The decision to play Trevor van Riemsdyk over Michal Kempny is complicated

The Blackhawks’ choice to keep benching Michal Kempny recently seems baffling at first glance, but it’s not that simple.

Michal Kempny is proving to be a good player. He’s also been benched repeatedly by Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville over the past month, which has led to a lot of questions from fans. Those have only gotten louder now that Trevor van Riemsdyk seems like the one getting those minutes instead.

At first glance, it’s a curious decision. Kempny has been among Chicago’s better possession players this season, especially when paired with Brent Seabrook. Most reasonable arguments would suggest the 26-year-old makes the Blackhawks a better team when he’s on the ice.

But as we’ve learned countless times over the past few seasons, decision-making in the NHL isn’t always as obvious at it might seem. Teams are interesting beasts with lots of  moving pieces. And while there are very good reasons to believe Kempny needs to be in the lineup every day, there’s some method behind the madness of playing TVR (or Michal Rozsival) over him. Or at least, I’m pretty sure there is. Let me explain my thinking here.

The offhand problem

The Blackhawks have too many left-handed defenseman. There are eight blue liners on the active roster right now, but only three of them are right-handed: Seabrook, van Riemsdyk, and Rozsival. This has created some issues since the beginning of the season with getting everyone on their proper side.

Over the past few seasons, there’s been more and more talk about the importance of handedness for defensemen. In an ideal lineup, you want righty-shooting d-men on the right and lefty-shooting d-men on the left. The thinking is that this allows players to keep the puck on their forehand more often when clearing the defensive zone and trying to make offensive plays.

The Blackhawks cannot align their team like that. Every night, at least one player has to play on his offside as long as Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjlmarsson, Brian Campbell, and Gustav Forsling are in the lineup every night. And right now, that seems like a lock, whether you think Forsling should be doing that or not. Here’s where the problem with Kempny comes in.

Chicago has no problem playing a lineup with one guy on his offside. That player can be Hjalmarsson, who has said in the past that he’s perfectly comfortable playing on the right despite being a lefty. Maybe it’s not ideal, but compromises need to be made, and that’s an acceptable one.

But the problem comes beyond that. If you play Kempny in addition to those four lefties, you’re forced to play two on the right. The Blackhawks have regularly tried that with Campbell, and the results have been decidedly mixed. So a direct effect of playing Kempny is that you’re putting Campbell, who has been a top player recently, in a tougher spot.

To me, this is probably a key factor behind the choice to not play Kempny regularly. It’s not simply a choice of Kempny vs. TVR. It’s a choice of Kempny on the left and Campbell on the right vs. Campbell on the left and TVR (or Rozsival) on the right. And that’s not so obvious, especially when you know Coach Q is a fan of TVR and Rozsival.

The future factor

TVR sitting on the bench does nothing for his value. And getting rid of him potentially creates a conflict for the team in covering the 40/70 rule for the upcoming Las Vegas expansion draft. The team needs someone on the roster next offseason who can fill that spot, and none of the other defensemen on the roster qualify for various reasons (exempt, no-movement clauses, unsigned for 2017-18).

So TVR is probably around until at least the expansion draft just for accounting purposes, even if he’s not a key player. You can’t send him down to Rockford without risking him to waivers, which is also part of why Ville Pokka and Erik Gustafsson remain very much blocked.

There’s also some possibility that they want to boost his trade value, although I don’t see Quenneville playing a mediocre player over other options just to do that. More likely than not, TVR is on the roster because he needs to be, and Coach Q is using him because he wants to.

TVR has been solid lately

Here’s the thing: if you believe your lineup aligns better with a righty like TVR than a lefty like Kempny, maybe you’re willing to tolerate a downgrade as long as it’s not too large. The benefits elsewhere could be enough to offset it. So it’s just a matter of how much the Blackhawks lose between going from Kempny to TVR.

The past three games — the first paired with Forsling, the second two with Campbell — have actually been pretty good. At 5-on-5 with van Riemsdyk on the ice, the Hawks have had a 50-48 advantage in shots, 35-19 advantage in scoring chances, and 4-0 advantage in goals scored, per Natural Stat Trick. The Coyotes, Rangers, and Stars isn’t a murderer’s row, but this probably helps TVR stay in the lineup. The team also played well in general with two wins and the close OT loss to New York.

Yes, those first few games from TVR this season were disastrous. He’s been fine lately, though.

So it’s not that simple

I get why people are puzzled that Kempny has been benched for van Riemsdyk. He’s been a nice find by the team after it was so thin on defense last season, and TVR really struggled when he wasn’t injured in the first few weeks of the season.

This isn’t quite as simple as Coach Q wanting to get one of his favorites into the lineup, though. As explained above, there are actually some interesting factors that makes this a more complicated decision than it might seem at first glance. I’m not sure if playing TVR over Kempny actually makes the Blackhawks any better — and there’s a decent chance it makes them worse — but what Quenneville is doing here isn’t that out there.