Q's Random Line Generator - The Dallas Games

If you are interested in the hockey strategy of line-matching, then the Coach Quenneville led Chicago Blackhawks are the team to watch.  Q obviously loves to mix lines.  And what he does, tends not to be explained by the local beat writers.

I remember last season there was an error on one of the local beat writer’s blog pages. The Hawks’ fourth line was being shown as the Hawks third line and visa versa.  I sent an email to the writer asking him to fix his lines.  He came back with the statement that in his opinion he had the lines correct.  I couldn’t get him to change his mind even after I showed him in another email how Q was actually matching up his lines.

In another beat writer’s article, I noticed he was surprised when the Hawks checking line was playing the other team’s second line.  He too thought the third and fourth lines were reversed.  That led me to thinking that one of the things we should be blogging about here at BlackhawkUp is how Q actually does match his lines.

Last season

The confusion of the beat writers was somewhat understandable, since last season Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky were often playing on the fourth line and Bryan Bickell and Fernando Pisani on the third. When Dave Bolland was hurt last season, Q would usually replace him with Jake Dowel. When that happened the Hawks would typically play their “now Dowell led” checking line against the other team’s second line.

With Bolland in the lineup, the checking line would almost exclusively play the other team’s top line.  And that was evident with Dave Bolland being the top forward last year in quality of competition.  Without Bolland, Q would generally use Toews’ line against the opposition’s top line.  And this generally added additional pressure to the Hawks’ top line that was, for long stretches of the season, carrying the team.


This off-season

The Hawks had an opportunity this summer to bring in a fourth line center who could fill in for Bolland on the third line if and when he is injured; someone like Marty Reasoner.  The Hawks did not do that because of the “kids” the Hawks have added to their roster.  The Hawks felt that Marcus Kruger, Ben Smith, and even Michael Frolik could fill in when needed.

So it was very interesting to see what the Hawks did when Bolland was hurt at the beginning of the season – and what impact Bolland’s injury had on those first couple of games.


The Home Opener

When Bolland played in the home opener (second game overall), the Blackhawks had very stable lines and played a very traditional line match-up strategy.  The Jonathan Toews led top line was primarily matched up with the Stars checking line.  The Hawks second line, centered by Patrick Kane was matched up against the other teams’ second line.  And the Hawks third line was matched against the Stars’ top line.

This in and of itself was interesting.  Last year, the Toews line would generally play the two-way game against the other team’s second line.  Patrick Sharp would then play the offensive role against the other teams checking line.  Here Kane is playing the two-way game instead of Toews and that was with Kane playing with an 18 year old in only his second game in the NHL.

Chicago Blackhawks Lines:

Brunette Toews Sharp
Saad Kane Hossa
Bickell Bolland Frolik
Mayers Kruger Scott

Note: Of course John Scott only played a couple of shifts so the Hawks were double shifting players like Kane and on at least one occasion Frolik.


The first game of the season

In the first game of the season when Bolland was hurt, Q (just like last year) refused to match his checking line with the other team’s top line.  Instead the Hawks were playing either the Toews line or the Kane line against the other team’s top line.  So without Bolland, Kane became the Hawks second best defensive option.  Yes, you heard that right; Patrick Kane became a defensive stopper.  To me that is just mind-boggling.

The Hawks called up Brandon Pirri instead of Kruger for the first game of the year.  With Pirri centering the Hawks third line, coach Q primarily used it against the Stars’ fourth line.  Then Q would occasionally throw the Pirri line out against the Stars second or third lines when he was, well, forced to.

Chicago Blackhawks Lines:

Saad Toews Sharp
Brunette Kane Hossa
Bickell Bolland Frolik
Mayers Pirri Montador

Note like the home opener: Steve Montador who is really a defensemen only got a couple of forward shifts.  So the Hawks were double shifting Kane or Hossa when the Hawks were forced to roll a fourth line.

So in the opener without Bolland, Toews was playing against either the Stars’ top line or the third.  And Kane was playing against either the Stars’ top line or the second line.  And the Hawks were in makeshift mode against the Stars’ third line for most of the game.

That generally created all kinds of problems for the Blackhawks.  And when the team was struggling, Q went to his Random Line Generator to pull off some really interesting line combinations.


Defensive pair match-ups

For the Defensive pairs, the Blackhawks had a similar strategy for both games against Dallas.  For a good portion of both games, the Hawks matched their defensemen to the Stars’ lines instead of the Hawks lines.

Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson were playing against the Stars top line.

Nick Leddy and Duncan Keith were playing against the Stars’ second line.

Sean O’Donell and Monty or Sami Lepisto were against the fourth line.

All three pairs alternated against the Stars’checking line.

Even though this appears to be Q’s preferred match-ups that doesn’t mean Q got his way all the time.  With four forward lines and three D-pairs, sometimes you just have to put out the next available D-pair.  Especially on the road where the opposing coach has last change.  However, Q generally succeeds with his preferred match-ups much more often than most other NHL coaches.

The Home Opener Defense

Seabrook Hjammer
Leddy Keith
O’Donnell Montador

The first game of the season Defense

Seabrook Hjammer
Leddy Keith
O’Donnell Lepisto


Interesting lines

In the Home opener

Kruger replaced Saad on some shifts with Kane and Marian Hossa.  Also, Kruger replaced Sharp on the Toews line during Sharp’s 10 minute misconduct.  I know there are people out there that think Kruger is in coach Q’s doghouse.  However, the way Kruger was used in the second game of the season should dispel at least some of that.

And as mentioned previously Kane double-shifted in place of Scott on the Hawks fourth line.

In the First game

14 seconds into the second period, Q replaced Saad on the Toews line with Frolik.  Rostislav Olesz took Frolik’s spot on the checking line.  That was the start of Q’s use of his Random Line Generator.

The Sharp/Toews/Kane line was reunited in the second period. And Sharp and Frolik alternated on this line in Q’s attempts to generate some kind of offense.  Even Bickel got a shift or two on the Hawks top line.

Frolik played center with Hossa and Saad. And then later with Hossa and Andrew Brunette when Saad was moved down to Pirri’s line.  Frolik also played some with Hossa and Kane.

Jamal Mayers was moved up to the third checking line with Bickell and Olesz.  When this happened they were playing more against the Stars’ second line.  Something the Pirri led line was not doing with much frequency.

When the Hawks were loading up on their top line with Toews and Kane, 72 was sometimes reunited with them.

The most interesting line of the night was Meyers centering Saad and Montador.  The Hawks did this at the end of the game when they needed to role a fourth line.  They played two short shifts and one normal shift, together, at the end of the game.  This was when the Hawks were loading their top two lines desperate for any kind of offense.


Closing observations

Coach Quenneville’s line machinations are fascinating.  And to be honest, it is hard to enjoy watching the Chicago Blackhawks without at least somewhat embracing the strategy of matching lines.  And so far there have been two really interesting observations and one disappointing one.

Patrick Kane has had a far more defensive role at center to start this season than Sharp had at the end of last season.  For those who had hoped Q could “hide” Kane in the defensive zone, well, that has not happened.  And in some cases purposely so by the Hawks head coach.

And normally when Q starts his Random Line Generator he generally keeps two players together and just switches up the third.  In the first game of this year, Q was trying massively different line combinations.  During the home opener when Bolland was back and the Hawks were playing better, Q made only mild changes.

As for the disappointing observation, last year Jake Dowel would replace Dave Bolland when Bolland was hurt and play almost exclusively against the other teams second line.  This year when Bolland was hurt coach Q was reluctant to have the Hawks checking line do even that.  They played against the opposition’s fourth line and only occasionally against the others.  So not only have the Hawks not found a replacement for Bolland when he was injured this season, they haven’t even found a replacement for Jake Dowell.

As the season progresses it will be interesting to see what new lines are created by Q’s Random Line Generator.  Periodically, throughout the year we will post updates to this article talking about them.  And in particular we will be watching which Hawk lines play which opponent lines.  Especially since, in the first couple of games, Toews has been the offensive center and Kane has been the center with two-way responsibilities.

Tags: Chicago Blackhawks Coach Quenneville Line-juggling NHL

  • cliffkoroll

    Interesting stuff. Q is very matchy-uppy, but I gotta believe a lot of the difference in road/home numbers (e.g. puzzling over the Kane line’s match-ups Friday) has to do with the other team exerting its preferences.

    • DaleHalas

      Yeah Cliff, a little but not as much as you would think.

      Take the very first shift of the very first game. Q put Seabrook and Hjammer out there and Dallas didn’t put out their first line. Immediately, Seabrook and Hjammer left the ice. Only to return when the Dallas top line went out on the ice.

      Q does SO much more of that than the other team that he generally, eventually, gets his preferred match-ups.

      • cliffkoroll

        @DaleHalas Perhaps, but reaching for the first shift of the game as your example? Is there ever an easier time to change on the fly? All I’m sayin’ is this is a potentially important variable, your eye-test/impression may not be spot-on, and home and road data should be collected, analyzed, and interpreted differently, even for Q.

        • DaleHalas

          @cliffkoroll I agree with you on the road and home games. It is just that I have been doing this investigation all of last season. And what I found is that Q generally “wins” the match-ups he prefers, even on the road.

      • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

        @DaleHalas “Yes, you heard that right; Patrick Kane became a defensive stopper. To me that is just mind-boggling.”

        I don’t find that mind-boggling at all.

        1) There are 3 forwards on that line not just Kane. When Q matched 1′s vs 1′s over the past couple of seasons, Kane was on that 1st line. So that was somehow different? Now Kane has Hossa to pick up the defensive slack.

        2) You don’t always have to throw a defensive line out to win the battle against an offensive line. It like the joke, “you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your friend.” If you think your line can score more than the opposing line (which Q could assume with Kane-Hossa against any Dallas line), then you can win the battle via offense.

        Much of the Hawks’ supposedly stellar defense actually comes from their offensive ability to control the puck. You don’t limit a team to 4 shots mid-way through the 2nd period, like they did in the home opener, by playing on “defense.”

        I’m not sure what the preferred option was to having Kane’s line take on better competition with Bolland out of the lineup?

        • DaleHalas

          @ChicagoNativeSon Everything you said about Kane’s line applied to Sharp’s line last year. And Q was very reluctant to use Sharp at center in defensive situations last season.

          And last year Jake Dowell would step up and the third line with Bickell and Fernando Freakin Pisani would at least play the other team’s second line. With Frolik replacing Pisani that line should be better this year than last. It should be able to step up instead of having to play Kane in defensive situations. So I stand by what I said, the Hawks this year have NOT even replaced Jake Dowell’s ability to be a replacement center.

        • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

          @DaleHalas I’m not ready to roll out my “jump to conclusions” mat yet. It was one game, on the road, short 3 regular forwards (Stalberg, Bolland, and Smith).

          And it’s not so easy getting match ups on the road. You can’t just put a line out there and change on the fly every time. Other factors come into play, like whether or not the FO was won, what zone the FO occurred in, etc. I would only credit Q with control a minority of them.

          With so many different match ups that took place, and with so many different line combinations due to double-shifting and then line juggling in that 1st game, I’m going take that tiny sample with a grain of salt for now.

          But yes, as I’ve written a few times before, I’m not impressed with the Hawks answer to 4th line center either. If they were going to do 2C by committee this year, they really HAD to avoid doing the same thing at 4C. It’s the Achilles heal of the team.

        • DaleHalas

          @ChicagoNativeSon Well John, you have to start somewhere. Not sure where I’m jumping to any conclusions either. All I have really done so far is show facts. And show where the first two games of this year differ from last years primary strategies.

          And as we go along I think we will be able to get a better grasp on what the Hawks are trying to do.

  • e.kim

    this shit is so cool. more technical analysis all the time.

    disclosure: just found the blog a few days ago +

  • e.kim

    this shit is cool. more technical analysis all the time.

    disclosure: new to the blog (few days) + hockey (few seasons)

    • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

      @e.kim Welcome. Glad to have you aboard.

    • DaleHalas

      @e.kim Hey, e thanks for showing up. And yes, we are trying to be a little bit more analytical and in depth here in some of our posts. Glad to hear when people find it interesting…

  • wardrums

    It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me why I was so confused with the lines on Saturday.

    • DaleHalas

      @wardrums Actually, I thought Saturday was a little calmer. Friday was the day I was going wt???