An Overlooked Issue from Round 1
There were a lot of things to like in the Hawks 5-1 win against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday afternoon. The stars produced, the penalty kill was stellar, and though it was a lot closer than it looked, the Hawks held on and sent the Blues packing in the first round.
But lost amidst the emotional high that comes with winning a playoff series was one seemingly minor lineup change that could have major impacts on the Hawks in later playoff games that wasn't heavily addressed.
Joakim Nordstrom replaced Kris Versteeg, a surprising move, especially because Versteeg wasn’t injured or suspended- he was a healthy scratch. And after Game 6, Quenneville wasn't clear about whether Versteeg would come back for the second series. Not exactly a vote of confidence for Versteeg.
Now, benching players who haven’t been performing is not a new concept for Coach Q. He did it most notably with Viktor Stalberg last year, and Versteeg’s first five post-season games in the 2014 playoffs haven’t been sparkling- but on that note, they haven't been awful either. His ice time dropped from 17:04 (counting the first three periods of a 3OT Game 1) to 12:43 in Game 2, to single digits in Game 5 (8:49). He also saw a significant drop in power play time in that same span, from 3:22 in Game 2 to 1:26 in Game 5. He has two assists in five games.
This might not be a problem if Nordstrom hadn’t gotten just 2:07 of playing time in the Hawks game on Sunday. That's with no power play or penalty kill time. Equally concerning was that Brandon Bollig got just 1:50 of ice time in the same game, and hasn’t seen much more than six minutes of TOI in any post-season game.
Benching some of your players is acceptable in the regular season, and even in the playoffs, to an extent, but it needs to change for the Hawks to continue to find success in the next round. A team needs to be comfortable rolling four lines. Depth is critical for championship teams, as made evident by the Hawk’s last two cup wins. As the series roll on, the Hawks will need to rely on all four lines as fatigue sets in and line matching becomes more prominent.
This is the playoffs. And the Blues were a cup-contending team. The series was physical, close, and played at a high skill-level, so it’s perhaps forgivable to see less of the fourth line players who don’t put the puck in the net every shift. But that will have to change moving forward. Coach Q will have to trust those players to take a semi-regular shift, or at least play a minute per period to give your stars time to rest and time to recover. This is not a life-threatening problem, but it needs to be addressed quickly and decisively or risk becoming a distraction.
Which brings us back to Versteeg and Nordstom. Quenneville will have to choose whether to slot Versteeg back in for the start of the second round or not. No, Versteeg has not been performing the role he was brought in to fill to his full capacity. But is worth sitting him only to replace him with a player whose skates won’t even touch the ice?
Only time will tell.