When the best player on a team appears to blow off his coach as they leave for the locker room, it’s going to get noticed. So as the St. Louis Blues stagger into a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night, the hockey world asks:
What’s up with Vladimir Tarasenko and Ken Hitchcock?
At the end of the second period of their Game 6 loss to the Blackhawks on Saturday, the Blues had a power play. On that power play. Tarasenko had eight seconds of ice time, which is kind of an issue when 12 of his 40 regular-season goals were scored on the power play.
As they left for the locker room following the unsuccessful power play, Hitchcock appeared to reach out to Tarasenko and he appeared to wave him away.
So, in summary:
Now, the simple explanation is that Tarasenko didn’t appear on the power play because his line drew the call on Trevor van Riemsdyk, and thus the Blues’ second unit started the man advantage and dominated the zone until Corey Crawford earned a stoppage for an apparent injury. So Tarasenko's group didn't have a chance to get on.
And overall in the game, Tarasenko had the most ice time of any Blues forward at even strength: 16:48.
Tarasenko had the most - I repeat the most - even-strength ice time of any forward tonight at 16:48. #stlblues
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) April 24, 2016
Although keep in mind that 6:21 of that came in the third period, with the Blues down a goal and post-bench rift with Hitch.
So there are reasons for that lack of power play ice time, even if it’s glaring when Troy Brouwer gets 1:52 and Tarasenko gets eight seconds of it. But that doesn’t explain the rest of Hitchcock’s odd usage of his best offensive weapon during the series, which may have built up that frustration for him.
In Game 5’s double-overtime thriller, Tarasenko had 41 shifts and played 21:28, ranking seventh among forwards. Robbie Fabbri (22:38) and Jaden Schwartz (21:49) had more ice time than Tarasenko.
This has been a series long trend. In game one he was sixth among forwards in TOI. Game two, he was fifth, and scored a goal. Game three he was sixth, with an assist. In game four, his best of the series (two goals and an assist), he was fifth.
What gives? Games three and four could be chalked up to trying to get favorable lines out there on the ice. Perhaps it has to do with utilization of Lehtera (Schwartz' TOI has been similar to Tarasenko's)?
As Andrew Berkshire notes, it’s completely nuts that Tarasenko is currently sixth in average EV ice time on the Blues through six games (15:29), getting only five seconds more on average than during the regular season (15:24).
Troy Brouwer’s average EV ice time? Yeah it’s jumped more than three minutes on average from the regular season (13:42):
Is Hitchcock afraid of overplaying him? In the regular season, Tarasenko played over 20 minutes in 19 games. Patrick Kane played over 20 minutes exactly 46 times.
That’s one of the issues here for the Blues: optics, when facing Chicago.
Joel Quenneville will overplay his top forwards when the Blackhawks need that effort. Blues fans are left wondering how, in a critical Game 5 and with the last change, Tarasenko plays less than 20 minutes (19:18) at even strength when nine other players cleared the mark – including 37-year-old Marian Hossa.
But again: This is what the Blackhawks do. Quenneville puts his trust in his top scorers. Hitchcock apparently doesn't.
You can’t blame Blues fans for being bewildered by this, but apparently this is just how Hitch rolls. Even if it means limiting the ice time for a 40-goal sniper with the series, and his job, on the line.
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