Inconsistent Ice Time Leaves Panthers' RFA Wolski With an Uncertain Future

SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 13: Goaltender Martin Brodeur #30 of the New Jersey Devils dives to stops a shot by Wojtek Wolski #8 of the Florida Panthers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BankAtlantic Center on April 13, 2012 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Lost in the shadows cast by more prominent pieces of the Florida Panthers' division champion roster is a Polish forward by the name of Wojtek Wolski. You may or may not remember him, but he was the deadline addition that would supposedly cure Florida's offensive woes as they forged into the playoffs. In the end Wolski fell out of sight as coach Kevin Dineen benched him several times in the final stretch of the regular season and the final five playoff games, a move no one was quite sure what to think of. And even though Wolski seemed to fit well into the top 6 and add another threat on the mix, he's become an afterthought for the Panthers' summer plans.

Wolski enters this summer as an RFA, and many predict he won't be tendered an offer by the Panthers and will become a free agent by July 1st. Why would a team desperate to add offense allow one of their most offensively productive players slip through their hands? The answer is based on contract concerns and an underlying suspicion that Wolski doesn't give 110% as an NHLer. Though both are valid, when the numbers are picked apart neither live up to their hype. The reality of the situation is no longer that Wolski is slacking but rather that his coaches aren't using him in a way that he's proved to be successful in years past.

Over the last three seasons, Wolski has had to adapt to four different coaches. At the start of the 09-10 season, Wolski and his teammates with the Colorado Avalanche were given a rookie coach by the name of Joe Sacco. Sacco impressed early by coaching his young roster to the eight playoff spot while giving his rookies big roles and switching Wolski from his natural position at left wing to center; a move that nearly pushed him to a new career high in points by the trade deadline. Wolski would be traded to the Phoenix Coyotes at the deadline, where he'd become a point per game player and the Coyotes' biggest contributor in a seven game series against Detroit.

Wolski's start to the 10-11 season was far from impressive, and the Coyotes would trade him away 36 games into the season to the New York Rangers. In the Big Apple Wolski again couldn't quite find his scoring touch, but he was still a .5 P/G player and scored three points in a five game series against the Capitals. A lower body injury kept the 26 year old out of all but nine games with the Rangers in 11-12, and days before the trade deadline he'd be shipped to Florida for a third round pick in 2013 and AHL defenseman Mike Vernace. Wolski would make an immediate impact with Florida scoring the game tying goal in his first game with the Panthers, and would end the regular season with 9 points through 22 games.

Through these past three seasons, Wolski's name has been associated with terms like slacker and coaching nightmare. While it's true he wasn't impressive enough for great coaches like Dave Tippett and John Tortorella to want around for a full season, the story of Wolski isn't quite as clear as it's made out to be. As I mentioned before; it's not all on the player, it's how the coach uses the player.

When players move up the depth chart, they score more. This is not a groundbreaking development; a fourth liner will naturally score more on the first line due to the quality of his linemates. In Colorado Wolski proved he was top 6 material, and he thrived in that role. After the initial trade that sent him to Phoenix, Wolski's role with his next three teams would diminish along with his production. But it would not be at a linear rate, it would be exponential. The difference between first line minutes and fourth line minutes is substantial. The difference between second and third line minutes is not quite as pronounced, and switching a player between these lines usually isn't a big deal. But Wolski is an exception, for him the switch makes a huge difference.

Below are some stats for Wolski's career:

Season Team GP w/15+ Total GP Points w/15+ Total Points
05-06 COL 0 9 0 6
06-07 COL 46 76 33 50
07-08 COL 48 77 36 48
08-09 COL 71 78 37 42
09-10 COL 57 62 43 47
09-10 PHX 16 18 15 18
10-11 PHX 19 36 9 16
10-11 NYR 16 37 13 19
11-12 NYR 3 9 2 3
11-12 FLA 10 22 8 9
Career -- 286 424 196 258

(Season, Team, Games played with 15+ TOI, Total games played, Points scored in games given 15+ TOI, Total Points)

Now there are a few distinctions that need to be made in this table, first off I qualify a game where Wolski played 15+ minutes of ice time as 'second liner ice time'. His 05-06 season was a call-up duty and will not be counted in this next table, nor will his 08-09 and entire 09-10 season. Why? The call-up season is essentially meaningless, and his career through 08-10 was as a genuine second line player. This next table is looking at Wolski's performance as a borderline 2nd line player only.

Season Team GP w/15+ Total GP Points w/15+ Total Points 15+/Tot GP % 15+/Tot Pts %
06-07 COL 46 76 33 50 61% 66%
07-08 COL 48 77 36 48 62% 75%
10-11 PHX 19 36 9 16 53% 56%
10-11 NYR 16 37 13 19 44% 68%
11-12 NYR 3 9 2 3 33% 67%
11-12 FLA 10 22 8 9 45% 89%
Career -- 142 257 101 145 55% 70%

(Season, Team, Games played with 15+ TOI, Total games played, Points scored in games given 15+ TOI, Total Points, Ratio of GP with 15+ TOI to total GP, Ratio of points scored with 15+ TOI to total points scored )

So what's the meaning? Wolski scores 70% of his points in the 55% of the time he's playing a top 6 role. When he's placed in the bottom 6 45% of the time, he only scores 30% of his points. Again the hidden variable is that players respond better with better linemates, but notice Wolski's numbers since being traded to New York(sample size is an issue, but the point still holds). The majority of the time Wolski was given crappy TOI, but on the occasions when he was bumped to the top 6 he produced at a much higher rate. Something that can't be gleaned from these tables is Wolski's propensity for scoring streaks when given good ice time, to see that you'll have to scan game logs.

Wolski has been long considered an inconsistent player, but since being moved from Colorado the inconsistency has been as much a part of his scoring as it's been how coaches use him. Looking back through game logs one will notice Wolski would have a few games at 17 minutes of TOI and rack up points, but then he'd be dropped down to a third line role with 10 minutes to work with. These swings are detrimental to a players' confidence, especially at a young age. The best example of these random Wolski swaps came at the tail end of the Panthers' season high winning streak in March:

Game Result Goals Assists TOI
vs CAR 2-0 FLA 0 1 17:22
vs TOR 5-2 FLA 0 2 19:44
vs BOS 6-2 FLA 1 0 15:09
vs BUF 3-2 (SO) FLA SO Goal 0 16:16
at PHI 2-1 FLA 0 0 11:38
at CAR 3-1 CAR Scratched Scratched Scratched

Wolski had a four game point streak (he had an assist in 2-1 SOL at Pittsburgh in the game before the winning streak started) and scored a pivotal shootout goal to hold off surging Buffalo, yet the next game his ice time gets slashed and then he gets benched. Interestingly, in the remaining nine regular season games, Wolski would only play two games with 15+ minutes of ice time and scored only one point. Florida would win only 2 of those remaining 9 games, and Wolski would be broken away from Tomas Fleischmann whom he had so much chemistry with as the clawless FWV line would again be reinstated. Confidence? Shot.

Now the question is whether Wolski will be tendered an offer this summer. In theory Florida can't afford to lose a young scorer, even if he's frustrating to watch. But because he found himself a healthy scratch in the playoffs and coaches can't find the correlation between quality ice time and quality performance, Wolski has likely played his final games in a Panthers jersey. If Tallon doesn't want to equal Wolski's salary as an RFA, he'll be set for free agency. Tallon has the cap space, but after a long track record of frustration with Wolski it's not clear whether he's willing to take the risk. He could be part of the answer to the Panthers scoring problems; but just like the fans Wolski is facing a what-if scenario for the coming season.

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