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Yes, I am going to argue that a player with just one assist in 14 games should be a full-time player on the Senators. Point totals don’t always tell the whole story, especially for defensive-minded depth forwards who have been given weak teammates and not much ice-time. In the case of Nick Paul, he has gotten the short end of the stick but has actually provided the team with much needed defensive success while on the ice.
On a team that is on pace to give up 328 goals, a good defensive forward should be welcomed. But for some reason, Guy Boucher is extremely reluctant to use Paul.
He seems to have a difficult time evaluating who is actually a positive in the defensive zone because Tom Pyatt was used as a defensive specialist for two and a half seasons despite having one of the worst shot rates in the league. In the minutes that he has played though, Paul has done everything that should be asked of a fourth line centre.
In 116 minutes played, he is second on the Senators in corsi at 52.72% and is third (amongst only three players above 50%) with a 52.19 xGF%. Those numbers probably don’t matter to Boucher though, who might look at the fact that he has been on for three goals for and eight against, but that is mainly due to a brutally unlucky 4.29 on-ice SH% and 87.30 on-ice SV%. When you combine the two, you get the lowest PDO on the team at just 916 (1000 being average). Amongst players in the NHL with at least 100 minutes played, Paul sits 688th/692 in PDO---talk about being unlucky.
When compared to his teammates, he definitely stands out this season. There are 26 skaters who have played with him this season, and Paul has a positive corsi when separated from 21 of them. Conversely, only four players have a positive corsi when not playing with Paul. In other words, Paul has not been reliant on any players, as he has produced solid results with almost everybody, although some of the samples are negligible.
If you are a visual learner, here is what his career heat maps look like. He is an 11% improvement on defense, and is surprisingly a positive on offense as well (courtesy of Hockeyviz.com):
That data includes his games from other seasons too, which is even better. Even if he was a wash on offense, his positive defensive value would make him a decent NHLer, but the fact that he can be impactful at both ends of the ice is encouraging. Is he going to be a top scorer? No of course not, but helping win the possession battle so that other people on the team can score is still valuable.
It’s hard for Paul to get on a roll while playing for the Senators too, which is why I’m not concerned about his lack of points. For starters, he averages just 8:23 of ice-time per game, which is not nearly enough to make an impact. Second of all, he has been called up four separate times this season, which can’t be an easy thing to do, going back and forth between Belleville and Ottawa. Lastly, he has had no consistent linemates, and sometimes he has had to be apart of Boucher’s “fourth line” that includes two players.
His most common forward linemate has surprisingly been Bobby Ryan at 31 minutes, but after that, there is a whole pile of forwards that have played with him for similar amounts of time including Chris Tierney, Matt Duchene, Mikkel Boedker, Max McCormick, Ryan Dzingel, Tom Pyatt, and Magnus Paajarvi. It is almost impossible to get any sort of rhythm going if he is coming in and out of the lineup, getting hardly any ice-time, and having zero consistency with linemates. Paul hasn’t been treated very well this season.
It’s true that Paul has gotten favourable zone starts with the second highest offensive zone start percentage (62.5%) on the team, just behind Max McCormick. However, that hardly guarantees successful shot rates, as the other players in the top-5 (McCormick, Batherson, Boedker, and Duchene) are not even close to being the best possession players on the team. It’s not as if Paul’s zone starts can explain everything at all.
His numbers come from a small sample, but it’s not as if playing him more is going to hurt the team’s playoff chances or anything like that. The worst case scenario is that Ottawa realizes he isn’t actually a good depth player and they move on from him at the end of the season. But there’s still a real possibility that he can be an NHL contributor---a small one, but a contributor nonetheless.
At the end of the day, people will look at his measly one assist and assume that he has played poorly. And obviously that will have to improve at some point, but he has had a solid season in Belleville this season with 11 points in 15 games, so I don’t see why he can’t be at least a 20-25 point player in the NHL. The point of having him isn’t so that he produces offense anyway, he should be in the lineup so that the fourth line can actually stay above water and give up fewer shots against.
The soon-to-be 24-year-old isn’t going to be anything special, but he at least deserves a longer look as the fourth line centre, because otherwise, he could be in a different organization next season. And the bar for good enough to be the Senators 4C is already so low, so it’s not as if he should have to be incredibly impressive anyway.