There has been a lot of talk lately on what the Chicago Blackhawk line combinations should be for the upcoming season. Some people think Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane should be paired together. Others think Marian Hossa should be on the Toews’ line and Kane should be with Patrick Sharp. Actually there are those out there who think Sharp and Kane have some kind of “chemistry” that makes it obvious that they should be paired together.
To be honest, the only chemistry I have ever seen between Kane and Sharp involved the chemistry of playing with that Toews fellow. So I decided to take a look at last year’s production from various duos to see if there really was any of this supposed chemistry. And if so with which pairs of Chicago Blackhawks.
The Data Used
First off, I want to describe the data I am using. I have the game by game “goals for” and “goals against” 5o5 data for the 2010/11 season. So, no special teams play and I also took out “empty net” situations.
The Toews Effect
The first situation I looked at was for Jonathan Toews. I looked at Toews with Kane and Toews with Hossa. In viewing those results I found that Toews with Kane had a 69.1% ratio of “goals for” to “goals against.” Toews with Hossa had a 62.5% ratio. So Toews was more dominant with Kane as his line-mate than with Hossa.
Now in the past that would be mitigated by the fact that Toews tended to play against the other team’s top lines when he was matched with Hossa and against the other team’s checking lines when matched with Kane. Last year, however, Toews tended to play against the other team’s 2nd lines when matched with Kane. So the difference in the quality of competition numbers between the Toews/Hossa and Toews/Kane match-ups was much less last year then in the past. In actuality Kane played against a higher level of competition this past season than Hossa. At least for the overall year.
Now there could be other reasons you would want to match Toews and Hossa. If your checking line was “weak” you might want to match your best two way players against the other team’s top line. Since the Hawks have Dave Bolland, who is probably the premier checking line center in the NHL right now, that really isn’t the case. And with the Toews Kane line showing they can play the other team’s 2nd lines and still dominate, there really isn’t a defensive reason to pair Toews with Hossa.
So with that I wanted to look at other players with Toews. And what I found was a little bit surprising. Patrick Sharp when matched with Toews was a plus fifteen. When Sharp was not playing wing with Toews, Sharp was a minus twelve. That was kind of dramatic. People keep telling me Sharp is this great two way player.
To put Sharp’s numbers in perspective, Patrick Kane was a plus twenty six with Toews and a minus nine without. And he had the same 38.5% ratio of “Goals For” and “Goals Against” without Toews that Sharp had without Toews. And nobody accuses Kane of being a good two-way defensive player.
Looking at Hossa’s numbers again he was a plus six with Toews and one of the few players with at least a plus one without Toews on his line.
Victor Stalberg was another player that had some significant ice time with Toews. He was the other player that managed at least a positive plus/minus when not playing with Toews. As a comparison, Troy Brouwer was a minus nine when not playing with Jonathan Toews.
Looking at the three players who were minus when not playing with Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp were overall point producers. Troy Brouwer was not. To me if you are going to need to protect defensively weak players you tend to want to protect the ones that can score a lot of goals.
This is just one of the many reasons Brouwer is no longer on the team. The Hawks replaced Kopecky and Brouwer, two players that struggled defensively last year with three players; Folik, Olesz and Brunette who have a better reputation as defensive players. And that should really improve the team.
So if there really isn’t any reason to play Hossa with Toews, then “who should play with Toews & Kane?”
Originally, the Hawks were playing Victor Stalberg with Toews and Kane. Looking at the GF/GA ratio it appears to be very good. The only issue with Stalberg on the line appears to be in the actual scoring rate. As the season progressed, Coach Q eventually replaced Stalberg with Brouwer on the Hawks’ top line.
Using Stalberg’s numbers as a baseline, the top line with Brouwer matched the Stalberg baseline and surpassed it with 1.5 more goals. However, the top line with Brouwer also gave up 3.7 more goals than the projected rate when Stalberg was on the line. So the overall effect of Brouwer on the top line was negative.
Using the same technique with Sharp on the top line instead of Stalberg saw an increase in goals scored of 5.2 and an increase of goals scored against of 5.24. So while slightly better in overall performance than when Brouwer was on the line, it really wasn’t much of an increase.
In fact, looking at Toews and Kane with Sharp and without sees only a slight increase in performance with Sharp as without. It is really hard to justify having that extra 4M/year on the top line for only that small of a performance boost.
And I could easily see why the Hawks have brought in someone like Andrew Brunette. If you could get an offensive finisher somewhat like Sharp who is, also a little bit better defender, you can maximize the assets that are Toews and Kane. And at 2M/year Brunette can be a real bargain.
The Sharp as Center Effect
There is this premise that since the Hawks won a Stanley Cup with Sharp at center, the Hawks don’t need another center on the team. To me when you have 20 million more in talent than anyone else, well, you can win a Stanley Cup even with holes on your team. And for those who want Sharp and Kane to anchor the Hawks second line, well, the Hawks were a minus five when they did so.
Actually, the Hawks weren’t much better when Sharp and Hossa were on the second line. In fact, Sharp was a minus twelve when not on the first line so pretty much all of the second line combinations were negative. At least Hossa with Sharp was better than any of the other combinations.
So to review the primary two choices: playing Toews with Kane and Sharp with Hossa combined for a positive twenty five plus/minus. Playing Toews with Hossa and Sharp with Kane combined for a positive one plus/minus. While past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, there really aren’t any facts to support the Toews/Hossa and Sharp/Kane pairings. So don’t be surprised if the Hawks stay with the Toews Kane top line.
The Bickell Effect
One of the interesting aspects of last year was the curious case of Brian Bickell. Bickell had a very good overall year and an exceptional one when paired with Dave Bolland. While most people attribute that to “riding Bolland’s coattails” it is interesting to note that Dave Bolland was a minus six when not playing with Bickell. And Bolland was a plus fourteen when playing with Bickell. As another comparison, Bolland was a minus two when paired with Troy Brouwer.
Bickell is a much maligned player at various blogs on the Internet, especially at Hockeybuzz and in my opinion, really shouldn’t be. The only times he really struggled were in situations where the Hawks were caught without any centers on the ice. Otherwise he really held his own. And he is a huge bargain for the price.
Looking at the results of last year pretty much shows the obvious. The Chicago Blackhawks need more of those Jonathan Toews fellows. Of course, most teams do. Too bad you can’t just clone the guy, it would solve most of the Hawks problems with matching lines. Ironically, the Hawks did trade for Toews’ brother recently but unfortunately David is not an identical twin. With that being the case the Hawks still need another center, unless Patrick Sharp can become the two way defensive center this season that he was purported to already be.