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Photo Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

BIG OPPORTUNITY

Word came down this afternoon that Anton Slepyshev replaces Matt Hendricks in the lineup for the Oilers (Source: Jack Michaels). Initial reaction from Oilers fans? Mixed. Matt Hendricks is regarded as being a rugged veteran who can help bring the 4line a reliable winger. Slepyshev brings size, speed and some skill to the job. What does Todd McLellan think?

One of the ways to suss out what a coach is thinking is in examining usage. As mentioned, the fact Slepyshev has drawn in, and Hendricks is out, suggests we are experiencing a roster transition. My guess is that Jujhar Khaira will eventually play 4line LW, but tonight, we have Drake Caggiula on LW and Anton Slepyshev is on RW. Big opportunity. Let’s start by grabbing the last 10 games and seeing who is playing.

OILERS FOURTH-LINE W’S (LAST 10 GAMES)

  • Drake Caggiula 6gp, 0-2-2 (16 shots)
  • Anton Slepyshev 4gp, 1-1-2 (5 shots)
  • Matt Hendricks 8gp, 0-0-0 (5 shots)
  • Jujhar Khaira 4gp, 0-0-0 (1 shot)
  • Source

Interesting. Caggiula is averaging close to three shots a game over the last 10, with a couple of assists. Slepyshev shoots for less, but has a goal and visually (this is my opinion) has been the most dangerous of the four men listed here. Khaira is clearly the outsider currently, but that may not mean a lot (he is trying to get back into the rotation after missing 11 games due to a wrist injury).

OILERS FOURTH-LINE USAGE (MOST RECENT GAME)

  • Drake Caggiula: March 20, versus LAK. Played just 7:13, 5:45 at evens and 1:28 on the power play.
  • Matt Hendricks: March 20, versus LAK. Played 9:18, 7:34 at evens and 1:44 on the penalty kill. Hendricks had three takeaways and was 57 percent in the dot. He blocked a shot and had 1 shot on goal.
  • Anton Slepyshev: March 18, versus VAN. Played 7:22, all at evens, with one shot on goal.
  • Jujhar Khaira: March 7, versus NYI. Played 10:32, all at evens, 1 shot attempt, 1 hit, 1 blocked shot.

Interesting. We see a few things here, including Matt Hendricks making himself unique with PK time and having use as a faceoff man. We can argue whether or not Hendricks is a good PK man, but the coach trusts him there and Hendricks has been taking faceoffs over the season. Among the rookies, Caggiula gets a power-play push over all of the other players here. Among rookies, Khaira had more recorded events, which isn’t the same as being the most effective player but it does give us more of the story.

I like time-on-ice as an indication of how much a coach values a single player (or line). It isn’t perfect, as blowouts might see more playing time for depth players, but reading the tea leaves from each player in his most recent game tells me the coach values Hendricks’ utility.

And that leads us to the real question of the day: What does Anton Slepyshev have to do in order to stay in the lineup? I think the answer comes in Slepyshev’s most recent successful game. For our purposes, I am going to list Slepyshev’s last three games:

  • March 14, versus DAL. Played 10:39, all at evens. One assist, 2 shots, 2 missed shots, 1 takeaway. Slepyshev played well enough to move up during this game and made a positive impression.
  • March 16, versus BOS. Played 10:27, all at evens. One goal, two shots, 5 total shot attempts, 2 hits and one takeaway. He again played well enough to move up and ended up scoring a goal that was assisted by Connor McDavid.
  • March 18, versus VAN. Played 7:22, all at evens, with one shot on goal.

What does this tell us? First of all, Slepyshev was out of the lineup after one pedestrian game, so it isn’t like there is a lot of room for mediocrity. The other two games show why Slepyshev is getting back into the lineup again so soon, as he can make a difference offensively. His possession numbers in these games (Corsi for 5×5 percentage by game: 45.45, 52.0 and 41.18) were all either even with, or greater than, the team overall.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

I keep reading articles and tweets about Anton Slepyshev being far superior to Matt Hendricks, and frustration over the young Russian winger being scratched. I understand that, but history tells us coaches prefer veterans and young players have to deliver every game in order to win the job. So, if you are following this story, and cheering for the new guy, look  for Slepyshev to deliver a boxcar or two and play over 10 minutes tonight.

NHL jobs don’t come easy, and coaches do prefer veterans. Chalk up one for the kid tonight. Godspeed, Anton Slepyshev. Make it count.