Someone's Gonna Have To Pay

 

 

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in Afghanistan for the past two weeks, you’ve heard complaints about the Hawks defense, specifically about the pairing of Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy. “Keith is straddled with Leddy.” “They’ve got no chemistry.” “Leddy gives up goals.” Personally, I still believe the Blackhawks have one of the best defensive corps in the NHL. And I believe the pairings are working. The problem, in my opinion, has been more with the defensive play of the Hawks forwards.

The truth is, Leddy has been playing more like a veteran defenseman and Keith like a 20 year old in his first full NHL season. The argument of course is that Keith has improved Leddy’s play, and Leddy has conversely hurt Keith’s. But if Keith is playing poorly, how does that benefit Leddy? And if Leddy is playing well, how does that discompose Keith? The argument just doesn’t hold water.

Maybe we’ve hung the “offensive D-man, defensively weak” tag on Leddy unfairly. Leddy’s defensive positioning has been excellent. His decision-making has been very good. Yes, he has trouble along the boards due to his lack of size. But these guys are often facing the oppositions’ weakest lines. If the argument is that Keith hasn’t looked good against weaker competition, how is he going to look paired with Brent Seabrook against the league’s best forwards? If this was a 4th line forward who was struggling, would we argue that he should be playing on the top line instead? No. (unless it was Troy Brouwer)

Keith looked “bad” last year no matter who he was paired with. And he struggled on the PP, on which he wasn’t playing with Leddy. Was Leddy the reason for all of his shots into opposing forwards’ shins? And if we look further back, many of the complaints about Keith this year and last were also complaints about Keith during his Norris Trophy-winning season in 2010. Blame the new guy?

In the playoffs last year, where Duncan finally looked like uber-Keith, he was paired with Leddy. In the preseason this year, where Keith continued to shine, he was paired with Leddy. So far this season while paired, Keith and Leddy have been on the ice for 3 Goals For and 3 Goals Against. So they’re break even while spending much of their time playing with a 2nd forward line where the only constant has been “new to center” Patrick Kane and a 1st line that has been less than stellar.

Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem? But if there is any truth to the arguments against the 2-8 pairing, it should be obvious on the Goals Against, right? So let’s take a look at those plays.

 

Goal Against – BOS at CHI, Goal Scorer: Horton

Boychuk enters the neutral zone with puck. Keith is the only defender on the left side. Leddy is on the right side with 3 Boston forwards ahead of the puck in attacking position. Sharp and Brunette have defensive positions on their men.

Boychuk dumps the puck along the near boards, but Keith has taken a bad angle which will take him out of position. Brunette has lost his advantage on Seguin. Sharp and Leddy are still in good position.

Keith has to turn to retrieve the dumped puck. Boychuck is already accelerating towards the puck. Sharp turns to supposedly cover Lucic. Brunette is nowhere to be seen, forcing Leddy to cover the most dangerous attacking forward, Seguin.

Keith is still out of position, giving up the inside to Boychuk. Since the puck is moving around the corner, he has little chance of getting to it first. Against the 225lb defender, Keith makes the smart decision to glide behind Boychuk and regain defensive position. It is important to understand this point because many view this as a lack of hustle. Keith is pinned between Boychuk and the boards. Once he makes the decision to play the player and not the puck, he needs to slow down to gain position, not accelerate.

It has been suggested elsewhere that this was Leddy’s puck to retrieve and used as an example of the lack of chemistry between 2 and 8. If Leddy goes for that puck, he and Keith are potentially both out of position, and as you will see, 3 Boston forwards will be left undercovered in front of Crawford. Never should Leddy be retrieving that puck in this situation.

Although Boston has possession, Keith and Leddy are both now in good position. Keith has taken away the easy pass to the middle from Boychuk and Leddy has inside position on Seguin. Lucic enters the frame uncovered. It is now a 3 on 2.

Keith and Leddy retain their defensive positions as the play moves to the other side of the net. Boychuk passes to Horton who also enters the frame uncovered. There are now 4 Boston skaters below the hash marks. The Hawks defenders have covered the 2 biggest threats, but it is now a 4 on 2.

Horton shoots the puck past Crawford. Even if Crawford had made the initial save, Lucic is wide open on the opposite side for any rebound. All of the Hawks forwards are still above the hash marks, completely out of the play.

Summary: There has been much criticism of Keith for an apparent “lack of hustle” on this play. Keith is not an overly physical defender. He uses his stick and good positioning instead. After taking a bad angle, he chose position over being crushed by Boychuk. The defenders completely recover, but the forwards offer no support. Hard to blame this goal on “a lack of chemistry” since Leddy and Keith both played this correctly.

It’s easy to pass blame on those involved with a play and ignore those who are out the picture. Sharp and Brunette are the two players completely out of position, even though they started with the inside route on Seguin, Luci and Horton.

And speaking of “out of the picture,” where was Selke hopeful, Jonathan Toews?

He started it all with an awful unforced turnover in the neutral zone…

…and even though he was skating at half speed at the time of his turnover, instead of making a dead stop, decided to coast another 50 feet before turning around. Out of sight, out of mind?

After the game, Keith was asked what happened on this play. His reply, “I guess he was open. He shot and scored. What do you want me to say?” Some wanted Keith to say he was the blame for Horton’s goal. In my opinion, he should have pointed the reporters to the lockers of Sharp, Toews and Brunette.

 

Goal Against – WPG at CHI, Goal Scorer: Slater

This one only takes one frame to decipher. Tanner Glass passes the puck to Hainsey just inside the blue line. Rusty Olesz is caught low along the boards giving Hainsey an open shot. The rest of the team is in good position. Leddy shadows Slater who goes behind the net. Leddy correctly goes in front of the net, but pulls up to avoid obstructing Emery’s clear view of the shot from the point. Slater reaches his stick in front and deflects the puck past Emery.

Goals get scored in hockey. Not much that could be done on this one, aside from Olesz being in better position.

 

Goal – CHI at DAL, Goal Scorer: Goligoski

Against a strong forecheck, Keith is unable to handle a pass from Leddy. Keith steals the puck back, but finds himself pinned behind the net between two Dallas forwards. Some claim Keith makes a blind pass here, but it appears he is actually looking up ice. Regardless, he rings the puck around the boards to where Hossa should be. Unfortunately, Hossa has vacated his position.

Ribeiro intercepts the puck and advances towards the Hawks goal. Leddy correctly takes the puck-carrier. Hossa, as can be expected after a turnover, attempts to catch up with and backcheck Ribeiro. Kane – in his first regular season game at center – incorrectly triple teams Ribeiro, leaving his man, Goligoski, wide open in the high slot. Brunette, even with no one on his side of the ice, coasts. 3 Hawks forwards could’ve/should’ve covered Goligoski, but don’t. THIS is an example of (early season) lack of chemistry.

Keith and Leddy are in good defensive positions. Brunette attempts too late to cover Goligoski. Hossa’s early exit and Kane’s missed assignment lead to the Dallas goal. Making matters worse, Crawford goes down early and is beaten just over his glove hand.

Although it can be claimed that errors by Keith were made on two of the above plays, the defensemen recover, but lapses by the forwards directly resulted in all three goals.

 

Byproducts

And what about the other defensive pairings? Even if the pairing of Keith and Leddy has been “average,” if it results in strong pairings elsewhere, that has to be considered too.  So, let’s look at the three main pairings and the “even strength goals for and against” of each:

Even Strength GF-GA
Keith-Leddy – 3GF, 3GA
Hjalmarsson-Seabrook – 2GF, 1 GA
Montador-O’Donnell – 3GF-1GA

Paired with Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson has been playing out his mind this season. The fact of the matter is that the byproduct of the 2-8 pairing is that the Hawks have a shutdown pairing that has only given up 1 GOAL in 4 games against the oppositions’ top lines. Amazing, but never mentioned.

Wanna really blow your mind? Paired, Hjammer and Seabs have not given up a single goal 5on5. The one goal they gave up was 4on4. And let’s not stop there. On the PK, where 4-7 has been the top defensive unit, they have given up – wait for it – 0 goals. That’s right, the Hawks PK that was near the bottom of the league last season – and Hjalmarsson who was personally among the league’s worst PKers last year – finds itself 1st in goals allowed (1) and 4th in PK% (91.7%). That lone goal was given up with Keith and O’Donnell on the ice.

So if we’re talking about “chemistry,” why on earth would anyone want to break up the currently most effective shutdown pair in the league – a pairing that includes a player who struggled all last season with a different partner, in a different role?

 

Lastly, the 3rd pairing of 5-6 has been fantastic too. So good that they’ve actually played more shifts than usual with the 1st FW line. Q hasn’t had to protect them like last year’s 3rd pairing. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked. Keith’s overall TOI is down by over 1 minute compared to the past 2 seasons, and that’s with increased time on the PP. Q has been able to spread the minutes out, but there have been concerns that Keith is being run into the ground again. So far, those concerns are also unfounded.

So maybe it’s time to relax and accept that maybe Quenneville knows a thing or two about coaching. Although many would have you believe otherwise, the Keith-Leddy pairing hasn’t been dogshit and the resulting 2nd and 3rd pairing have played outstanding. And don’t worry, if you need a fall guy, there’s still John Scott we can all complain about.

Now about those forwards…

 

John Schultz
Follow me on Twitter: @ChiNativeSon

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Tags: Brent Seabrook Chemistry Chicago Blackhawks Defensive Pairings Duncan Keith NHL Nick Leddy Niklas Hjalmarsson

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