I could start this article with "Patrick Wiercioch was scratched last game", and it would be true almost 50% of the time. Of the 56 Senators games so far this year, Patty W has played in 31. This easily makes him Ottawa's most healthy-scratched player. This in itself wouldn't be news, except that most of the #fancystats crowd see Wiercioch as the closest thing Ottawa has to a second-pairing defenceman (assuming Marc Methot can be called a top-pairing guy). Last year, he played in 53/82 games, or 65%. This year, he played in 15/27 (56%) under MacLean and 16/28 (57%) under Cameron. It's not just one coach's problem with the guy. How can opinions vary so widely on the same player?
The first step I think is to look at reasons for scratching him. On paper, he seems like the kind of defenceman a coach would love - 6'5", 205 lbs, solid passing, and has put up 50 points in 124 NHL games. He got his first minus of the season on November 29th, his 15th game of the season. But in execution, he doesn't seem to fit with what coaches want from him. The problem with his size, as many will point out, is that he hardly uses it. This season, he has 31 hits in 31 games, behind only Cody Ceci's 49 hits in 54 games for hits per game. (Yes, Erik Karlsson has 60 hits in 55 games.) Wiercioch has 19 blocks in 31 games, easily the worst pace among defencemen on the team. Despite his supposed passing prowess, he has 21 giveaways and only three takeaways on the year.
Another problem with Wiercioch is the fact that he isn't played on the penalty kill. His season average is 10 seconds per game, while all the guys who could come out for him (Chris Phillips, Jared Cowen, Mark Borowiecki, Eric Gryba, and Ceci) average more than two minutes per game on the PK. If you put in Wiercioch, the remaining guys have to pick up the extra PK minutes. In theory, Wiercioch could make up for that by playing on the powerplay, but both coaches this season have favoured a four-forward-plus-Erik-Karlsson formation. Wiercioch is second among the team's defenceman with 1:47 on the PP per game, which pales in comparison to Karlsson's 4:39.
One last problem with Wiercioch is that every other defenceman has an argument for playing time. Let's assume there are six defencemen who could reasonably be scratched: Borowiecki, Cowen, Ceci, Gryba, Phillips, and Wiercioch. Borowiecki is from Ottawa, and plays "with an edge", meaning he hits lots and fights lots. Coaches seem to like playing at least one guy who's willing to drop the gloves. Cowen was a 9th-overall pick who makes $1.1-million more in cap hit than Wiercioch and has an extra season. Ceci is also from Ottawa, is a first-round pick, and is right-handed. Gryba is also right-handed, and plays the second-most PK minutes of any defenceman per game. Phillips is one of only two players left from the 2007 Cup run; personally, I think it's amazing how many times Cameron has scratched his most veteran player. So all of that leaves Wiercioch, one of five left-handed defencemen. As long as the team keeps playing three lefties and three righties, it's hard to see who comes out regularly for Wiercioch.
Of course, many in the blogosphere have argued that Wiercioch is the third-best, or even second-best defenceman on the team. Many so-called advanced stats seem to back this up. Here's a short look at why he should be played. First off, take a look at this HERO chart from Own The Puck:
When I first saw this chart, I was shocked. In terms of shot generation, shot prevention, and points, he is a top-pairing defenceman playing fewer than bottom-pairing minutes. The first thing this chart says to me is "Play him more!" Even if his stats drop a bunch, he'd still be a second-pairing guy. Karlsson and Marc Methot are the only other players to have top-four numbers in both usage adjusted Corsi-for and Corsi-against per 60.
Even though the charts above are usage-adjusted, it's still a good idea to get a look at Wiercioch's usage. (This chart via War On Ice.)
Ah, and there's the rub. Wiercioch gets far and away the easiest 5v5 time on the team. He gets the most offensive zone starts by a large margin, and is comparable to Gryba in terms of easiness of competition. He thrives, but under really sheltered minutes. Which leads me to ask, "Why not play him in tougher minutes?" Clearly he does very well in the limited, sheltered minutes he gets. If everyone else is struggling with their assignments, why not spread it out? Even if Wiercioch does much worse, he can hardly do worse than most of his teammates already do.
Lastly, here's a little look at Wiercioch's WOWYs (with-or-without-yous):
|Time on ice together (min)
|Wiercioch without teammate
|Teammate without Wiercioch
Wiercioch has only spent significant time with three defencemen on the team, and for all three of them, their Corsi percentages with Wiercioch are way better than their percentages without. Now part of this may have to do with the minutes they play together. We already know that Wiercioch plays sheltered minutes, so most of those players probably get sheltered minutes when playing with him. For example, with Erik Karlsson, the two tend to get played late in games in which Ottawa is losing. That pairing seems to be treated as a high-risk, high-reward duo. However, the data leads me to the same thoughts as before: Wiercioch should be tried in tougher situations. Wiercioch-Ceci showed some promise in easy deployment; they surely can't be worse than Cowen-Ceci in tougher deployment.
In all, I expect Ottawa to trade at least one defenceman this deadline. Having eight NHL-level defencemen doesn't make sense. I think Wiercioch is the most likely to be traded. He hasn't earned trust in Ottawa, and some team with a bigger focus on analytics than the Sens will scoop him up for cheap. At this point, I can't say it bothers me. Patty W is an NHLer, and I'd like him to get treated as one. I don't see him getting that opportunity in Ottawa. The team might as well get a pick or prospect in return who will get a fair shake down the line, because Wiercioch never will.