Unveiling the NHL’s 2023-24 All–Healthy Scratch Team

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe explains why he decided to scratch TJ Brodie against the Washington Capitals and why he believes a break from the lineup is needed for the defenceman.

Some folks are “not talking about Sean.” But we are.

We’re talking about Sean and Evgeny and Patrik and Ukko-Pekka and all the other notable players banished, for various reasons and for varying stretches, to the press box.

Yes, we’re unveiling our 2023-24 All–Healthy Scratch Team — two full lines, two defence pairs, and two goaltenders who have been forced to sit and watch teammates play in games they had planned to dress for.

The healthy scratch means different things in different situations.

As you can see by the stories on our squad, there are cases where a benching can foreshadow a trade, embarrass a superstar, drag out an improved performance, hint at a deeper issue, or simply offer a chance for a player’s mental or physical reset.

What all significant healthy scratches do, though, is spark conversation and strike nerves.

Here are a dozen lineup exclusions that caught our attention this season:

Sean Couturier, C: The headliner of this team and only captain on the list, Couturier’s journey from Selke Trophy winner to John Tortorella’s doghouse during a critical stretch run is both fascinating and infuriating. The two-way centreman is signed for six more seasons beyond this one at a $7.75-million cap hit, so this story is far from over.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, C: An 83-point scorer and near–Conn Smythe winner in the Capitals’ Cup-winning run in 2018, Kuznetsov had fallen out of favour in Washington for a while and was ultimately untradable without salary retention. He entered the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program. He cleared waivers. And after his deadline deal to contending Carolina, Kuznetsov is savouring a second chance. It may be his last.

Andrei Kuzmenko, LW: Jolted by a ridiculous 27.3 shooting percentage, the undrafted Russian sniped his way to 39-goal debut and a juicy contract extension from the Vancouver Canucks in 2022-23, his first season in the North America. The winger’s momentum did not carry over to new coach Rick Tocchet’s 2023-24 regime, however. Falling out of favour on a stronger squad, Kuzmenko was scratched frequently and eventually packaged to Calgary in the Elias Lindholm trade.

Anthony Duclair, LW: Now thriving in Tampa Bay for a Lightning squad that appears to be peaking at the perfect time (nine points in seven games), the speedy Duclair got benched in moribund San Jose back in December. He looked like a lost talent swirling in a lost campaign. “I just gotta skate more. You got to track back and work harder,” Duclair said at the time. “That’s it.”

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Patrik Laine, RW: “It was a hard conversation, but nobody is bigger than the Blue Jackets,” Columbus coach Pascal Vincent explained, when he scratched the Jackets’ $34.8-million investment back in November. Laine called his trip to the press box “the most embarrassing thing that has happened to me” in his career. The former 44-goal-scorer entered in the player assistance program in January. For the Jackets and Laine’s sake, here’s hoping the electrifying talent can rebound next season.

Anthony Mantha, RW: The wildly inconsistent power forward responded well after his wrist-slap in Washington, posting 20 goals for the first time in five years and turning himself into a worthy trade chip. The pending UFA has yet to find his niche in Vegas, however. Mantha has only a goal and an assist through his first games for the defending champs, who paid a second- and a fourth-round pick to rent his services.

Tony DeAngelo, D: A two-time 50-point defenceman, DeAngelo has had a difficult time squeezing into Carolina’s winning lineup this season. His frustration will all but certainly lead to a parting of the ways this summer. “I’m not used to it, obviously. I don’t agree with it,” DeAngelo, who has appeared in just 28 contests, said in February. “That’s nothing against the coaching staff or anybody. It’s just, honestly, I know I’m good enough to play. But we’ve got a great D and guys have played well, and that’s the way they went with it…. I came back here, signing in Carolina, to play, to compete, to help try to win. So, it’s tough to not get to be a part of it every night.”

T.J. Brodie, D: The versatile and respected veteran ranks second among all Maple Leafs defencemen in ice time and salary. Yet the guy coach Sheldon Keefe once dubbed “Mr. Consistent” has struggled in the tough matchups this season. Toronto gave Brodie a two-game mental break last week in the hope that some time off can reset and refresh the pending UFA for the post-season. Asked how Brodie performed in Sunday’s return, a 2-1 loss in Carolina, Keefe said: “He was fine.”

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D: Vlasic’s gold-medal-winning days with Team Canada feel distant as the 36-year-old defensive stalwart is now a minus-22 for the scorched-earth San Jose Sharks. That two more seasons — and a $7-million cap hit — remain on Vlasic’s contract make a trade improbable and more scratches likely. Not fun seeing such a steady, stand-up D-man in decline and obscurity.

Tyson Barrie, D: Not since his 10-game taste of the NHL in 2011-12 has Barrie’s ice time been lower than it has been this season (18:21). The four-time 50-point defenceman will be hard-pressed to hit 20 this year. Despite submitting a trade request months ago and being granted permission to speak with opposing team, Barrie has battled injury and quietly hung on as a depth player during the Predators’ thrilling and unexpected wild-card push. “It doesn’t really feel like a great fit,” Barrie said in December. Which is why the free agent should move on this off-season.

Ilya Samsonov, G: The 2023-24 Ilya Samsonov Experience has been a wild ride. At the roller-coaster’s lowest point, the man who backstopped the Maple Leafs’ first playoff series victory in a generation was waived and banished to solo work with the club’s AHL goaltending coach. Reborn mentally stronger, Samsonov has won 14 of his 18 starts since mid-January.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G: Deemed not fit to dress behind prized prospect Devon Levi in the early going, Luukkonen has shone through as one of the brightest stories in another cloudy winter in Buffalo. The 25-year-old Sabres goaltender has been fantastic in 2023-24, posting career highs in games played, wins, and goals-against average. The pending RFA has earned himself a raise.

Honourable mentions: Morgan Frost, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kent Johnson, Cam Atkinson, Connor Brown, David Kämpf, Pierre Engvall, James van Riemsdyk, Simon Holmstrom, Mark Giordano, Antti Raanta, Ethan Bear, Calen Addison.

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