We all know the frustration of seeing a high-octane player, or at least a very good one, be scratched in favor another player who is… less good. The way Darryl Sutter handles his young players results in a lot of that around here. Think of scratching Alec Martinez and not Robyn Regehr, or playing Jordan Nolan instead of Tyler Toffoli. The young guy has to "earn" his way into the lineup.
The latest victim of Sutter’s treatment is Jordan Weal. He's an unknown quantity, which is terrifying for the Los Angeles Kings’ head coach. While Andy Andreoff has appeared in 18 games this season, Weal has dressed for two games, with Sutter proclaiming (after only one game together) that Andreoff had outplayed him "in the last two or three games."
Of course, Sutter is not alone in this regard. Last season, Todd McLellan thought it’d be a good idea to play Scott Hannan instead of rookie Mirco Mueller. In the 2008, 2009, and 2011 playoffs, Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien decided to healthy scratch Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, and Tyler Seguin (in favor of Shawn Thornton until the Eastern Conference Final), respectively. Alain Vigneault had some reluctance to break in young talent while he was the Canucks’ head coach, and John Tortorella was especially notorious for this, leading to top-six Tom Sestito.
Most coaches make questionable lineup decisions, especially when it comes to younger players breaking into the league. Of course, just because "everyone is doing it" doesn’t make it right, as I’m sure your parents told you at one point or another growing up. Let’s look at the history of young players under Darryl Sutter and see if Weal is simply just fitting the pattern.
- In 2013, following the end of the lockout, Jake Muzzin was pressed into service, perhaps a bit earlier than management had originally anticipated due to injuries to Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene. He was only scratched in two regular season games (following a "road apples" performance in Anaheim) and one playoff game (after a costly turnover in Chicago).
- In March of that year, sensing his team needed a "spark," Dean Lombardi recalled young hot shot Toffoli on the 10th. He then sat out for three games until he made his NHL debut on the 16th. He was allowed to play three games before being a healthy scratch two separate times for a total of 12 games the rest of the season. Toffoli also watched the first four games of the playoff series against St. Louis from the press box until Sutter freed him. He played in six of seven games against San Jose, and set up Trevor Lewis’s game-winner in Game 2, but played a career-low 5:10 in the seventh game. But the inexplicable benching didn’t stop then. In 2014, he was scratched in favor of Colin Fraser during the Stadium Series game against the Ducks. The Kings desperately needed his finishing skills in that one.
- Tanner Pearson technically made his NHL debut in 2013, but only played 5:44 in one playoff game. He was recalled in November of 2013 due to injuries to Nolan, Lewis and Jeff Carter. Pearson was sent back, called up again in January and played in two games before eventually coming up permanently in February following the Olympic break. Pearson also sat out the first two games of the San Jose series in the playoffs. (And, for what it's worth, he didn't get put on Toffoli and Carter's line until the team was down 0-3.)
- Fast forward to the following October. Brayden McNabb was inserted into the lineup originally due to Muzzin's preseason injury and stayed because of the arrest and league mandated suspension of Slava Voynov. After struggling alongside Drew Doughty for a couple of games, Sutter slashed his minutes drastically, though McNabb managed to remain in the lineup until January, when he became a healthy scratch for a few games. This year, McNabb has not received the "young guy" treatment as Sutter has elected to keep him with Doughty, which is rather unusual. After a bad game or two, Sutter will occasionally elect to swap out players but McNabb has been safe – for now.
- Even Andreoff is no stranger to the press box. After making the team due to waiver ineligibility, he made his NHL debut on Oct. 14 and spent the rest of the season in and out of the lineup. However, by this time last year, Andreoff had already played eight (consecutive) games (although, that may have been due to injuries).
So far, it seems that Weal fits the pattern of Sutter’s young guy treatment. McNabb and Muzzin, both highly touted prospects, also got much longer initial looks than Weal has.
The exception to the rule has really been Nick Shore. He was a healthy scratch only once after he was permanently recalled on January 12 from the Monarchs following Pearson’s season ending injury. He did not play in the first game after arriving in LA but has played in every single one since. Shore is 23 years old, the same age as Toffoli, Pearson, and Weal, and yet, he somehow impressed Sutter enough that the coach raved about him when he was called up last January.
One note that may be intriguing: Weal has an abysmal 42.27% score-adjusted CF% at 5v5. In his first four games, though, Shore posted SACF% figures of 36.9%, 57.6%, 34.1% and 30.5%. Even with this small sample size, Sutter showed faith in the young center to anchor the fourth line, which sucked (and still does, mostly, though Shore has become an awesome Corsi player apart from them).
By the numbers, Weal is just another prospect struggling to break into the league. In this case, numbers don’t tell the whole story. When they first debuted with the Kings, both Muzzin and McNabb played with Doughty. In Toffoli’s first career NHL game, he played with Carter and Mike Richards. For Pearson’s first call-up in November 2013, he played with Lewis and Linden Vey (back when we all saw Vey as an actual, good prospect). In his second-ever career NHL game, he even saw a few shifts with Vey and Toffoli as part of the "third line" and he scored his first-ever goal, one that was somewhat controversial.
Weal? He has played mostly with Nolan, Lewis, and Kyle Clifford in less than 20 minutes of TOI through two games, according to Left Wing Lock. In the last game, due to Anze Kopitar’s injury, he did get to spend the majority of his shifts with Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown. That was simply injury-based though, and on the whole, it seems like Weal hasn’t been put into a position to succeed. Don’t forget that Sutter made Weal a healthy scratch last year in Game 82 because they needed to "win the game." Or something like that.
How is Jordan Weal going to "earn" his way into the lineup from the press box? And how is trying to make Nolan look good going to help him? It’s a bit puzzling. Whether this is a form of "tough love" for Weal or just the way Sutter uses his bottom six players is unclear. But it’s something to think about and to watch going forward.