What Went Wrong Last Year, And Will It Be Fixed?

You see this watch?

In my review of Stan Bowman’s summer, I observed:

“There are two, wildly divergent narratives of the 2010-11 Blackhawks. One camp sees a team that struggled all year, backed into the playoffs, and was bounced in the first round,… [while the other group] points to statistics like the Clear Victory Standings (generally a sign of a good team), the Hawks’ potent offensive attack (4th in the league in scoring), and the astonishing number of points the team frittered away.”

What I think all Hawks fans can agree on is that last season was an exquisite, Sisyphean torture. You know Sisyphus, right? A legend of Greek mythology, he was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill daily, only to have the boulder roll back down the hill just short of the apex (or acme, pinnacle, zenith, summit, apogee, peak, top. Does any word have more synonyms?)

And so it was with the 2010-11 Blackhawks. The pattern had a fractal character, playing itself out over single games, stretches of the season, and, ultimately, the full season. I believe this exquisite torture explains the frustration felt by fans, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many.

Put that coffee down!

The late season loss at home to the Ducks (a fellow “blob” denizen in the tightly packed Western Conference playoff hunt), which saw the Hawks nurse a 1-0 lead into the third period before being victimized twice by Corey Perry, encapsulated the Season of Frustration. I recall the bile rising in my throat as I trudged out of the UC that night, half-convinced I was trapped in a recurring nightmare. As shown in the table below, the year-end numbers bear out this Sisyphean pattern:

Period

1st

2nd

3rd

OT

Total

Goals for

85

89

74

4

252

Goals against

62

65

89

4

220

Goal differential

23

24

-15

0

32

NHL Rank

3

4

24

13

5

Overall, fifth in the league in goal differential at +32. Um, that sounds like a powerhouse, dunnit? In the first two periods, they were even better, but the third period numbers (-15, 24th in the league) resemble nothing so much as a steaming vat of urine. Small wonder so many fans were pulling heaping clumps of hair from their skulls.

Where to point the finger of blame? Well, from the table above, both offense and defense can claim a share. Offensively, the Hawks’ 74 third period tallies put them at a mediocre 17th in the league. But on defense, only three teams were more porous in the third period (Atlanta, Ottawa, and Columbus.) Dreadful, really. Needless to say, these are not teams you want to be bunched with.

Fatigue ain’t just army clothes

The simple, and I am convinced correct, explanation is that the Hawks just ran out of gas. The team that won the Cup saw its depth gutted by the Capocalypse, and we knew going into last season that the core would have to shoulder more of the load despite a short summer.

The late-season Ducks game is a perfect example. Guess who was on the ice for Perry’s two goals? Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane – the absolute inner core of the team. In that game, it is worth noting, Keith and Seabrook carried a particularly heavy load, with 29:14 and 28:01 TOI, respectively, while no other defenseman broke 20 minutes.

I haven’t bothered to dig through each such game, but this theme accords with my eye test, particularly as it pertains to Keith and Seabrook, viz. Coach Q rode his top pairing hard, probably too hard in tight games, and they often faltered in the third period.

This impression is consistent with the fact that the Hawks had a very good record when Brian Campbell led the team in ice time, a fact which has been used as evidence that Campbell was one of the Hawks top defensemen last year. A more likely explanation is that Quenneville gave Campbell more minutes in easy wins, but didn’t trust him in tight games where the likes of Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were skating 25 minutes.

This isn’t to say that Keith and Seabrook had great years, because they didn’t (particularly Keith), but, if you will allow a baseball analogy, they were cast in the role of staff “aces”, repeatedly pitching on three days’ rest, and giving up late homers at the 140 pitch mark, while Campbell accumulated impressive numbers in a “spot starter/middle reliever” role.

The mind of the Stache

The table below supports the above interpretation and sheds additional light on what Quenneville thought of his team last year:

2009-10

2010-11

Difference

Player

Games

TOI/G

Games

TOI/G

Games

TOI/G

Duncan Keith

82

26:35

82

26:53

0

0:18

Brent Seabrook

78

23:13

82

24:23

4

1:10

Brian Campbell

68

23:12

65

22:58

(3)

(0:14)

Niklas Hjalmarsson

77

19:39

80

18:28

3

(1:11)

Jonathan Toews

76

20:00

80

20:45

4

0:45

Marian Hossa

57

18:43

65

19:42

8

0:59

Patrick Sharp

82

18:07

74

19:24

(8)

1:17

Patrick Kane

82

19:11

73

19:17

(9)

0:06

Dave Bolland

39

17:21

61

17:38

22

0:17

Troy Brouwer

78

16:22

79

15:06

1

(1:16)

Tomas Kopecky

74

9:28

81

15:19

7

5:51

In looking at these data, bear in mind that the Capocalypse toll was particularly tough on Hawk forwards (Dustin Byfuglien 16:25, Kris Versteeg 15:43, John Madden 15:24, Andrew Ladd 13:41), while on defense, only Brent Sopel (14:51) contributed significant minutes for the Cup champs, and Nick Leddy (13:47) soaked up most of those last year.

Among defensemen, Keith’s time actually increased last year (he led the league in TOI), and Seabrook’s ice time jumped more than a minute a game, compensating for some loss in confidence toward Niklas Hjalmarsson. Meanwhile Campbell, who missed 31 games over the past two seasons and might have been considered the “freshest” of a taxed Hawk defensive corps, actually saw his ice time decline slightly.

Moving to forwards, Tomas Kopecky was able to capitalize on the vacancies to boost his ice time by almost six minutes a game. Arguably, that stat tells you everything you need to know about last year’s team compared to the Cup champions of 2009-10.

The Troy Brouwer story is very clear. He found his way into Quenneville’s doghouse during the Cup playoff run and never really escaped, seeing his ice time decrease by more than a minute per game (almost entirely due to being stripped of PK responsibility), despite the Capocalypse opportunities. I like Brouwer, but, given this situation, it’s probably best for him to get a new start outside Chicago.

Curiously, Kane and Dave Bolland did not see much of a change in their ice time. Not sure what to make of that.

Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa saw the biggest jump in ice time among forwards and, like Keith and Seabrook, the biggest deterioration in their defensive games (all four suffered double-digit drops in +/- as compared with 2009-10). Again, it’s probably fair to conclude that Quenneville rode his core a bit too hard.

And as always, the exception that proves the rule is Captain Marvel, who increased his time to 20:45 a night, leading all Hawk forwards, while continuing to excel in all phases of the game. Even Toews, however, showed signs of fatigue when the playoffs rolled around last year.

Lessons learned?

So, what does this mean for 2011-12? Well, the team is less top-heavy at both forward and defense. The third d-pairing was a shambles for much of last year, but now the Hawks can go at least seven deep without a whiff of John Scott, while Nick Boynton, Jassen Cullimore, and Jordan Hendry may all have seen their last NHL action.

Here’s hoping that Quenneville makes a concerted effort to keep Keith under 25 minutes a night. Campbell’s 23 minute hole is a problem, but the addition of Steve Montador and an expanded role for Leddy should gobble up most of these minutes. The real key, though, is for Hjalmarsson to pick up his game and deliver 20+ minutes of solid defense a night- this was the expectation when he signed the $3.5 million contract, and he’s simply got to deliver.

Up front, the Hawks should be able to dress a formidable top nine along with a credible fourth line. Such a refreshing change from last year! Rolling four lines was the key to the Cup team’s “pace” (to borrow one of the Stache’s favorite words), and will allow the Hawks to wear other teams down while keeping their forwards to 18-19 minutes a night.

Bottom line: manage the minutes and the third period will take care of itself. No more steak knives please.

Topics: 2011, 3rd Period, Campbell, Chicago Blackhawks, Fatigue, Glengarry Glen Ross, Keith, NHL, Seabrook, The Blob

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  • Preacher000

    Excellent analysis. I’m not sure how this could be measured (other than watching ALL game film), but it seems to me that Q has a thing against rookies. They would make a mistake and he’d bench them. The vets would make a mistake and they’d go right back out there. At least it felt that way in the first half of the season. If playing the vets to death caused the 3rd period letdowns (and the Colorado game was the worst!) then Q should take a big helping of the blame for not letting the kids play more. Not that we’ll have many rookies this season, but I hope he’s learned a lesson for this upcoming season.

  • cliffkoroll

    Thanks Preach. I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s strictly anti-rookie. Leddy got good minutes last year, and Versteeg as a rookie a couple years ago for example (tho he got his butt stapled to the bench at times.) To me, it’s more like: do you play Q’s two-way game or not? Fair or not, for example, Q gave up on Brouwer last year, and rookies are more prone to screw up and incur the Stache’s wrath.I agree that Q’s shortening the bench last year didn’t work out so good, but in part you could point to a lack of depth on the team. He doesn’t have that excuse this year, and I’ll be pissed if he burns out his core with this team.

  • K_Dog

    I think many (most?) of us suspected fatigue as being a contributing factor to the shortcomings last season. This piece really drives that theory home. Nicely done, and extra points awarded for use of “steaming vat of urine”. What concerns me is what seems to be a lack of Coach Q’s willingness to go to a “Plan B” scenario. As the season ground along, his favorites seemed to emerge and get more playing time (Kopecky, Sharp, Seabrook, Toews, Hossa) , and the doghouse dwellers (Hjalmarsson, Brouwer, Campbell) ride the pine longer. This is a fine idea, and probably the best idea, as long as things are going well. But after a while it should have become obvious to him that the 3rd period fatigue was becoming an issue. He should have been making a conscious effort to get 2nd tier guys in there to lessen the workload on the TOI workhorses. Sure, it’s not an enviable situation he was put in with the capocalypse and the lack of decent depth players, but I don’t think he had any other choice, as the Plan A just wasn’t working – the 3rd period goal differential was dismal. Could it have been any worse getting Brouwer, Campbell, Hjalmarsson and the 4th liners a couple more minutes per night? I don’t thinks so. Instead, he chose to ride our precious core into the ground. This methodology is troubling.

  • cliffkoroll

    @K_Dog Great point Dog. The Ducks game was late in the season, if Q was gonna try something different, that would have been a chance. What’s that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

  • DaleHalas

    Hey Brian, I’m firmly in the camp that says “Q didn’t want to lose because of his bottom players.” He only played them in situations he felt they could succeed. Which obviously wasn’t very much ice time.

    I’m also of the opinion that the strategy of the Hawks was to save as much “cap space” as they could to be able to add players later in the year. With that in mind, I have the season broken down into segments based on players added: Leddy, Campoli and Frolik. If we could see the 3rd period results, before and after these guys were added to the team, we could start to see if fatigue was indeed an issue. In particular, before and after Leddy/Campoli replaced those 500K guys. From my “eye test” I thought that was “the way of it” but I don’t have any data to back that opinion up.

  • cliffkoroll

    Yeah, I had trouble getting better stats, along the lines you suggest, to illuminate this. The thing I found surprising was, despite obvious woes on the 3rd-paring for much of last year, the second pairing didn’t pick up any of the slack. Campbell’s time was down a bit, and Hjammer a lot.The Ducks game example I used came near the end of the season. Q was evidently content to put it all on 72 in that game.

  • DaleHalas

    @cliffkoroll Yea, I noticed that too. There was a definite cause and effect issue with TOI. People always commented on the fact the Hawks tended to win when Campbell had the most Time on Ice. Somehow just playing Campbell more was the reason the Hawks won.

    What I noticed was that Campbell having the most TOI was the effect of the Hawks playing well. When the Hawks played well, Q extended the bench. When the team played poorly, Q shortened the bench. So Campbell’s additional TOI was the result of the team’s play not the cause.