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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
The first game of the season Defense
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.
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.