option - Carter Verhaeghe

Verhaeghe struggled with puck possession during the pre-season. Now, having seen him play with more and different players, I think that it was more a result of the players he was playing with dragging him down. Through these first seven games of the season, he generally ranks in the top half of the Lightning’s forwards in the relevant advanced statistics categories.

He hasn’t been able to turn that into much offense yet though as he just has a single assist to his name. He’s also only averaged 10:14 TOI. But I think there are signs there that if he got some more regular time with better players that more of his offensive capabilities will be unlocked. He’s also still adjust to the NHL and I expect him to get better as the year goes on.

It’s interesting looking at his With Or Without You (WOWY) numbers on NaturalStatTrick.com. This is a tool that let’s you see how a player does when he is with a teammate and when he is away from the teammate and also when that teammate is away from him. This let’s us get some idea of how players affect each other. It’s not perfect since there are a lot of other variables that go into play. But we’re just trying to get a general idea here.

Verhaeghe’s most common forward partners so far have been (in order) Joseph, Witkowski, Maroon, Yanni Gourde, and Tyler Johnson with 18:55 to 27:31 TOI with him. The other forwards he has been with are all under seven minutes TOI. Here’s a few notes of what I see for each of those players playing with and without Verhaeghe.

  • Mathieu Joseph - They’ve played very well together with 62.96% CF%. Both have also been at or below 50% in CF%, FF%, and SF% when they’ve been away from each other. This is a pretty decent sign that they complement each other and could do well with spending more time together.
  • Luke Witkowski and Pat Maroon - I’ve grouped these two together since the past four games, Verhaeghe has spent most of his time centering these two wingers. Their CF% is been terrible. Witkowski’s numbers get worse when he’s away from Verhaeghe. Maroon’s get only slightly better. This has not been a pretty line.
  • Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson - I’ve lumped these two together because their numbers have been similar with Verhaeghe. The numbers here look a lot like they do with Joseph. When together, they’re very good. When apart, both players are worse.

I do want to say here that seven games is still a very small sample size. This shouldn’t be taken as an end all, be all evaluation of Verhaeghe. But it does suggest that he’s been dragged down by Witkowski and Maroon and that he’s excelled when playing with better players.

I want to see some more from Verhaeghe. Even if it means that he’s still on the fourth line and getting dragged down. But in looking at all the stats, I have to now go to the option I think is best for the team, even though I know there will be a lot of fans screaming otherwise on Twitter.

The Strong Option - Luke Witkowski

Since his signing as a free agent this summer, a lot of fans have been very excited about Witkowski’s return to Tampa Bay. He’s a big, physical player. He proved he could fill in on the blue line or at forward, which makes him versatile especially during a game when a defenseman could get injured and he could make the switch to the blue line.

He does bring a physical element to the Lightning, which the coaching staff has obviously valued. He is second on the team in hits with 16 just behind Erik Cernak’s 17. But the ‘Hit’ stat is not a great indicator of performance or value. If you think about the definition of a hit, that being along the lines of “a check of an opponent that causes the opponent to lose control of the puck,” that means that for you to get a hit, your team doesn’t have the puck on their stick. If you’re getting a lot of opportunities to be credited with a hit, then your team doesn’t control the puck a lot.

The advanced stats bear that out for Witkowski. He has the worst SF%, CF%, and xGF% on the team. He is the worst or the second worst in most of the possession stats. He’s recorded a goal and an assist, and has gotten some luck that he’s only been on the ice for two goals against despite his terrible possession stats. He’s also been buoyed by having some of the best goaltender play behind him.

To take another step further on about Hits and their value, I looked at the Play-By-Play stats for the Lightning’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. In this particular game, things started to get chippy with Nikita Kucherov taking a big hip check. Witkowski took it upon himself to run around and hit everything that moved. He registered eight hits just in this one game.

Of his eight hits, only two were followed by a Lightning shot attempt; one was blocked and the second was a “shot on goal” from 143 feet away that was shot down the ice by Mikhail Sergachev 12 seconds after Witkowski’s hit. Maybe he intimidated the Canadiens a little bit with his hits, but ultimately, it didn’t do much of anything for the Lightning.

Further to that, Witkowski has three games in which he failed to register a single shot attempt. Not a shot on goal, but any kind of shot in the general direction of the net.

Conclusion

I think it’s pretty clear that Witkowski has been the worst performer for the Lightning’s forwards. He should remain on the roster as the 13th forward/8th defenseman which suits him well, but it’s time for him to spend some time in the press box when Cedric Paquette is ready to play.