Monday, February 18, 2008

The Puzzling Case of Matt Pettinger

This season has been a strange one for so many reasons, but one of the biggest mysteries that has plagued the team is the question of what exactly is going on with Matt Pettinger.

Pettinger is a member of the core group that has been around since before the rebuild, one of just a handful of guys left who remembers what it was like to be on the same team as Jaromir Jagr. He is also one of the homegrown prospects upon which the Caps are now trying to build a contender. He was drafted 43rd overall by the Caps back in 2000 and has made consistent improvements in his game every year.

Coming into this season, the buzz around training camp was that he was going to make up a third of what looked to be, on paper at least, a dominating checking line alongside captain Chris Clark and center Boyd Gordon. Aside from shutting down the other team's top lines, this grinder line was also expected to chip in some offense at a rate of about 10-15 goals per person.

As they say, though, the best laid plans...

There were the injuries, with Gordon and Clark missing significant periods of time and casting Pettinger into a sea of the lineless, forced to shuffle around the four lines as the Caps scrambled to find consistent scoring and chemistry. He went from the third line to the second line to the first line before dropping down to the fourth. His minutes went from an average of about 17-18 minutes a night down to about 12 minutes a night.

And then when Boudreau took over, Pettinger saw himself in the press box - the first time he'd ever been a healthy scratch since joining the Capitals. He continues to flit in and out of the lineup with the callup of Eric Fehr and hasn't recorded a point since picking up an assist in the Caps' shootout win over the Penguins on January 21.

Pettinger's slump is enigmatic for a lot of reasons. For one thing, he's got tremendous speed, a great shot, and a willingness to sacrifice the body when necessary. He hits harder than guys taller and heavier than him; he's a gritty, talented player, the type of player the Caps have traditionally loved drafting and developing and exactly the type of guy a team needs for a playoff run. The last two seasons he's scored 36 goals and added another 32 assists, good numbers for someone whose role should be a third/fourth liner.

This year Pettinger has two goals and four assists in 53 games. He's a -12, highest among active players and second on the team only to Nylander.

So what's the problem? Some of it is probably chemistry - with Clark out and Gordon bouncing around the other lines it seems like Pettinger has yet to find linemates with whom he clicks. Some of it is confidence, or lack thereof, frustration clearly creeping in and evident in his body language during games. And some of it seems to just be bad luck, as evidenced by a series of posts and sparkling saves denying him goals in the last few games.

It's certainly not lack of effort. Pettinger's work ethic hasn't waned despite decreasing ice time or minimal offensive production, and credit should be given to him for continuing to maintain his high level of play even in trying times. It's what we've always loved about Matt - he has a perpetual smile on his face in practice and doesn't let the fact that he's struggling poison the locker room.

Of note should be the fact that since his most recent stretch of being a healthy scratch he has been playing even better than usual. He had his best game in weeks coming against Tampa Saturday night when he registered four shots and his first plus game since December 10th, but he was also very impressive in his first game back against the Rangers. It always seems like he's just on the cusp of busting out of this slump, with chances abounding game after game and yet nothing happening.

But the Caps are going to have a difficult decision to make in the coming days, weeks and months. Pettinger has one year left on his contract that will pay him just over a million dollars next season. If and when Chris Clark returns to the lineup, the numbers game would likely put Pettinger back in the press box, especially with the callup of Eric Fehr. There are a number of players developing up in Hershey that could be ready to slide into the lineup as soon as next season, and Nylander will be back as well.

So conventional wisdom says that Pettinger is on the outside looking in, and as much as it can be painful to say it, it may be the best for all parties to trade Pettinger now and let him find his stride elsewhere. The return wouldn't be great, probably draft picks, but it would free up cap space and roster space while giving Pettinger a fresh start.

The question is this - do the Caps try and move him before the deadline, losing a depth player that could be necessary as they head into the stretch drive? Or do they wait until the summer to make a deal, maybe as part of a package around the draft? Or, the least likely of the three, do they hang onto him through the end of his contract and risk losing him to free agency?

The best option seems to be the second one, as it never hurts to have extra bodies going into the final weeks of the season and the Caps don't have to worry about losing Pettinger in the offseason to a ridiculous offer sheet. Regardless, Pettinger's time here does seem to be winding down and you can bet it's something McPhee will be looking at in the coming days, weeks and months.

Top photo courtesy of Getty Images; practice photo courtesy of Geneen Boyd

2 comments:

Christopher said...

Pettinger's career shooting %: 10.3%

The last 2 years: ~14.5%

This year: 2.2%

These things happen. Outside of the elite talents (Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Lecavalier, etc), goal scoring involves a lot of luck. Pettinger just hasn't had any this year.

He'll probably regress to his career average next year and return to the ~15 goal level. He may do it with us, or somewhere else. For $1 million+, he should probably do it somewhere else. I don't know what he'd bring back in a trade, though. Maybe a second round pick?

dmg said...

Christopher,

That was my initial reaction when I read this and I'd like to think Pettinger has been the victim of bad luck more than anything else. The problem is, that doesn't explain his team-worst (excluding Nylander) +/-