In today’s NHL, teams need to be able to roll four quality lines. Three quality lines is close but not good enough and if you have only two quality lines, forget about it, you will be lucky to even make the playoffs, and you certainly aren’t getting to the Conference final.
Chicago vs San Jose
When Chicago steamrolled the Sharks back in the 2010 Western Conference final, San Jose had a quality third line led by Manny Malhotra and a baby faced Logan Couture (the year before he was a Calder candidate). Those Sharks were a good team, but the Blackhawks had four quality lines to San Jose’s three, and four stud defenseman to San Jose’s two. Depth is what led the Blackhawks to win that series. Antti Niemi was fantastic in the sweep and Dustin Byfuglien was the star of the four games, not Patrick Kane, not Jonathan Toews, nor Marian Hossa. It was a young depth forward that got it done for Chicago.
Flash forward to the present and the Blackhawks have an extremely useful former Shark on their roster. In what was initially seen by most as merely a salary dump, the Blackhawks acquired Andrew Desjardins for Ben Smith. However, as Chicagoans are starting to figure out, Desjardins is every bit the player Ben Smith is, just of a different style. Desjardins is more of a play-making center who can deliver a big hit, where as Smith is more of a shoot and crash the net type. Given decent fourth line wingers, Desjardins is capable of 15-20 points over 82 games. Twice with the Sharks he finished with 17 points. Plus he is excellent in the draw, responsible defensively, and as already mentioned can change the game with a big hit. I’m sure Blackhawks fans remember this quality clean hit below that should never have been called a penalty.
A Real Fourth Line
With the Sharks lacking depth, team teal rarely, if ever, skated a fourth line against other team’s top stars. Desjardins was given terrible wingers in John Scott, Adam Burish, and Mike Brown to play with and the Sharks’ had a fourth line barely even capable of skating with other team’s fourth lines. Desjardins was by far San Jose’s best fourth line player in recent years and while he is a solid player, that is just not good enough talent around him. With the Blackhawks though Desjardins is now one of many useful fourth line players on a team that can match their gritty fourth line against opposing team’s top stars from time to time.
During the Blackhawks’ Game 6 win over Nashville on Saturday night, I noticed a neutral zone face-off (Chicago the home team with last change) with Desjardins out against James Neal of the Predators. Neal had already scored two goals for Nashville in the game and Desjardins was given a chance to help Chicago neutralize one of the best players in the game. A team’s 12th forward needs to be useful on the ice. A 12th forward skating single digit minutes is not good enough. The Sharks are stuck in the past employing those types of 12th forwards. Chicago on the other hand played all 12 of their forwards over 10 minutes in Game 6, and actually all three of the fourth line guys were over 11 minutes. That is how you win in the postseason.
Desjardins, who scored a big goal in Game 3, has been good for the Blackhawks but hasn’t even played every single game for them. He is one of those option guys that they play the hot hand with because they have quality forwards 9-14 on their depth chart. In the regular season star players can carry a team but when intensity ramps up in the playoffs and every shift is so important, teams need talent on their fourth lines. Having Desjardins as a 12th or 13th forward shows how the Blackhawks have depth. In San Jose he was a 10th forward with no help on his wings. Desjardins has proven capable of shutting down opposing top players but San Jose never had a fourth line that was capable of doing the job. That lack of depth is a much bigger reason why they have never reached a Stanley Cup final than any struggles of their top players.