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The Curious Case of Connor McMichael’s Ice Time

A look at a rookie whose play and ice time have been inexplicably heading in opposite directions

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday night, the Washington Capitals played their second consecutive game without either of their top two centers. Rookie pivot Connor McMichael opened the scoring less than eight minutes into the affair... and got only nine shifts for a total of 4:11 of the rest of the night, despite being arguably the Caps’ best player on the evening:

via HockeyStatCards

Heck, the local media eve saw fit to give McMichael the game’s third star on the evening:

via NHL.com

So what’s the 411 on that 4:11?

If you squint, you can piece together some semblance of rationale. For one thing, Peter Laviolette doesn’t use McMichael much when defending a lead (something the Caps attempted for more than half of the game and ultimately failed at):

via HockeyViz

Laviolette certainly isn’t the first nor will he be the last coach to throttle down a young center’s ice time in ostensibly more defense-focused situations (and McMike has had his... uh... moments), but there’s nothing in the underlying metrics that scream “don’t play this guy with a lead.”

Then again, it might be less about McMichael and more about his linemates, Beck Malenstyn and Joe Snively on this night. How much ice are you really willing to give to a guy to protect a lead while making his NHL debut? (Answer: more than you’re giving McMichael, apparently.) And here’s something that will understandably draw a coach’s ire - three of McMichael’s first four shifts after the goal resulted in Washington taking a penalty (first Malenstyn, then Trevor van Riemsdyk and finally Justin Schultz):

via NHL.com

The Caps killed off all three (the only power-play goal scored on this night would come on a D.C. man advantage... and it wasn’t scored by the good guys), and one can apportion blame for the infractions how they see fit, but it’s tough to keep icing players who are consistently putting your squad a man down.

Oh, what’s that you say? You noticed that “PP TOT” for McMichael at zero? Nada, nil, zilch? Surely it’s because the Caps didn’t have much opportunity there... nope, they had a season-high 12 minutes. Well, then, it must be that their power play was firing on all cylinders and there was no reason to mess with what was working. Nyet, comrade. Um... maybe they needed to see what Garnet Hathaway could do with five minutes of power-play time. (Spoiler: nothing.)

For a tire fire in a dumpster at a goat rodeo of a power play, not giving a skilled player a sniff over a dozen fruitless minutes is a real head-scratcher.

To sum up, on a night that the Caps were without their top two centers and their “it can’t get any worse, can it?” power play got worse, Connor McMichael got a career low in ice time, despite staking his club to an early 1-0 lead and being the most offensively dangerous skater in a red sweater...

... and it’s not as if it’s a one-off.

On Friday night, the Caps only dressed 11 forwards and McMichael got less ice time than all of them, only skating more than reserve defenseman Matt Irwin. In fact, his ice time has been dropping even faster than the Caps’ power-play efficiency:

via HockeyViz

Has McMichael “hit the wall” that so many rookies do? Not exactly - he has had and maintained literally the best on-ice expected goal differential of any of the team’s forwards:

via Money Puck

So what gives? Sure, young players should have to earn their ice time... but hasn’t McMichael? During an unprecedented wave of injury and illness, the team has had to lean on its youth to stay afloat... so why not lean more on the most talented of the group (the one that led his team in scoring last year and the year before that and the year before that)?

To be very clear, Peter Laviolette has done a phenomenal job behind the Caps’ bench so far this season, leading a roster that on most nights so far has iced more of a “third game of the preseason” lineup than one with Stanley Cup aspirations to the top of the Mass Mutual Metropolitan Division. But his handling of McMichael raises questions and, if it continues this way, will raise the one posed in the quadrant of this chart in which the kid currently resides:

via HockeyViz