Split up Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane forever (Trending Topics)

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Ryan Lambert
Split up Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane forever (Trending Topics)
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The second after Chicago lost on Saturday night in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, the conversation shifted to whether Joel Quenneville should be using Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together. 

The coach kept them together with Brandon Saad in Games 1 and 2 of this series, as a sort of bet-hedging against the kind of line-matching mind games coaches can find themselves worked into at this time of year. Whether it worked is a subject for much debate; they were held goalless in both games, marginally out-attempted, and certainly outscored by Tampa's little-heralded third line. Not the best look, especially because they were still starting in the attacking zone more often than not.

But at the same time, Chicago earned a road split, and against a team as good as Tampa, you have to at least call that something of a success. Certainly, that the team carried play when the big guns weren't on the ice — mostly through that successful third line, while the bizarre second line of Marian Hossa, Brad Richards, and Kris Versteeg has been minimal in its impact one way or the other — was indicative of overall play, but you expect more from Toews and Kane than what they gave down in Tampa.

Quenneville — somewhat predictably — split up Toews and Kane for Game 3, which makes sense given the greater control the home team has over the proceedings. Chicago played a fairly even game and looked quite dominant for stretches (shots finished 38-32 in Chicago's favor; this is just extremely entertaining, high-event hockey), but did not win. There may be temptation to go back to what appeared to work a little better in Games 1 and 2.

The thing is you can see where the idea to pair them comes from, initially. There is historical basis to suggest that Quenneville playing Toews with Kane is beneficial to both players and, consequently, the rest of the team. From 2007 through this season they've played together a fair amount (nearly 2,846 minutes in the regular season), and the results are overwhelmingly positive in Chicago's favor: they score 60.4 percent of the goals, and carry 58.2 percent of possession.

But the impact for Kane's bottom line is far more significant than it is for Toews, whose numbers drop off only marginally when he plays with Marian Hossa (or someone else) instead. Part of this, you'd have to guess, is that Toews has basically had Hossa for the vast majority of his time in Chicago — since 2009-10 — while Kane has suffered through a mix of forwards. While the each player's most common linemate is the other, Kane has less of a guarantee. Patrick Sharp is most common, then Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer; you have to get down to Dave Bolland before you get to another center. Meanwhile, Toews has either Kane or Hossa, then a fill-in-the-blank player on the left side, who for the past few years has most often been Brandon Saad. Makes sense.

But in his time without Toews, Kane's goal production drops by more than a quarter and his goals-against go up 4 percent. The issues are present possession-wise as well.

So this kind of team-up may come from Quenneville, in some ways, to protect Kane and make sure he's in as strong a position as possible when it comes to scoring and driving play. But the problem is that such a strategy tends to fall into a “putting all your eggs in one basket” scenario.

Both guys, over this time, play about 14:22 per night at 5-on-5, on average. When they're playing together, that's 14:22 of ultra-dominant hockey. But over the same stretch, Chicago plays an average of about 47:13 per night at 5-on-5 total, meaning it falls to the rest of the team to play the other 33 minutes or so. As you might imagine, the rest of those guys aren't nearly as good at controlling the game as Toews and Kane are, and so this is what you get:

Playing more than 33 minutes per game with the last set of numbers leaves the team far more vulnerable to getting scored on and cedes the other team far more possession. But if you keep them separate, Toews plays at more or less the same level as Toews-and-Kane, but Kane also generates more than his teammates for an additional 14-plus minutes, though more marginally so. At that point, you're forcing opponents to deal with 28 minutes of high-quality play, rather than just 14, and also giving Toews more of a defensive role so as to better match up against particularly troublesome opponents. 

In fact, it seems as though Kane might be a bit of a defensive anchor on Toews when they're together. Again, there's very little impact on offensive production for the captain when they're apart, but despite tougher assignments, his defensive prowess really comes alive in a way few can match.

For Quenneville, what it should really boil down to is what happens when Toews is off the ice. Leave the potential combination of the team's two best players aside and just look at what happens to production across the board. Kane suffers a greater number of shots and goals against than his counterparts, but he's almost certainly being matched by a higher quality of opponent than what the bottom of the roster gets, so that's understandable to some extent.

Toews's numbers are just insane though. He plays top competition and limits them to about two goals per 60 minutes and less than 46 shot attempts. He does that with tougher zone starts (but still north of 55 percent, driven mainly by the fact that current zone start measures include all draws, not just those that began a shift, so he's pushing the puck into the attacking end and forcing more faceoffs there). He does that without the benefit of a super-elite offensive player like Kane at his side. Not that Marian Hossa and, say, Patrick Sharp are anything to sneeze at offensively, but they sure aren't Kane.

So yes, it's easy to see why Quenneville would think that putting these two together, especially against deep teams at this stage of the playoffs, is a good idea. With margins of victory being what they are in the postseason, the extra half a goal per 60 minutes of ice time (that'd be about a quarter of a goal per game given how they're deployed at 5-on-5) might be the difference between winning and losing an entire series. But statistically, it's probably wiser to roll the dice with the merely “excellent” and “really good” numbers Toews and Kane post separately for 28 minutes than the “mind-boggling” results they generate together for 14.

That is, unless you really think you can win the war in the trenches with Tampa. But that's taking a big old chance at a time of year when one coaching miscalculation means you don't get a crucial win, and maybe don't get a big, shiny trophy.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.