“No human can withstand that many hits,” was the quote from Ryan Kesler during last season’s Western Conference Finals, and it represents a common theme coming from opponents of the Blackhawks since their modern rise to prominence in 2008. And while Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Co. have been mostly content to let their high-skill game overwhelm the opposition in pressure situations, this season has seen the team take a slightly different approach in the increasingly physical Western Conference.
New faces in the lineup
While early season call-ups such as Vince Hinostroza, Erik Gustafsson, and Marko Dano suggested that Joel Quenneville had maintained his preference for skill over size, recent moves have suggested otherwise. This is especially evident when looking at the lineup insertions of Bryan Bickell, Dennis Rasmussen, and Brandon Mashinter. Rasmussen has been a pleasant surprise offensively while chipping in three goals and four points in nine games, but those totals are just a bonus to the big body and imposing presence he brings to the lineup while centering a line with Bickell and Mashinter (a combination that was used less frequently in Tuesday’s loss to Dallas).
The naturally physical style of those three players seems to contradict the fast-paced game the Blackhawks have become infamous for over the years. But those three have actually proven to be an integral part in the continuation of that style against teams like Los Angeles, Anaheim, and St. Louis that take pride in intimidating opposing teams into turning the puck over in crucial situations.
Those three – along with the recent acquisition of Rob Scuderi – give the Hawks a better chance to protect the puck when pressured by those physical teams, thus ensuring the survival of the puck possession style that Quenneville favors. Rasmussen’s ability to protect the puck (as seen in his highlight-reel goal above) and Bickell’s tough play give the team another dimension beyond that of the speed and skill of Kane, Teuvo Teravainen, and Artemi Panarin in the top six.
Keeping up with the times
Another important trait all three of those possess is good speed for skaters of their size. This allows them to play dynamic roles in Quenneville’s forward group and shift throughout the lineup. For instance, Rasmussen was played on a line with Kane during the win in Buffalo, and didn’t look out of place in the process.
This is all mostly to speak to the innovation and adaptability Quenneville and Stan Bowman have shown in assembling their current lineup. Their current mix of players allows the team to matchup with virtually any squad in the league, and keep their style of play intact. Great teams know that keeping up with the times and adapting to a changing league can be the difference between sustaining success and watching from the sidelines. While these recent lineup moves may not indicate a long-term strategy for the Blackhawks, it is a trend to keep an eye on for the team’s upcoming stretch.