A decade ago, the Philadelphia Flyers selected Steve Downie in the first round of the NHL draft. He had skill to burn and played a take-no-prisoners style of physical hockey, despite having a modest 5’11” frame.
Downie has played 433 regular-season games since, scoring nearly 40 points per 82 contests, all while continuing to be one of the most abrasive forwards in the game.
Now, at the relatively tender age of 28, he’s available to any team willing to pick up the remainder of his one-year, $1.75 million contract. TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported on Sunday morning that the Coyotes had placed Downie on waivers:
Bob McKenzie @TSNBobMcKenzie
ARI puts Steve Downie on waivers. Bickell clears.1/17/2016, 5:02:29 PM
That’s not much money or much term; this isn’t an albatross contract the Coyotes are trying to dump. Arizona isn’t tanking, either; the ‘Yotes are currently slated to start the playoffs on home ice as the No. 2 seed in the Pacific Division.
So why are they dumping Downie?
The obvious—and wrong—answer is that he isn’t scoring. Downie has just six points in 25 games this year, but he’s also averaging barely nine minutes per game. That’s decent production for a fourth-line forward, as we see when we switch our look from raw points to points per hour at even strength:
|Arizona's six most efficient five-on-five scorers, 2015-16|
Downie’s actually doing rather well. In his limited ice time, mostly skating with plugs, he’s been a more efficient scorer than Arizona captain Shane Doan. If Downie would have managed even one point more, he would be ahead of rookie sensation Max Domi.
That’s good company, and it suggests that Downie’s offensive struggles are entirely a matter of ice time. The offensive ability which made him a first-round pick is still there.
Downie hasn’t been used on the power play this year. However, as recently as last season, he put away three goals on the man advantage in a second-unit role, which is pretty respectable production. He’s a right -hander, too, which can be hard to find and useful in most power play setups.
It’s also pretty tough to argue that Downie is such a defensive liability that he needs to have his ice time cut so drastically.
Boyd Gordon has been Downie’s most common linemate, with the line generally cast in a defensive-specialty role in which they start a ton of faceoffs in their own end of the rink. With Downie on the ice, the Coyotes get 49 percent of all shot attempts and 43 percent of all goals in this tough role.
When Gordon is out there without Downie, the Coyotes managed just 41 percent of the shot attempts and 38 percent of the goals.
This is true across the board. Every single player who has spent a half hour with Downie this season has better on-ice Corsi percentages and better on-ice goal numbers.
The only obvious outside problems are penalties. Despite his minuscule ice time, Downie leads the Coyotes with 53 penalty minutes, including three misconducts.
That’s not quite as bad as it sounds; those 10-minute misconducts don’t leave his team down a man. When those are eliminated and his fighting major is taken out of consideration, he has just nine minor penalties on the year. That’s barely even more than he’s drawn.
Downie has been a useful NHL player this season. He’s been placed in the worst possible position to create offence, yet he has managed to do it. He’s been put on lines which routinely get their teeth kicked in both by goal differential and by the shot clock.
Additionally, Downie has made things better. Even his infamously poor discipline has barely hurt Arizona this year.
If we’re looking solely at on-ice metrics, this is a player who can help.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to be claimed, though. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported two weeks ago that the Coyotes were trying to find a trade fit for Downie, and his appearance on the waiver wire makes it clear that those trade talks were unsuccessful.
It’s a shame, because he’s an NHL talent.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.