The Blackhawks are through their first five games of the 2014-15 season, and while it still very early in the season, there have been some interesting developments in terms of TOI and usage for certain players so far this season. Joel Quenneville has been using some lines in different ways than he did last year, and there has also been a difference in many players' TOI, with some of them being somewhat drastic. It's also been interesting to see the way in which Coach Q has used some of the newcomers to the Blackhawks roster this season. So let's break it down.
So far this year, one of the biggest changes from last season has been the forward line that takes most of the defensive zone draws. Last year, Marcus Kruger's line was generally given the defensive assignments. But this season, Kruger has started 56.52% of his shifts in the offensive (see chart below), and it has actually been the line of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa that has gotten more defensive zone starts. The members of that line have 3 of the 5 lowest offensive zone start percentages on the Blackhawks, with the other two being Jeremy Morin and Daniel Carcillo. It is still early in the season, but the this is definitely an interesting development. Keep an eye on what unit(s) are being used in defensive situations as the year goes on.
Conversely, the "Hustle and Flow" line of Patrick Kane, Andrew Shaw, and Brandon Saad has been used by Coach Q in almost the exact opposite way. The trio are the three of the top four Blackhawks in Off ZS%, and only Bryan Bickell has started more of his shifts in the offensive zone. The only issue with these three starting offensively so often is that the possession numbers just haven't been there for them, as all three have negative relative Corsi percentages. Quenneville noticed, and even mentioned that issue when discussing why he broke this line up in favor of putting Kris Versteeg with Shaw and Kane against Philadelphia. There's still plenty of time for them to figure it out and right the ship should they be reunited later down the road.
Again, it is very early in the season, so these are trends that we could see end sooner rather than later, and there is still plenty of time for Quenneville to figure out his lines and how he wants to use them going forward.
Here's a chart of the forward usage through the first five games:
Ice Time Trends Compared to '13-14
There have also been some interesting developments in terms of time on ice for guys who are returning to the Blackhawks' lineup this year. A few of the more prominent have been the somewhat dramatic increase in TOI for a few of the team's top players. Thus far Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Ben Smith, Kane, Saad and Shaw have seen close to or more than a full minute more of ice time per game. These are all players who are play big or important roles on the Blackhawks, so having them on the ice is good, but you don't want to be relying too heavily on them too early in the year. However, this could be somewhat skewed by the fact that 3 of the 'Hawks games thus far have gone into overtime.
Conversely, other players have seen their ice time go down compared to last year, with some being slight decreases and others being pretty dramatic. The most severe case of ice time decrease has been Jeremy Morin, who averaged a little more than 9 minutes of ice time in his 24 appearance last year, but this year has averaged just 6.63 minutes of ice time per game. Marcus Kruger has also seen a decent drop in minutes, as he has played 12.92 minutes per game so far this season, down from his 14.15 minutes of TOI last season.
Players who have seen casual increases or decreases in TOI from last year include Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Oduya, Seabrook, and Bickell.
I think that as Quenneville gets more comfortable with some of the newcomers to the team and starts to trust them more, TOI's will level out to look a bit more like they did last year.
The New Guys
One thing that was somewhat surprising at the start of the year was the usage of Brad Richards on the third line with Bryan Bickell and Ben Smith on his wings. The speculation from most was that Richards would center the second line for the 'Hawks, flanked by Kane and Saad. However, his current assignment has been pretty successful thus far. Richards has a 58.95 CF%, which is the highest of his career. He has been pretty balanced in terms of zone starts, starting 16 shifts in the offensive zone, and 13 each in the neutral and defensive zones. The fact that he has been able to be a good possession player without being sheltered with offensive starts is encouraging considering that a concern with him when he was signed was his defensive play. He only has one assist on his score sheet thus far, but if he is able to continue his good possession play, he should see more stats fall his way.
Trevor van Riemsdyk has also been impressive through the first five games. He has an Off ZS% of 58.06%, but has actually started more shifts in the neutral zone than offensive zone (21 and 18, respectively). This sort of sheltering of the third pairing, puck moving defenseman is something that 'Hawks fans are used to with Coach Q, as we saw it with Nick Leddy over the last three years. TVR also has been great possession-wise, posting a 62.78 CF% thus far. Also, under the "watching the games" category, he has made some great plays with the puck through the first five games. He does a great job of taking advantage of open ice in front of him, and against Philadelphia he used that ability to create the Bryan Bickell goal. Hopefully he will continue to play at this level.
Changes that can be made
With the high increase or decrease in TOI for some guys, as well as the success of some of the new players on the roster, there could probably be some adjustments made in order to ensure you're not leaning too much on the key players in the lineup. It would be nice to see a guy like Morin be given a little more ice time. Even just a shift or two more could be shifts that a guy like Patrick Kane doesn't have to take.
Also, given the relative success of van Riemsdyk to this point, giving him more ice time could be of benefit to the Blackhawks. He has seen right around 13:30 of TOI per game so far, but again, giving him a shift or two more could be shifts that Keith or Hjalmarsson don't have to. It wouldn't be a horrible idea to give him some defensive assignments to see how he performs in those circumstances.
It's still early in the season. Now is probably the best time of all to experiment a little and see what you actually have with new guys, as well as what new ways he can use his returners. Every game doesn't have to be considered a must-win, and they don't all have to be coached like a game seven. Some tinkering isn't a bad thing, as it could lead to new discoveries about how players can/should be used.
What are some changes you think could or should be made to the 'Hawks lineup and usage?
(Statistics and Charts via War on Ice)