What We Learned: Blackhawks playing dangerous game on defense

What We Learned: Blackhawks playing dangerous game on defense
What We Learned: Blackhawks playing dangerous game on defense

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

Prior to Sunday night's game, very few players were in the same stratosphere in terms of minutes played as the Chicago defense.

In terms of minutes per game, Chicago's top-four ranked second, eighth, 11th, and 14th among playoff players in terms of minutes per game at 5-on-5, which is crazy. . And granted, that comes with the caveat that Chicago is obviously playing a ton of overtime this postseason — 151:38 to be exact, a little more than two-and-a-half extra games — but nonetheless, there's a lot of work being given to what are, essentially, just four guys.

Right now, Chicago has four defensemen averaging at least 25:52 per night, while the other three they've used (Kyle Cumiskey, David Rundblad, and Kimmo Timonen) are basically getting the minutes you'd give to a guy you don't trust to do little more than fight in a game against Arizona in December: 13:37 or less. This is, of course, often commented upon this postseason. Joel Quenneville doesn't trust his bottom-two defensemen, whomever they may be, to play more than the most sheltered, minimal minutes available. And when you watch Timonen play, you start to get why.

But there are two questions that should nag at anyone watching this happen, including Quenneville:

1) How wise is it to deploy defensemen like that?

2) Could the other guys actually handle a little more than, say, 10 minutes a night in most cases?

In theory, this is really putting a lot of miles on Duncan Keith (32:23 per night), Seabrook (26:52), Niklas Hjalmarsson (26:37), and Johnny Oduya (25:52). Only two defensemen from 1994 to present have played more minutes in fewer games than Keith's 453 — Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger both played more than 35 minutes a night in 13 games for St. Louis in 1999 — in the postseason. If we expand that out to cover Oduya's 362, we find that this has only happened 14 times in that span, meaning just 10 times in the last 21 playoffs has any defenseman played many minutes in so few games.

We are, effectively, in uncharted territory. No team in modern hockey has ever used its defensemen like this.

Based on that data from Hockey Reference, we know that just 235 defensemen in the past two decades have ever broken 360 minutes of play in the postseason. That's not a very deep pool from which to draw, and as you might expect, the vast majority of those guys played on different teams.

Of course, there may have been many teams in that time that were so top-heavy on defense that this kind of usage was a necessity for the coach, but it destabilized the entire team to the point that they got bounced in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Those teams are of little interest here, because it does not examine the wear and tear that logging so many minutes will eventually rack upon those teams' top-four defenders.

So when examining the teams of defenders that logged at least 360 minutes in the playoffs, the number is whittled down considerably. Only 88 players were on teams for which three other defenders played at least 20 minutes a night. That means it's only happened 22 times since 1994. Here are those teams, with the average minutes played by the top-four, drop-off in minutes between the Nos. 4 and 5 defensemen on those teams, and where they finished the postseason.

The two things you notice immediately are that just six Cups out of those 22 teams — though some of them ended up playing each other at some point in their playoff runs — and the 2010 Flyers had a TOI gap in the double-digits. And jeez, it was more than 15 minutes. Most teams, though, have much smaller and perfectly reasonable gaps between their Nos. 4 and 5 defensemen, with the latter of those guys usually getting in the neighborhood of 17-19 minutes a night, which is fine and probably about what you'd expect.

Another is that the majority of these teams (14 of 22) played in the salary cap era, which makes sense because they couldn't spend lavishly on top players and also make room for decent depth. In fact, the only other teams that really approach those numbers — and really they don't come close — are Chicago this year, whose fate is undecided, 2007 Anaheim, which obviously won the Cup, and the 2004 Sharks, which lost in the Conference Final. All of them were rather strange teams; so top-heavy on the back end as to be laughable.

Obviously the Rozsival inclusion for Chicago is at this point moot, and you've already seen them use their D more like Chicago and San Jose since his injury. Both of these teams ended up falling short of the Cup — for obvious reasons — while Anaheim is the only team that won it. But that's because they could basically play other teams with a Hall of Fame defenseman always being on the ice. It's difficult to imagine there were more than a handful of shifts from that Ducks team for which both Niedermayer and Pronger were sipping Gatorade on the bench at the same time.

The question, then, is whether this is actually a good strategy; if your head coach doesn't trust the bottom two or three guys on the line chart as far as he can throw them, is he justified in that concern? Or put another way, does deploying those bottom six guys that carefully impact the top four negatively?

The answer, as you might expect, is mixed. Of those four teams, only two were north of 50 percent possession, and also this comes with the caveat that obviously it becomes harder to hold the puck when your competition improves. These are also, obviously, rather small samples.


Interestingly, though, most of these numbers are within a few points of even the team's regular-season averages, let alone the postseason numbers. In 2004, San Jose was a 48.2 percent possession team overall. Anaheim was 53.8 percent a few years later. That Flyers club went 50.9 percent in 2009-10. Chicago was 53.6 percent.

But the difference between these teams which fell short and the Ducks that won a Cup is a simple one: The 2007 Anaheim team played like that all year. Beauchemin, Pronger, and Niedermayer ate huge minutes from Oct. 1 to when they won the Cup, while San Jose and Philadelphia pressed their top guys into heavier service once the playoffs started. And believe me, a No. 3 of Mike Rathje or Matt Carle is a lot worse than Niedermayer. A lot, lot worse. Chicago is being forced to take the latter course, after giving Rozsival decent enough usage in the regular season to take some of the burden off the top-four.

And that's the big concern. Out of all the clubs to advance to a Conference Final in the last two decades, those that relied on their defense the way Chicago has are rare, and ultimate success is non-existent.

Given how dominant the top four have been for Quenneville in this series, even a little reprieve might go a long way to making sure they don't run out of gas if they make the Cup Final. Wouldn't you know it: Those guys playing sheltered minutes actually have about the same possession share. But the obvious concern is that, given how close these games have been, even one bad shift for Cumiskey or Timonen against slightly tougher competition could put the series — and therefore what might end up being one last kick at the can with this current core — at serious risk.

Can this team still win a Cup? Of course it can, but the concerns about how overworked this defense has been are better-founded than some might think. Quenneville is playing a dangerous game either way.

What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks
: No real surprise here, but Patrick Maroon says playing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry is good and fun.

Arizona Coyotes: The stats guy the Coyotes hired as an assistant GM worked primarily with video tracking. Hmm it's almost like that's the future of hockey analysis. There's basically no reason any team shouldn't have at least one of these guys on both the player evaluation and in-game management sides on payroll.

Boston Bruins: Sherd of tradse Loucheesh.

Buffalo Sabres: If Terry Pegula wants to save a bit of money this winter, the Sabres can use all the tears shed in Buffalo about “BABCOCK LIED!” to make the ice surface this season.

Calgary Flames: Minor-leaguer Joni Ortio has his contract turning into a one-way deal this coming season and he wants to steal Jonas Hiller's No. 1 job. Ortio's save percentage in the AHL this year was .912. I think Hiller's safe.

Carolina Hurricanes: If 'Canes coach Bill Peters got a 1,000 percent raise, he still wouldn't make as much this season as Mike Babcock reportedly will. Man.

Chicago: Antoine Vermette is a big loser and a trade deadline bust (except that if this goal is the last one he scores for Chicago it was probably worth it).

Colorado Avalanche: The 20th anniversary of the move from Quebec is coming up this season. The league should celebrate by giving Quebec a team.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Jackets prospect Oskar Dansk will play in Sweden next year instead of the AHL, but this is seen as a positive because he went .880 last season.

Dallas Stars: There were a number of Stars on the Canada team that won the World Championship. This is what happens when you miss the playoffs, though.

Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin, who had a very good draft-year-plus-one at Michigan, decided to go pro, and is already playing in the AHL playoffs. Hell of a boost to that roster.

Edmonton Oilers: Edmonton was indeed behind the decision to keep Leon Draisaitl from playing at World Juniors this past season. Makes sense. Err, uhh, makes sense that this was the case, I mean. Not that they kept him from World Juniors. That does not make sense.

Florida Panthers: Nick Bjugstad had a lot of relative success for the Panthers in his second year in the league. He's starting to look like a solid middle-of-the-lineup guy.

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are obviously going to try to sign Andrej Sekera this summer, but whether they'll be able to do so is a different matter entirely

Minnesota Wild: Contract talks with Devan Dubnyk will begin this week. You have to imagine his agent need only walk in and say, “So, how does 'whatever we want' sound to you?”

Montreal Canadiens: Hey, at least Michel Therrien isn't the only bad coach the Habs are keeping around.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: In case “how he was used in Nashville” wasn't a tip-off, it sounds like Cody Franson is heading elsewhere this summer.

New Jersey Devils: The Devils reportedly offered a contract to Russian winger Sergei Kalinin, who most recently played for Omsk in the KHL. He had 25 points in 58 games this past season, which sounds like exactly the kind of guy the Devils have always been looking for.

New York Islanders: From what little German I can understand, it seems like good ol' Lubomir Visnovsky might sign with Klagenfurt this summer.

New York Rangers: JT Miller hasn't been too bad at all getting first-line minutes in the absence of Mats Zuccarello. Still, you'd like to have Zuccarello back sooner than later.

Ottawa Senators: The Sens have a lot of bad contracts on the books. But so do a lot of teams, so how do you get rid of them?

Philadelphia Flyers: I think the big difference between what Dave Hakstol faced in terms of pressure from North Dakota to Philadelphia is that no one in the Grand Forks media was looking to shiv him at every turn like the know-nothings in Philly will.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins want to get a first-round pick in this year's draft. Probably shouldn't have traded the one the league gave them this year.

San Jose Sharks: I'm still really pulling for Randy Carlyle.

St. Louis Blues: Ken Hitchcock apparently isn't going anywhere this season. And if he gets a goalie for once, maybe they can get out of the second round this time around.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Apparently, rumors — out of Toronto, no doubt — are starting to swirl that the Lightning might look to move Steven Stamkos because of the salary he will command next summer. Boy would that be insane.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Joffrey Lupul says he's glad to be coached by Mike Babcock again. Yes, it's nice to have a competent coach, Joffrey. We agree.

Vancouver Canucks: Is this a trick question?

Washington Capitals: Word of advice: Don't re-sign Jay Beagle.

Winnipeg Jets: Alex Burmistrov is probably coming back to the NHL next season, but will the Jets actually keep him? (They should.)

Play of the Weekend

Three goals in 37 seconds is a good number of goals to score in a short period of time. That is my opinion. Any goals scored before the announcement from the previous one are awesome.

Gold Star Award

Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad (20) gains control of the puck against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs, Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad (20) gains control of the puck against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs, Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The fact that Brandon Saad is like the fourth- or fifth-best forward on his team is terrifying.

Minus of the Weekend

Couldn't have gone to four overtimes, huh? Shame on you.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “JMilne” says he or she wants Leon Draisaitl in Toronto.

Toronto - Leon Draisaitl , 16th over all
Edmonton Jonathan Bierner , Dion phaneuf at 5.5 mill , + 24th over all

Yeah, huh?

Signoff

Be strong, Gail!

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

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