Today I’m going to take a stab at potential defensive pairings we might see this coming season for the Blackhawks. Yes, this is coach Q were talking about, so you can often throw things out the window after the 1st period of game 1, but it’s also August and this is what we do to survive a long summer (no thanks to the Cubs and Sox).
Here are three configurations that make sense to me (shutdown line is in bold):
Option 1: Offensive Pairings (offensive top pair, shutdown 2nd pair, solid 3rd pair)
Option 2: Defensive Pairings (defensive orientation, all three lines)
Option 3: Neutral Pairings (mix of offense and defense on all three lines)
First, you need to free your minds of 2010 and before, when Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were inseparable. Sure, we’ll still see that pairing, but Q broke the two up about half the time last year. This year it will make even more sense to do so. Second, I categorized each configuration by situation for the sake of discussion, not because I believe Q will be shifting lines for every opponent or situation. He tends to stick with his defensive pairings longer than his forward lines.
Option 3: Defensive Pairings
This set of pairings is also something I haven’t personally seen discussed elsewhere yet. Here are my reasons that we might see this configuration at times:
Monty is a defense-first defender, but he does have some offensive potential as his past two seasons have shown. A combo of Keith-Monty would be defensively strong, yet skilled enough to generate offense while skating with the Hawks top forward lines.
Seabrook and Hjalmarsson are the Hawks’ best pure shutdown defenders, so pairing them primarily with the checking line would be a tough combination to score against. Again, I don’t foresee a Seabrook-Montador pairing in this role is because they’re both right-handed.
One could argue that the Neutral Pairings example is similar to the Defensive Pairings, but Monty is still a poor man’s Seabrook until he proves otherwise. I anticipate Leddy getting at least 70 games season and this configuration would be ideal if Q wants to sit Leddy here and there.
Option 2: Neutral Pairings
Against stronger, balanced opponents, a neutral orientation would make sense. Each line is defensively sound, yet can also take advantage of offensive situations. The setup should look familiar from 2010. Basically it’s Q’s “go to” lineup with Steve Montador taking Brian Campbell’s spot and Nick Leddy and Sean O’Donnell taking the place of Jordan Hendry and Brent Sopel.
Although Monty is a very different player than Campbell, he is capable of producing some offense. Seabrook and Montador are the Blackhawks’ only right-handed defenders, so it makes sense to always put them on different lines. The 3rd line also has a good balance with Leddy being the only defender in the lineup whose defense is in question. But that’s why he’d be there in these games.
The problem that I have with this configuration is that there is no clear shutdown line. It’s really shutdown by committee as Q will need to get 7-2 their share of offensive zone draws with the top 6 forwards. If Seabrook’s minutes paired with the checking line in a shutdown role aren’t maximize, you’re doing the defense a disservice.
Option 1: Offensive Pairings
Now that the Hawks have a solid and versatile 5th defenseman in Montador and more defensive depth overall, something they lacked even in 2010, coach Q can free up Keith to play a more offensive role – and with the departure of Campbell, he’ll have to.
Want to get the most out of Keith’s offensive abilities, bring back up his scoring totals, AND simultaneously reduce his minutes? Pairing him with Leddy probably does all of these things. And against opponents that lack forward depth, Leddy and Keith would be effective bum slayers.
We saw a lot of the Leddy-Keith pairing last year, both during the regular season and the playoffs. According to Dobber Hockey, Leddy spent 47% of his TOI paired with Duncan Keith. Over the last 10 games of the season, Leddy was paired with puck-moving defensemen almost 87% of the time (Keith, Campbell, and Campoli). In the playoffs, Leddy skated with Keith exclusively from Game 3 on.
Many argue that a Keith-Leddy pairing is redundant. Why put your two best puck-movers on the same line? My question for them would be “Why put your best offensive forwards on the same line then?” You do this to take advantage of situations. Remember how good Keith and Leddy looked in games 3 through 7 against Vancouver? It’s quite likely Q will at times turn to that pairing again for offensive zone draws and Seabrook-Hjammer as his shutdown duo.
Defensive pairs don’t play in a vacuum; you have to consider how each pairing works in tandem with the forwards. Basically it’s all about zone starts and which forward line the defense is matched with. You want your most offensively skilled defenders skating with your top forwards when it 1’s vs 3’s. So it comes down to either Keith-Seabrook or Keith-Leddy skating with Toews’ line. But Keith-Seabrook has mostly skated with the Hawks checking line in the past or with the 1st line when the opposing coach was matching his 1st line against the Hawks 1st line. So I think we’ll see a lot more of Leddy-Keith than people expect. Plus, Toews is the “3rd defender” in this configuration, so it’s still defensively sound.
Montador-Lepisto/O’Donnell is as talented of a 3rd line as any and should be able to do some bum slaying as well. Plus, due to the talent on the 3rd line, the ice time will be more evenly distributed. I believe this is the configuration we’ll see Quenneville start the season with. During tight games, Leddy might still get demoted to the 3rd pairing though.
So to wrap things up from my three part series…
Leddy improved as the year went on and looked good for a young defensive rookie used in a roll very similar to Campbell. Leddy might be flipping between the 1st and 3rd lines, so I expect he’ll average around 18 total minutes of ice time per game; about 18-20 mins when paired with Keith and 14-16 if/when he’s skating on the 3rd line. Whether we see him regularly on the 2nd team PP depends a lot on his development. Monty and Lepisto have seen PP time in the past, but Leddy will be more suited for the PP as he develops. It will be interesting to see whether or not Q plays Leddy on the 2nd unit PP right off of the bat or slowly works him into the system.
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