Last night, Chicago Blackhawks fans were treated to an unusual sight in a game between the Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. No, I’m not referring to the men in the Indian Head finally losing a game, though that has been unusual (and nonexistent) in recent weeks. I’m instead referring to the insertion of defenseman Rob Scuderi in the lineup as a fourth-line forward.
This was the result of the recently acquired Richard Panik oversleeping the morning practice, resulting in his healthy scratching from the game. And so, the Blackhawks — who did not yet have Jiri Sekac, who was received in a trade that sent Ryan Garbutt to Anaheim earlier this week — were forced to roll with a fourth line of Brandon Mashinter, Dennis Rasmussen and Scuderi. While Rasmussen saw a few shifts with other linemates, all three of these players were below 7:03 in ice time, with Mashinter hitting just four minutes and Scuderi a measly 3:30.
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Now, this is not something we’re unlikely to see often, unlike defenseman Sheldon Brookbank occasionally being used as a third-line winger during his time in Chicago. Scuderi’s use as a forward was hopefully a one-night-only occurrence, with Sekac reportedly ready to go for tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers and Panik conceivably out of the doghouse for his sleeping mistake.
However, last night’s forward conundrum brought to light an issue the Blackhawks have intentionally dealt with throughout this season. The Blackhawks are playing with a 22-player roster, one short of the allowed 23 players. If Marcus Kruger were healthy, that would make 23, but he is on injured reserve until April. And so, the Blackhawks have rolled with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders for large portions of the 2015-16 season.
The question now is why. The Blackhawks didn’t lose last night because they didn’t have three forwards on the fourth line — there were bigger issues than that. But that certainly didn’t help the team’s cause, especially when the ability to roll four lines was an important point in the 12-game win streak that ended Thursday. With all of the youngsters the Blackhawks have called up this season for brief tryouts, why is one of them not currently with the Blackhawks in case something like this occurs?
Yes, I realize Mashinter counts as one of those youngsters. But he’s easily the worst of the bunch we’ve seen this season, and coach Joel Quenneville barely trusts him with five minutes of ice time a night. Where are guys like Tanner Kero, Vincent Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, Marko Dano — hell, even Kyle Baun — for situations like this? All of them made a positive impact at one point or another with the Blackhawks, and they’d certainly play their hearts out with an opportunity and be a more reliable option than either Mashinter or Scuderi.
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The easy excuse is the Blackhawks don’t want these young players sitting in the press box waiting for that one moment, which may or may not come. So, why not rotate guys in and out to give them their shot? Mashinter has the opportunity afforded to him every five or seven games, and he’s done next to nothing to earn it. How about a rotation with Panik or Sekac? Or giving Marian Hossa a night off here and there? Playing with one more forward would allow the Blackhawks some much-needed flexibility while also giving a youngster a chance to develop and shine.
A sudden injury could happen at any time in hockey, as could something like a player oversleeping or doing something else to receive a healthy scratch. In those instances as well, the Blackhawks would be well served to have a capable player waiting in the wings instead of intentionally killing off one of their lines. So there are a number of reasons the Blackhawks need a 14th forward on their roster — last night was just a way to highlight that concern.
The Blackhawks would likely choose from Hinostroza, Hartman and Dano if they decided to utilize a full roster, and all three would fit under the salary cap just fine. Sure, the situation could change if Stan Bowman decides to make another trade (he should, for a defenseman), but the Blackhawks can cross that bridge when they get there instead of intentionally handicapping themselves.
For some reason, the Blackhawks have no problem with playing a man short this season. While it hasn’t hurt them terribly in the standings so far, it could be a bigger issue down the road should a sudden injury occur or an immediate replacement be required for some other reason. I would like to see the Blackhawks call up one of the above-mentioned youngsters, but I’m not sure that’s in the cards right now.