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:
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:
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.
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.