Let me preface this by saying that even though I poke fun a lot on this website and on Twitter, the truth is I don’t hate Patrick Weircioch. In fact, I think he’s pretty ok. How ok? Well it’s hard to say. He’s obviously good at the shot generation thing, and he’s got the ability to make great passes in both zones, although he’s the beneficiary of some sheltered minutes. He’s also a bit of what I’ll call “An Experience” in his own zone, as I can recall several times this season where he’s been walked by the likes of Jonathan Toews or Jaromir Jagr. Of course that could happen to anyone, but it’s always in the back of my mind whenever I watch Wiercioch shakily defend an opponent’s top players. Consequently I’m not banging down Dave Cameron’s door because I think playing Patrick Wiercioch is the path to enlightenment. I think Patrick Wiercioch is a useful player who, when deployed correctly, can lead to significant matchup problem’s for Ottawa’s opponents. I HEREBY STAKE FOR MYSELF THIS MIDDLE GROUND BETWEEN THE EYE TEST AND FANCY STATS! *Plants flag that’s acutally just a picture of a dude shrugging his shoulders*
There’s another thing I think which is that Wiercioch might be frustrating to play with and coach. The two goals he was on the ice for against Boston demonstrate why. Let’s look at the first goal.
As you can see in Exhibit A, I’ve directed your attention to Patrick Wiercioch, who is leading the rush. He’s tried to get a shot off like the Corsi Wizard™ he is, but unfortunately he’s just lost the puck instead and said puck is about to come back the other way in a hurry.
As Exhibit B shows, Cody Ceci is just coming off the bench on a change and is streaking towards the open ice where another defenseman would normally be if he wasn’t on a change or leading the rush. And that’s the thing: Wiercioch has demonstrated a lack of awareness about how the play is developing, tried to make an offensive play at a very high risk time, and put Ceci in a hard position of trying to defend this one-on-one by starting from his own bench. We see a similar situation on the second goal.
Looking at Exhibit C, we see a situation similar to the one in Exhibit A. Patrick Wiercioch has sneaked down from the point and tried to make something happen, but the puck’s gone the other way and now Ottawa’s got 4 players below the puck. What’s especially frustrating about this picture is that just who Wiercioch would have expected to rotate back on defense to cover for his pinch on the far side is ambiguous. Once again, Wiercioch has made an ambitious play with the best of intentions in a high-risk situation. This time it’s Erik Karlsson who will pay the ultimate price i.e. look bad at defending.
Exhibit D shows Milan Michalek backchecking just as fast as his German engineered knees will allow, but it’s all he can do to turn the play from a 2-on-1 to a 2-on-1.5. If this is the result of a play, you picked a bad time to pinch. Now, some will rightly say “Yes, but we wouldn’t be having this conversation if Cody Ceci or Erik Karlsson had done their job on these plays.”, and that’s true. However, I don’t think Patrick Wiercioch should get a pass here. He was the butterfly who flapped his wings which ultimately lead to the metaphorically appropriate destructive weather pattern. There’s lots of blame to go around here, and the blame starts with Patrick Wiercioch’s decision making.
If I may tie this all together to a sort of hockey worldview, I’d like to draw your attention to this excellent piece by Ary M (@carteciel) on Silver Seven. There’s a money quote in there from Igor Larionov that a lot of people have latched on to, and it’s this:
It’s easier to destroy than to create. As a coach, it’s easier to tell your players to suffocate the opposing team and not turn the puck over. There are still players whose imagination and creativity capture the Soviet spirit – Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago just to name a few. However, they are becoming exceptions to the rule. Many young players who are intelligent and can see the game four moves ahead are not valued. They’re told “simple, simple, simple.” That mentality is kind of boring. Nobody wants to get fired. Nobody wants to get sent down to the minors. If you look at the coaches in Juniors and minor league hockey, many of them were not skill players. It’s a lot of former enforcers and grinders who take these coaching jobs. Naturally, they tell their players to be just like them. Their players are 17, 18 years old – younger than I was when I joined the Red Army team. Say what you want about the Whiplash mentality (or the Soviet mentality), but if coaches are going to push kids at that age, why are they pushing them to play a simple game? Why aren’t coaches pushing them to create a masterpiece?
Now I realize I’m just some guy howling at the moon on the internet, but I still wanna hit Igor Larionov with a bit of an #actually here. We all love beautiful, creative play in sports over boring structure. Don’t get it twisted, no one is setting their PVR to record ESPN Classic whenever they’re showing games from the New Jersey Devils’ 1995 Stanley Cup run. However, creativity is an expression of individualism whereas hockey is a team sport. This conflict must be reconciled in the form of the elusive concept known as “chemistry”. With rare exceptions, chemistry between players is not natural so much as it is manufactured. You have to keep players together and make them practice with each other enough until they instinctually know what their teammates are going to do and how the play is going to develop. It’s easy for Igor Larionov to talk about creativity in a team sport when he comes from a system of player development that took the best players from an entire country and had them train together for 11 months out of the year1. For better or worse, that’s just not how things work any more. Instead, coaches teach a fluid game using a system so that everyone knows what everyone else is supposed to be doing and can play accordingly. In high level hockey, mistakes are too costly to play otherwise. That’s the real reason coaches keep the game simple.
The truth of the matter is that highly structured play is the best use of limited resources in terms of talent and time. Coaches don’t teach simple, safe hockey because that’s how they played, they teach it because it’s the best way to get results in a world with transient resources, where hockey players are always moving between teams at every level. And if you think skilled, creative players would necessarily make for good coaches, then I have six words for you: Phoenix Coyotes Head Coach Wayne Gretzky.
I bring this up because although I’m not sure he’s always on the same page as everyone else, it’s clear Patrick Wiercioch is a skilled and creative hockey player, and that’s borne out in his excellent possession stats. Any real or perceived flaws in Wiercioch’s game are eminently fixable. However, until he tightens up his game a bit, I think the Ottawa Senators management is always going to feel a little apprehensive about him. Dave Cameron might look at the tape from the Boston game and say “Patrick, your two poor decisions last night ended up costing us goals, so I’m putting Jared Cowen back in.” It might happen. It’s always easier for a coach to make excuses for a player who makes a mistake while doing what he’s supposed to do vs. a player who makes a mistake by not doing what he’s supposed to do (hence the eternal question of “Why is Mark Borowiecki?”).
And should The Scratching of Patrick Wiercioch come to pass (again), I will argue it is not proof of a coach suffering from a terminal case of The Eye Tests, it is merely growing pains for a player who, in the words of Bryan Murray, could be a very, very good player but isn’t quite there yet2.
1. Slava Fetisov casually dropped this fact in his promotional interview with Jon Stewart for the critically acclaimed documentary Red Army. If you’re interested in further viewing regarding the Soviet hockey dynasty, I also recommend the excellent 30-for-30 documentary Of Miracles and Men. I will not link to it, but it’s currently available on Youtube assuming you have a working knowledge of the search function.↩
2. Passing Mark Borowiecki in points is the first step to becoming a very, very good player.↩