The Blackhawks know how they want to beat you. They'll do it with speed, guile and a cool sense of confidence. They'll massage the salary cap to play the numbers game as well as anyone. They'll trust the system even if it means losing 3 out of 7 times because they'll win the series.
They'll also play someone like Brandon Mashinter over and over during the regular season, even though he doesn't seem to fit the team's system at all. They'll leave fans wondering exactly what the team sees in this apparent AHL talent. Mashinter is not a scorer or an elite defensive backchecker like Marcus Kruger. He's not a puck-mover who can play the team's multi-layered style. He is, more than anything, a throwback to an era when teams were content to give roster spots to players who focused more on hits than assists.
It begs the simple question that's been asked so many times in the Hawks community recently: How can a team this smart keep playing someone this useless?
That's where the confusion sets in, and it continued for most of Sunday as Mashinter suited up against the Canucks. He scored his first career goal in garbage time of his 13th NHL game, arguably his best yet, but that was a blip in some otherwise underwhelming play. His 5-on-5 Corsi relative is minus-8.6 percent, keeping up a trend of poor possession numbers that's dotted each of his brief NHL stints. The most obvious thing Mashinter brings is size -- 6'4, 212 pounds -- and even then, he doesn't always seem to take advantage of his impressive frame. In the time he's been in Chicago this season, we've seen a skill level that would get most other players shuttled back to Rockford in a hurry.
Mashinter is still here, though, surviving longer than younger, smaller players like Marko Dano, Tanner Kero, Kyle Baun and Vincent Hinostroza. He's the new version of Brandon Bollig, another big-bodied fourth-liner who confounded Hawks fans by playing more than his skill level demanded. He's the Blackhawks' weak excuse for an enforcer, someone who can play roughly 10 minutes, take some lumps, hand some out and ideally balance the butt-kicking scales a little bit in the process. Maybe that doesn't always happen, but it seems like that's the angle here. We've seen this be part of the team's strategy to save a little extra for the postseason in the past.
Which gets me to two general thoughts on the matter:
(a) Playing Mashinter makes the Hawks a worse team when he's on the ice.
(b) His role is insignificant enough that, in the big picture, all this probably doesn't matter much.
Mashinter doesn't play every night, and when he does, he's usually getting part-time shifts on the fourth line. The team bails on him late in games when it's close. He doesn't play when Joel Quenneville decides the matchup don't demand his presence, anyway. Even now, after everything, we're still talking just 95 minutes of ice time over the course of 13 games. He may not do well in his small role, but it's indeed a very small role. Most of the time you're watching, you'd hardly know he's playing.
That gets to the easiest argument against him. If you're going to have a guy who plays a few minutes a night and sucks anyway, why not give those minutes to a young player who might actually offer some offensive flare or long-term upside? You might still be getting bad minutes, but at least you're potentially developing a piece for the future instead of playing a 27-year-old journeyman. You can strive to have a tough guy without compromising and playing a big dude who doesn't help much.
It all makes sense, until you consider that the Hawks have wanted a guy like Mashinter pretty much every year. Maybe you don't agree with the strategy, but Chicago almost always has an extra forward whose primary responsibility is to grind out minutes and help make the rest of the roster feel like it's taking less of a bruising. Last year, it was Daniel Carcillo. Before that, we had Bollig and others. This player isn't meant to develop. He's meant to eat playing time.
Every time, we get frustrated, and every year, we marvel at how fresh the Hawks look in the playoffs. Obviously you have to get there in the first place before you can even worry about how ready you'll be for another 20-plus games, but the Blackhawks have long been a team that's viewed each year as Stanley Cup or bust. It doesn't take an expert to see that Chicago's urgency level ebbs and flows during the regular season. This is a team fully aware that it doesn't need to win every game, just enough to get to the point where you have to win four out of every seven. Even in a tight division, the Hawks are still eight points clear of a playoff spot right now.
And so Chicago does something like playing Mashinter, which seems to be geared toward getting the team through the 82-game slate relatively unscathed. The coaches clearly like having him and players like Toews have repeatedly spoken to their preference for having "tough" guys like that on the roster. When he manages to score a goal -- even a relatively meaningless one -- it's still gravy. You can almost be assured that he won't be around come the spring. At that point, his spot will hopefully be given to someone like Dano, who could make a Teuvo-like addition in the second half after some extra time with the IceHogs.
It's easy to see why fans get frustrated with Mashinter. He lacks style or substance on a team full of future Hall of Famers and exciting young talent. He's the latest example of a Coach Q practice that's frustrated many fans for years. But he's also an example of something the Hawks have been doing for a long time, and the large-scale results have been pretty good. If small regular-season concessions like this are part of such a successful strategy, that's okay.
It'll all be part of the journey, as they say.