With the Blackhawks on a current four game losing streak and sputtering around at 3-5 since they made several acquisitions at this year's trade deadline, Joel Quenneville needs to put his loyalties aside and start icing the reinvigorated lineup envisioned just over two weeks ago.
No, this isn't panic time, at least according to this team's history.
However, with just 11 games to go before the postseason, the ideal scenario would be to have new acquisitions like Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann, and Christian Ehrhoff gel in their proper places in the lineup. Chemistry and timing after all, takes time to develop between teammates. That isn't even mentioning how the proper combinations will help the Hawks right the ship as they continue to slip in the Central Division and Western Conference standings.
With Quenneville objectively being the best head coach in the NHL, there isn't much reason to criticize him, especially considering his recent success. If he has one fault though, it could be too much of a lingering trust with players he thinks offer more than they actually display. It also takes some time before Quenneville trusts players, which undoubtedly frustrates fans and players alike. His rigorous decision making and patience has paid off more often than not, but now is the not time to play the same hand. One may note that he is currently in his regular experimental phase regarding what line-ups work, but that's a huge assumption considering at least some of the players he continues to play.
Quenneville needs to run with this obvious and not so obvious line-up for the Blackhawks in the stretch run and playoffs:
Weise for example, was acquired to be the gritty forward with a scoring touch as originally reported by Chris Kuc from the Chicago Tribune days before the deadline.
Source: #Blackhawks aren't done. They're looking for a winger to play alongside Teuvo Teravainen.— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) February 26, 2016
Yet ever since his debut in Boston a little over 10 days ago, Quenneville has placed Weise on the 4th line with linemates of Dennis Rasmussen, Richard Panik, Brandon Mashinter, etc. Weise was a player out of place in the Canadiens' top six. Now he can't seem to escape, as he's been mismatched with forwards who can't maximize his offensive skill set in the fashion the Blackhawks originally wanted in their incoming Stanley Cup defense.
The lingering sentiment here has been that Quenneville trusts guys Andrew Desjardins and Ladd next to Teravainen more, the former of which has enjoyed relative success with him this season, and the latter who knows the team from his previous stint. It's at least certainly paid off for the 29-year-old Desjardins as he's scored the most goals in a year in his career, with 7.
But that's not where Desjardins is at his best.
He is inherently a bottom six forward, but even more limited to that, he's a valued checking line player and wing in Chicago. Everyone remembers the fantastic fourth line of Desjardins, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Shaw in last year's postseason en route to the Cup and for good reason. You can even take a look at the early chemistry Fleischmann and Teravainen have enjoyed together, with Teravainen and Fleischmann exchanging a handful of goals and assists in recent games, and how that can extend to Weise. That of course all goes out the window when even Fleischmann is out of place on the top line as he was Wednesday night.
Weise should be in on that fun with the two on the third line, mixing it up, and using his dynamic offensive talents, while Desjardins should be back to his regular role as the fourth line left wing. Weise is not a checking line forward and he's being misused in that way.
This doesn't even raise the question of why Shaw isn't in his proper spot on the fourth line with Marian Hossa's recent return next to Jonathan Toews.
The missed time of Rasmussen has probably played the biggest factor in Shaw centering the checking group. Shaw the ever talented gritty winger himself needs to flank Rasmussen's right side while Desjardins flanks the left. Rasmussen is of course just filling time in as an adequate center in time for Marcus Kruger's return later this month. He'll do just fine for now.
Brandon Mashinter is now rightfully out of the line-up in that scenario.
Whatever excuse was made earlier in the year that he's just an "energy" guy killing time and that he won't appear in the playoffs, now has turned into full blown concern. With no measurable skill set and with a line available of Desjardins, Rasmussen (Kruger), and Shaw, not to mention Richard Panik, there is no place for Mashinter to still be in the lineup. He doesn't do anything well or better comparatively to other Hawks forwards available.
I would leave the top six as is with Ladd, Toews, and Hossa on the top line, followed by Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane. The Toews line needs time to play together as they all have a very similar heavy two way game that takes some getting used to. Ladd never played with Toews in his first stint with the Blackhawks, so playing with two guys that have developed their own inherent comfort with each other in Toews and Hossa, needs time to work.
The Anisimov line on the other hand, has been the Hawks best group all year, and even despite a recent slowdown from their early torrid pace, it would be remiss to separate them on a regular basis with mid-April around the corner.
There's just too much talent and skill available between the trio.
Defensive issues have plagued Chicago all season. With only three capable defensemen at the moment in Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brent Seabrook (if you count on Seabrook turning around his poor recent defensive play), there isn't much to work with here.
Erik Gustafsson has a bright future, but has struggled in his own zone of late. Michal Rozsival is a tried and true defensive veteran, but only on the third pairing. These two have a place with the defensive corps unified on the third pair here in the late season and in the playoffs.
Trevor van Riemsdyk though, has been by every account, well, awful. He has regressed to the greatest degree since the early season and has showed no poise or discernible consistency. You can't count on one hand the number of mistakes he makes in his own zone as he's railed in possession game after game in the number four defenseman role, a responsibility he cannot handle at the given moment. He belongs on the third pair, and maybe not even that, as he has arguably earned a place in the press box given his play, at least for a few games.
If TVR is the Hawks' fourth defenseman come playoff time, they are in trouble.
While Ehrhoff isn't the same player he used to be following concussion issues and the effects of age, in the small samples he's actually been allowed to play as the fourth defenseman by Quenneville, he has been the reflective opposite.
Ehrhoff is calm and collected positioning wise, shows confidence in either zone with the puck, and has been a possession dynamo with a Corsi of 55% when paired with Hjalmarsson. He has for the most part even played the third most amount of minutes in his appearances. These are the remnants of the top player he used to be sure, but there's definitely plenty to be salvaged from the quality veteran. He may not be the traditional shutdown defenseman Quenneville has preferred in the past, but he's so much better and more easily trusted with a greater role as a primary puck mover than the other options at the Hawks' disposal. The sooner that Quenneville realizes that, the better.
While it may not remedy every defensive issue the Blackhawks have had, the pairings should be Keith-Seabrook, Hjalmarsson-Ehrhoff, Gustafsson-Rozsival. Unless van Riemsdyk stops committing so many errors, that group is the only logical mix of talent at the high end that has experience across the board, save for the greener Gustafsson.
Final Ideal Line-Up:
Setting the line-up in this fashion gives the Blackhawks the best chance to win as well as time to come together before the postseason. If newly acquired players are to truly bolster a chance for Chicago to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, Quenneville needs to trust and place them in the proper position to succeed while rightfully benching longtime struggling players like van Riemsdyk and Mashinter. It may go against his previous operating procedures, but it's the right move to make.
The annual March swoon can't hide this fact as we close in on the postseason.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer and contributor for Second City Hockey and No Coast Bias. He is currently the sports editor at Aurora University. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski