Can someone explain why Dennis Cholowski is a healthy scratch?

Jeff Blashill is up to his old tricks again.

The Detroit Red Wings coach scratched Dennis Cholowski for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, a 3-2 loss.

It was the first time the rookie had been a healthy scratch this season. As if being a healthy scratch wasn’t bad enough, it happened during the 20-year-old’s homecoming game; Cholowski is a native of British Columbia. To add even more insult to injury, Fox Sports Detroit did a nice feature on Cholowski returning to British Columbia and aired the segment before the game.

John Keating did a nice job of teasing a feature for a scratched player, but it definitely felt like Blashill threw a wrench into Fox Sports Detroit’s plans.

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So why is a 20-year-old rookie, who I might add is having a fantastic rookie season and surpassing expectations during a season in which everybody and their mother predicted the Red Wings to be a bottom-five team, a healthy scratch for his first game in his hometown province since becoming an NHLer?

I’m glad you asked because the Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James wondered the exact same thing.

Here is Blashill’s reasoning, from St. James:

“This isn’t a one-day decision. This has been coming for a while. Part of the learning process for any player is, at times, sitting. People talk about development and they think it’s playing, well, sometimes it’s sitting. Sometimes you have to learn both from a chance to take a breather and watch a game, but just as importantly to understand that you have to correct certain things.

“His defensive game, he’s had way too many times where we’ve been digging it out of the net and he has to continue to learn and get better at those things.”

OK, there’s a lot to digest here. Let’s start with the first part. Blashill says this isn’t a “one-day decision,” and it’s a move he has wanted to make for a while. OK, fair enough, I guess. But why does it have to be this game? If it’s been coming for a while, then do it a while ago. Has Cholowski been perfect? No, of course not. But for a rookie defenseman on a team that struggles to score and struggles to keep the puck out of its own net, he’s been one of the highlights by a long shot.

Blashill goes on to say sometimes part of development for a young player is not just playing but sitting. I guess I understand the sentiment here. Just like coaches have video meetings to correct mistakes and highlight good plays, sitting in the press box can help a player see the game from a different angle. Players afterward say it’s helpful, but I’m wondering if that’s more posturing because no player is going to throw his coach under the bus and say, “No, sitting in the press box doesn’t help me; I should be playing.”

In Cholowski’s case, I’d rather he be playing and learning on the fly and receiving coaching from Blashill or the other assistants during the game. The Red Wings aren’t in any position to contend for the playoffs, so even if Blashill thinks scratching Cholowski gives his team the best chance to win, it doesn’t matter. They aren’t battling for first place in the division, and they aren’t battling for a wild-card spot. This season is all about lottery position. Ironically enough, the Red Wings still lost.

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Cholowski is 20 years old, he’ll make mistakes. But unless Blashill thinks scratching him is going to motivate him to play better next time (and that very well may be the case) let the kid get more experience.

In the last part of the quote, Blashill says Cholowski has been on the ice for too many goals against. Sure, there have been some instances where a goal against was directly Cholowski’s fault. Again, he’s a 20-year-old rookie. He won’t be perfect. However, just in the Red Wings’ last 10 games, Jonathan Ericsson (9 GA), Filip Hronek (8 GA), Nick Jensen (7 GA) and Niklas Kronwall (6 GA) have been on the ice for more goals against at 5 on 5 than Cholowski (5 GA), according to Natural Stat Trick. And of all Red Wings defensemen, Cholowski is second in 5-on-5 shot attempts percentage (58.05) to Danny DeKeyser (64.71), who has played two fewer games.

If Blashill should be scratching any defenseman, it should be Ericsson. Every Red Wings fan knows how incompetent Ericsson has been basically since signing his six-year, $25.5-million deal in 2013. He’s had some positive moments, as well, especially last year, where he wasn’t nearly as bad. However, thanks to this visual from Bill Comeau, we can see where Cholowski shines over Ericsson.

Visual via Bill Comeau

At first glance, it looks like two relatively equal defensemen, until you realize Cholowski is a 20-year-old rookie and Ericsson is a 12-year veteran who is supposed to be strong defensively. The numbers represent leaguewide percentile for that player’s position. Cholowski has six categories of 50 or more to Ericsson’s five, and the categories Ericsson does beat Cholowski in (goals and shooting percentage), are sheer dumb luck, as evidenced by the wide margin of Cholowski’s individual expected goals.

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Ericsson and Cholowski both have three 5-on-5 goals, but since Ericsson hasn’t played as many minutes, his per 60 stats will trump Cholowski’s. Not to mention, Cholowski also has four power-play goals.

The highlights for me are estimated shot assists (which are passes that lead to shots), individual expected goals, penalty differential, expected goal share and relative teammate expected goal for percentage. Cholowski tops Ericsson in all of these categories, and these are the categories that lead to goals and offensive and, as a result, less time in the defensive zone.

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Of course, I’m not going to sit here and cherry pick all of the good stats. As you can clearly see, Cholowski is behind Ericsson in shots against. It’s part of his game that needs to be improved, but if I’m picking who to scratch and it’s between Cholowski and Ericsson, Ericsson is sitting in the press box all day.

Blashill has to understand this is a lost season and development of players is more important than trying to squeak out a point or two here and there. However, in Cholowski’s case, inserting him in the lineup over Ericsson also gives the team the best chance to win.

Veterans shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt because they have been in the league longer. The best players — not to mention the future core of the team — need to be playing.