Not one of the Chicago Blackhawks is going to put their hands up and say, “Bench me, Coach!”
However, it needs to happen. Like every team in the league, Chicago’s players are almost certainly feeling the grind of the condensed season. With that in mind, resting players is one of the things the taxi squad could be used for this year.
At just over the halfway mark for the 2020-21 season, the Chicago Blackhawks have crammed in 30 games since things kicked off January 13. That’s basically been about a game every other day for the last 60 days, and the season is only just past the halfway point. Additionally, league-wide protocols for COVID-19 will only further complicate things because adjustments to team schedules are made as the season progresses.
The problem is that rest is minimal for the players. Coach Jeremy Colliton even addressed this after last night’s loss to the Panthers. They aren’t fresh for any of their games, and the way the season is structured looks very much like the postseason.
Normally, once teams arrive at the point where games start falling every other day in the playoffs, it’s a sprint to the finish. This year, that sprint has been protracted over the entire, albeit shortened, 56-game season. It’s been quite a thing to behold. This is why Chicago’s use of the taxi squad could be so helpful, despite it being under-utilized.
To start the current grueling March schedule, Chicago had a few extra days off because the league needed to reschedule games at the last minute. When they played Tampa Bay, Chicago looked fresh, ready to go, and managed to take three points against the defending champions.
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This wasn’t an earth-shattering success, but it was a respectable result. The problem though was that third game against Tampa Bay, which at the time seemed like a fluke. Then the games against the Dallas Stars looked kind of similar. Then came the back-to-back losses to Florida. Chicago’s roster is already depleted, but it’s quite the task to steal wins from the best teams in the league when there’s no rest either.
In just about every one of those games, Chicago was largely outplayed. Truthfully, and especially against the Panthers, Chicago simply looked like they were losing to a better team. As has been the case this year, decent goaltending and special teams have kept the Blackhawks in games.
If either one of those falters, or even-strength play significantly deteriorates, then Chicago is in trouble. See the 6-3 loss against Florida if you need proof. Goaltending wasn’t bad, but the special teams simply were non-existent. The last several games, that’s been what’s happening. Maybe resting players might help alleviate the problems.
The Blackhawks have enough options at the center to play Philipp Kurashev and/or Pius Stuer on the wing, rather than in their natural positions. Brandon Pirri has barely played this year, but if he or Reese Johnson are slotted in to rest someone else in the bottom-6 will it really make a difference to the roster? Probably not, and so maybe it’s time to start trying this out. Same on defense. It would be no issue to swap younger defenders in and out of the lineup more frequently. Lucas Carlsson could take the place of Ian Mitchell fairly easily, for example.
This would need to hold for the more experienced veterans as well. They aren’t going to request to sit out a game, but they probably all could use the break at this point. Is anyone really worried that Chicago might lose a game? The whole season was set up to make losing more palatable. If sitting a veteran will help for the last 26 games, why not try it?
This goes for Chicago’s apparent new starting goalie Kevin Lankinen as well. Sit him for a couple of games and dress Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban. There’s no reason not to at this point, and Lankinen would likely benefit from the time off.
The taxi squad was a clever idea to make sure teams had enough players to dress for games this year even if people had to step aside because of the pandemic protocols. The players would benefit from being benched a bit more. Not because of poor play, but because they need the break. The taxi squad should be used more often to help rotate players in and out of the lineup to ensure that everyone gets a breather now and then. They might not ask for it, but they all surely need it.
If everyone that suits up for games is coming out exhausted, then the team’s effort will inevitably suffer. The taxi-squad is an under-utilized tool, and it could help the second half of the season be a bit more manageable for Chicago. Heavy minutes, shot blocks, and big hits may leave players on the roster looking for a way to recuperate. The taxi squad might hold the answer to that, and allow the players an opportunity to recover on the fly.