Chicago Blackhawks’ Quenneville Still Has Cards To Play

Mar 11, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) and head coach Joel Quenneville watch their team take on the Dallas Stars during the third period at American Airlines Center. The Stars defeat the Blackhawks 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) and head coach Joel Quenneville watch their team take on the Dallas Stars during the third period at American Airlines Center. The Stars defeat the Blackhawks 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Things aren’t exactly hunky-dory for the Chicago Blackhawks right now. They have lost four games in a row (for the first time this season), and seven of the last 10. Chicago Hockeyland is up in arms. The general consensus is that the ’Hawks might not have what it takes this year. I’ve read lots of material about how the back end isn’t strong enough, and that the ’Hawks possession numbers are way down.

But I’ve also read that this funk happens to the ’Hawks every year. That they still have another gear, and they are just pacing themselves for the playoffs. We really won’t know until it all plays out, but in the meantime it sure is fun to debate it. From watching previous seasons, I am convinced the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t working at full strength right now. Coach Joel Quenneville is a mastermind when it comes to winning, and motivating his team to win. I believe he hasn’t played all his cards yet. And when he does, we could be looking at a very different story. Allow me to expand.

Last Monday night, when the Hawks took on the L.A. Kings, Quenneville trotted out a first defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Trevor van Riemsdyk.  Now I ask you, would he play TVR of the top pairing for any extended amount of time in the playoffs? I think not.

In the most recent tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers, newcomer Tomas Fleischmann played on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Will this happen in the playoffs? Well, Flash played pretty well. And if he continues to wow the coaching staff, this could be a possibility. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is not very likely.

Don’t you see?! It’s all a game! Yes, you need to make sure you win enough to get into the playoffs. But Q and staff are holding back on things they would definitely do in the postseason, when things really count. The Blackhawks recently played the St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and L.A. Kings. All three of these teams have a very high probability of matching up against the Chicago Blackhawks in late April. Why give up any more secrets than needed to the opposing players and their coaching staffs?

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Let’s take a closer look at the Andrew Ladd situation. In an effort to shake things up after some games in which very little offense was generated, Ladd found himself moved from the first line to the third line in the matchup against the Flyers. This move doesn’t surprise me in the least.  Has anyone else ever just waltzed into that coveted first-line spot and stayed there? No, they have to earn it. Q gave Ladd a look. But that’s not a guarantee. Ladd’s production has been a bit down, so now he has some work to do to get back up there.

I think Ladd could use some time on the lower lines. Sure, it’s probably a lot easier to make things happen when you play with linemates like Toews, Kane or Marian Hossa. But on the lower lines, you have to work harder to do the right things. It essentially forces you to play the right way.

Look at what happened with Teuvo Teravainen. He has spent time on basically every single line this season. He’s played on both wings and at center. He’s become useful both on the powerplay and the penalty kill. He’s been the utilityman, and it’s been good for him. He is now comfortable in many different situations, and his game has grown from it. Now he has finally been rewarded for all his hard work. He is centering the third line, and has a chance to make that line his own. He has been put in the ideal situation to succeed.

How about Christian Ehrhoff? He was a castoff in Los Angeles, and he comes to Chicago with an opportunity for a fresh start.  He impressed right off the bat, being an upgrade from Rob Scuderi, and seeming to fit into the system pretty well. But he has often been a healthy scratch. What does it take to get more ice time? Could Ehrhoff be the fourth defenseman the ’Hawks so desperately need?

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Well, Ehrhoff did line up on the second pairing with Brent Seabrook for the last game. But it also makes sense to ease him into all this. Why not let him sit in the press box and soak up the system? See how it works before he gets thrown in there? And this gives him incentive to really give it his all when he does play. It’s motivation to earn the right to play every night.

Let’s talk briefly about Erik Gustafsson. There aren’t many choices this year on the blue line, and like Ehrhoff, it appears that Gustafsson is one of the better options available after your top three defensemen (Keith, Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson). Why not play him all the time, and let him gain chemistry and confidence? But no, Gusty has found himself on the outside looking in numerous times. I’m not sure what the situation is here, but I have confidence that Q has a plan.

My point with all this is that Quenneville likes to make it hard on his players. He does this as a challenge to them. He wants to make them better, to get the most out of them. They have to work harder to do the right things. Then when the playoffs roll around, they are doing the right things as a matter of habit. Coach Q then puts them in the ideal situation (lineups, matchups) to succeed, and boom, the proverbial switch has flipped.

This is a tweet that I found from last year.

If you recall, these are the lines that the Chicago Blackhawks essentially deployed to win the Stanley Cup.  Now notice the date on this tweet — April 27, 2015. That was well into the first round of the playoffs against the Nashville Predators. This combination of lines hadn’t really been used before in the regular season.

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I remember Twitter going crazy, like this was some kind of an epiphany. “Q’s finally got it right!” they said. No, he just decided that it was time to play all his cards. Can Coach Quenneville pull the same kind of magic this year? We shall see.