We're still one day away from being told what Mike Babcock has already decided about who will start in net for the Red Wings when their first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning kicks off on Thursday, but we have already been told by the coach himself about one long-coming roster decision. During his postgame press scrum after the Wings defeated Carolina 2-0, Mike Babcock told reporters that defenseman Alexey Marchenko would be in the lineup for game 1.
The 23-year old Marchenko played in 13 games for the Red Wings this season, notching 1 goal and 1 assist while taking only two minutes in penalties in 15:25 of ice time per game. The 2011 7th rounder had 12 of those games played between January 31st and February 28th before suffering an oblique muscle strain and winding back up in Grand Rapids after the Wings acquired Marek Zidlicky at the trade deadline before being called back up just this week.
Detroit went 8-3-2 with Marchenko in the lineup this season, outscoring opponents 36-29 during that time.
Usage-wise, Marchenko was played like a typical Babcock third-pairing defenseman. He was given easier deployment in terms of both zone starts and opposition (measured by opponents' time on ice). Marchenko's special teams usage was fairly comparable to that of Brendan Smith's in that both had PK usage but hardly ever got on the PP (although Smith played more minutes per game than Marchenko did, both at even strength and on the PK).
Here's the usage chart from War-on-Ice.com, using only 5-on-5 ice time and score-adjusted.
If you're unfamiliar with usage charts, the position farther right indicates that Marchenko had more shifts start on offensive zone faceoffs than defensive zone draws by a more-significant margin than any other (non-Lashoff) defenseman used. His position relatively low on the chart indicates that the opponents he was on the ice against were given less overall time on ice by their own coach. The size of Marchenko's bubble shows his time on ice per game is comparable to Smith, Ouellet, and Zidlicky, while the darker blue shading shows that his relative shot attempt differential was much better with him on the ice compared to his teammates.
Two other fancystats I want to mention for Marchenko are scoring chance differential and PDO. Scoring chances are only counted for shots or attempts that are expected to have a better chance of creating a goal. In that category, Marchenko leads the team's defense by having more than 61% of scoring chances while he's on the ice be in the Wings' favor. Meanwhile, PDO is simply a calculation of on-ice shooting percentage plus on-ice save percentage. Generally this number should be around 100.0. Marchenko's PDO is the worst among the defense at 96.04 (thanks to a sub-5% shooting performance and a low save percentage). The reason this is a good thing is that these numbers should start to even out the more Marchenko plays. In other words, he's been doing well and he's STILL due for his luck to turn around more in his favor.
Spot Taken, Spot Lost
Whether you want to say that Marchenko stole his spot in the lineup or Brendan Smith lost it, that's where we are. Smith is three years older and was taken four years prior (and also in the first round). Despite near-constant promise shown by Smith, the defenseman who was taken before PK Subban in the draft is more well-known for his habit of making boneheaded mistakes, such as the penalty he took on Thursday against Montreal where he played a puck from the bench and put the Wings down by two men. Smith has never been able to consistently bring his potential to bear and the setbacks just kept piling up.
Directly comparing the two, Smith is a better skater and he's more offensively creative than Marchenko. However, Marchenko has been more dependable up ice and better at creating transition out of his own zone due to more-reliable passing and an understated skill at cleanly picking the puck out of board battles to move it quickly out of danger. Additionally, Marchenko being a right-handed shot would give Mike Babcock the option of having two different pairings that have a righty on them for the first time all season. Considering that opposition teams have been using their own left side boards to take advantage of the Wings' overall leftiness, having only one defensive pairing like that will put a cramp in those plans going forward.
Marchenko (or Cherry, Tank, Marchy, or whatever else you want to call him) is still fairly untested. With just 14 NHL games to his credit, there's a lot left to discover about his abilities at this level. However, considering he spent two years playing well at the KHL level before coming over to North America, he's not exactly an unknown commodity. He'll likely continue to play sheltered third pairing minutes in the playoffs, but I honestly wouldn't hesitate to gamble with giving him more responsibility. Detroit is an underdog in this playoff series due in part to defensive roster issues that haven't been solved all season. By this point, they've essentially got nothing left to lose. I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Marchenko can do in the playoffs.