I know, I know, I talk about this a lot. Probably too much. But it’s only recently been coming to a head just how silly Joel Quenneville’s roster choices have been this season. The Blackhawks have such a talented roster that they are often able to win in spite of not icing the best lineup possible, but that doesn’t excuse the matter – it is the coaching staff’s job, after all, to give Chicago its best chance to win each night via leadership, preparation, and yes, making the best roster decisions for the team.
Inevitably, handling the lines like Patrick Kane handles his alcohol will eventually hurt the Blackhawks. It appears that that time has come, with Chicago having dropped two games in a row in regulation for the first time since March 25th of last season.
A Disclaimer On Quenneville
I think Joel Quenneville is a very good coach. It would be ignorant to say otherwise, and I only sound so harsh and negative when discussing him because it’s more entertaining that way. He’s won two Cups with Chicago and led them to a ton of wins – I love the guy as much as any other Hawks fan. But past and present success does not preclude him from making bad decisions, and this is a fact that fans often forget when they immediately go up in arms if they see their favorite team’s coach criticized. Quenneville has made a few odd choices in past years, but he’s taken it to a different – and far worse – level this year.
Wait, Those Were The Forward Lines?
Against the Wild on the 5th:
Yes. Those were the forward lines.
There are some problems here.
#Blackhawks demote Brandon Pirri to Rockford. Kostka also going down for conditioning assignment. Recall Jeremy Morin and Joakim Nordstrom.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) December 4, 2013
1. Versteeg is not and has never played the middle for an NHL franchise. With two centers – Shaw and the consistently terrible Michal Handzus – both hurt, who made the brilliant decision of sending down Brandon Pirri before this game?
2. Morin-Nordstrom-Brookbank might be the worst NHL line I’ve ever seen, and that’s taking into account the fact that I love me some Jeremy Morin. Thankfully this was the third line in name only as far as icetime was ultimately concerned. But wait, that means…
3. Brandon Bollig played 13 minutes and got several shifts in the top 6.
Take heart! Jeremy Morin once again managed to be productive despite barely getting to play! Take that, Joel.
Bizarre Icetime Distribution
1. Speaking of Morin barely getting to play, he only had 8 minutes of icetime against the Wild. Why? Why is Brandon Bollig (a dreadful offensive player notwithstanding a few goals this year) on the ice for 5 more minutes than him in a game in which the Blackhawks were tied or trailing for 52 of the 60 minutes?
2. Sheldon Brookbank played only 5 minutes. Don’t get me wrong – I’d prefer he play 0 if Quenneville is going to continue throwing… excrement… at the wall and putting Brookbank in at forward, but that’s not the point. Why is Brookbank playing forward at all? This is a good deal sillier than switching Versteeg from wing to center – at least Versteeg is a natural forward. There is no good explanation for the “Brookbank’s a forward now, guys!!!” experiment. And the worst part? He’s played 9 games there already.
3. Okay, this isn’t really number 3, because I’m not quite done talking about #2. Can someone tell me what’s going on in Quenneville’s head when he moves a natural winger in Versteeg to center, is playing a defenseman at wing in Brookbank, and decides – with these moves in mind – it’s time for Pirri to go back to Rockford?
Harp on about Pirri’s defensive deficiencies all you want. Nobody (except Quenneville, apparently) would disagree that the Hawks have a better chance at winning games with him playing forward over Brookbank. And with Versteeg playing, y’know, his natural position. But enough of this.
We Need to Talk About Brandon Pirri
Hey, you knew it was coming. I always have to mention Pirri somehow.
Q: Pirri was sent down because his play had "leveled off." Wants him to work on consistency, D, and to get his confidence back. #Blackhawks
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) December 5, 2013
There is a lot to address here.
If confidence was the issue, why did Quenneville choose to slash Pirri’s icetime for four games prior to demoting him? Wouldn’t sending him down without doing something that will all but surely hurt his confidence have made more sense?
If Pirri’s defense is the issue – and this is indeed the most common narrative – then why is (when healthy) Michal Handzus his replacement as the second line center? Handzus is slow on his feet to such a hilarious degree that whatever defensive awareness he may have flies out the window. Pirri’s hardly a jet plane on ice himself, but still stands out as quicker than Handzus. Everybody does.
If Pirri’s consistency at the NHL level is an issue, how exactly do you expect him to “work on it” in the AHL – a league that he has already dominated and has next to nothing left to learn in?
Pirri had been in a four-game scoring slump before Quenneville really put the nail in the coffin by decreasing his icetime significantly, benching him numerous times for single turnovers (including a game in Dallas in which nearly every other forward committed equally or far more egregious turnovers themselves).
A four-game scoring slump! The humanity.
If a rookie is to develop consistency, sending him down at the first sign of adversity is the single worst decision a coach can possibly make.
In sum? Quenneville has been brutal with his handling of Pirri this year. Ditto for Morin.
Is This Really That Big Of A Deal?
Chicago is going to win a ton of games whether these things continue to happen or not, and that has never been in question. The team is simply too good not to.
But there are still potential consequences of fiddling with the lineup like a madman – as Quenneville is and has been doing all season – that may become apparent at season’s end. The Blackhawks play in a very top-heavy division, with St. Louis and Colorado both very viable options to take the top seed. Tossing away points here and there with ridiculous lineups could mean the difference between a Game 7 at home or on the road against, say, the Blues in the postseason… which could be problematic.
There is no excuse for not giving this team the best chance to win each night. The best lineup possible does not involve Brandon Bollig playing with top-6 players, Michal Handzus touching the ice at all (quite frankly), and… yeah, I’m just repeating myself now. Quenneville needs to stop this stuff. He could alienate one of Chicago’s best prospects and potentially compromise the team’s playoff seeding if he continues, and that is a big deal in a city with yearly championship expectations.
A Final Thought
It is giving season, I suppose… so let me commend Bollig (for once) for giving us all one of the more entertaining moments of this NHL season. Well, entertaining for everyone who isn’t named Adam Pardy.
That’ll do it.
Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu
Sean covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers and Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @seansarcu.