When will Emerson Etem get to play?



When the Rangers traded Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem this past summer, it was seen mostly as a cap move. The Rangers could not afford a $4 million third line player, and needed someone cheaper with more offensive upside. Etem is certainly cheaper and definitely more skilled, but it came at a cost of certainty. Etem has been a relative unknown for his short career, and his time in New York has continued that trend.

Josh touched on this yesterday, and I have to agree that the usage of Emerson Etem has been highly questionable.┬áBefore even getting into the numbers –which aren’t all that good, to be honest– you have to at least wonder why the team would target Etem and not use him. Hagelin had significant trade value, and the club targeted Etem for a reason. Trading for him, and then not playing him over some of the other players on the roster, deserves some questioning.

That said, while we’ve seen flashes of what Etem can do, the overall product has been a bit off. Only Jarret Stoll possesses a worse CF% (38.76%) than Etem (42.19%) , but Stoll plays significantly more time in the defensive zone, so that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Comparatively to his teammates, only Stoll, Dominic Moore, and Jesper Fast have worse relative CF%, so it’s not like the team’s overall poor play is skewing his numbers. The chart below shows Etem’s usage.

Courtesy of war-on-ice

Courtesy of war-on-ice (click to enlarge)

Now this brings me to another point that some may be missing with Etem. The kid is obviously very skilled, but he struggles in the defensive zone. So I must ask why he is being deployed with less than 30% offensive zone starts. His most common linemates: Stoll and Moore. His most common defensemen: Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. That seems like poor usage of a very skilled asset.

Not only does it appear to be poor usage, that’s the definition of setting a kid up to fail. He’s out there primarily with four possession vacuums that –aside from Moore, who seems to be showing some age this season– can’t really move the puck well. We’ve all seen how miserable Girardi and Staal are at getting the puck out of their own end. Stoll is even worse. But yet Etem is supposed to score with this kind of usage? The table below, courtesy of hockeyanalysis.com, shows how bad the effect is on Etem.

Courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com

Courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com (click to enlarge)

It’s worth noting that Etem has just 114 minutes this season over ten games, so this has small sample size noise written all over it. Since these are small sample sizes, you can ignore the numbers if you wish, and just evaluate the situation as a whole. You have a skilled asset that falters in the defensive zone. Isn’t the most logical game situation for him to be in the offensive zone, with teammates that are also skilled? Isn’t that the best way to get the most out of this particular asset?

You can teach a kid how to play defense. You can’t teach skill. Just look at the progression of Mats Zuccarello as your best example. Even John Tortorella recognized that Zucc was pretty rough on the back check, so he was deployed in the offensive zone. He learned it. You can teach defense, but the player needs to be in a position to succeed before he can gain enough confidence to succeed. At some point, the kid needs to be given a legitimate chance to succeed. Not just for his sake, but for the sake of dressing the best possible roster.