Back in Black

The Blackhawks' defensemen are dominant at the little things, and other takeaways from the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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The Chicago Blackhawks’ series against the Tampa Bay Lightning was full of surges back and forth. The Blackhawks were most consistent in Game 6, but even then, they had stretches where they were on their heels. Their forwards were swallowed up by the quick and intelligent Tampa Bay defense; the Lightning were able to aggressively challenge the Blackhawks’ premier talent and overload judiciously to stall Chicago’s offensive efficacy. The Lightning did about as good a job as possible at decelerating the Blackhawks’ rush and forecheck — but ultimately, the Blackhawks’ top-four defensemen enabled them to prevail.

Blackhawks’ top four won them the Cup Final

In six games during the Cup Final, the Blackhawks averaged slightly over two goals per contest while in each of the prior series, they reached four or more goals in at least three games. They did not collect four goals once against Tampa Bay. In essence: The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup because their insanely good top-four defensemen, and grossly underrated goaltender, were able to help them overcome less-than-stellar transition defense by their forwards and diminished offense.

The defensive quartet of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya did an extraordinary job, with goaltender Corey Crawford submitting first-rate work between the pipes. Like Chicago, Tampa Bay is a quick-strike outfit that moves the puck with grace and expediency – the Lightning are adept at attacking with their first and second waves. Yet, Chicago remained fortified, despite its top-four blueliners incurring ludicrous minute totals and arduous usage. The Blackhawks’ defense was the difference in the series.

This section will focus mainly on how the top-four defended and exited the zone, but it is not intended to overlook the extremely important role they played in invigorating the Blackhawks’ offense with their activation as an extra skater on the rush or their aggressiveness at pinching in the offensive zone.

The top four has peerless footwork and stickwork, although the subtlety of their form can go unnoticed. As for their footwork, the four can expand and condense perfectly. They chase on the perimeter and move laterally in concert to take away the shot or pass to the slot. Hyper-coordinated, they shift into different formations to meet the challenge they are facing; often that means supporting the area underneath a partner who is challenging the enemy skater’s entry.

The outstanding foot speed by Chicago’s top four provides a sublime foundation for their stickwork. But their proficiency in stickwork is more than just pokechecking (although they are incredible at that). Niklas Hjalmarsson is well known for using his shuffleboard pass to move the puck D-to-D or to his outlet along the boards, but the entire group is skilled at using one hand to shovel the puck away from danger and preferably to a teammate.

The groups knows what area of the body to hit to disrupt on an enemy rush and force the puck-carrier to lose possession. Mostly, that is a well-timed assault on his hands, but sometimes it requires leaning on the player’s back or destabilizing his balance. Much like in a penalty kill, defensemen recognize that individual skaters have pressure points where they can be exploited.

Part of the expertise of the excellent stickwork of the top four is that they know what to do with their free hand. With the non-stick-carrying hand, they fend off the charging forecheckers with their mitt and sweep the puck away from the point of attack with their stick. They will make a quick grab below the opposing skater’s waist and dislodge his control of the puck with their stick. Most importantly, their timing and touch is insane.

Chicago’s workhorses on the back end read back passes and seam passes superbly. They anticipate where the opposing stick is going to finish so that they can extend their own stick and seal off that shooting avenue. They can snatch the puck and initiate the breakout in one swift motion. Their ability to complete direct passes on zone exits and clear the puck without icing it in lead-protection situations was paramount against Tampa Bay. Enjoy the montage; the fluidity in their execution bespeaks the uniqueness of this power grouping.

The importance of retaining a competent goaltender

A faction of people will insist that goaltending is the most indispensable position in hockey, while others believe that goaltenders are a non-core asset and should be paid accordingly. The best way to view goaltending is probably through a slight twist on baseball’s Mendoza Line, which is used to define the threshold for competency in hitting. To apply this to playoff hockey: It is extremely important to know if a goaltender is capable of buoying a team in the key moments of every series.

The pervasive reluctance to fete Corey Crawford and Ben Bishop is simply bewildering. Crawford has been integral in two Cup wins and three straight conference finals; Bishop was essential in Tampa Bay beating Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist to help catapult the Bolts to this Cup Final.

Chicago is going to need to do some housecleaning to get its books in order, but Crawford has proven he can protect the net for a Cup winner. Paying $6 million for insurance in goal for a netminder who bails the Blackhawks out when they allow odd-man rushes and get hemmed in their own zone is well worth the price. This playoffs, as he usually does, Crawford came through.

Additionally, the current outcry to move Bishop to start the very talented Andrei Vasilevskiy is puzzling. Bishop was tremendous for Tampa Bay (despite playing with a torn groin), and it can be argued that the Lightning deserved a better fate than they received in the Final. Bishop is making almost $6 million per season, and if they can claim him for under $8 million, they should extend him (Only if the demands are exorbitant, like over $8 million, should they reconsider).

While a highly-regarded prospect, Vasilevskiy is only 20 years old. The youngest goaltender this season to get 30 or more starts was Jake Allen, who is 24. Braden Holtby and Frederik Andersen are the next youngest. Both performed well in starter roles at the age of 25. Generally speaking, goaltenders these days take longer to percolate.

Thus, handing the car keys to a 20-year-old seems an unreasonable risk that completely dismisses the fact that the Lightning core is in its prime right now. Recognizing the timeline of your superstars is critical, and if it takes Vasilevskiy three seasons to peak, the team’s window may be shut. Bishop is 28, and Tampa Bay is built to win now.

The Lightning should trade Vasilevskiy and start to replace the depth guys who will be cap casualties. Otherwise, the Lightning could experience the same cruel fate as the Blues and Canucks did in the first round: dramatically control the even-strength shot attempts battle because they have more depth and skill among their skaters, but lose because their goaltending is inadequate. (The Canucks did pony up substantial money for their goaltender; he just happened to be an aging netminder whose best hockey is behind him.)

The Los Angeles Kings, one of the smartest teams in the league, are a great example of a team willing to pay a premium (in regards to term, not price) for goaltender Jonathan Quick because he exceeds the Mendoza Line. Quick has had uneven regular seasons, but the guy is always good enough (usually he is excellent) in the postseason, and the security blanket in goal is what you are paying for higher price or term.

Joel Quenneville and Jon Cooper epitomize the modern coach

There may be a place in the NHL’s future for an abrasive, supreme-power coach stewarding a Cup contending team, but in present day, the shift toward a coach-player alliance is visible for the best squads. The bench bosses of the Cup Final — the Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville and the Lightning’s Jon Cooper — are great examples of the modern coach.

Both men do an excellent job of respecting the players in the room and allowing some autonomy in how their players conduct themselves on and off the ice. For important decisions, they consult the leaders on the team. That is not to say they do not ever come down on them hard when they play poorly, but there is a desire to establish trust so that both parties mutually benefit. The players are partners, not pawns.

This is a sharp split from the John Tortorella/Mike Keenan my-way-or-the-highway syndrome. Players are well aware that they are far more valuable to the team than their coach, and with the leverage tipped in their favor, it does seem to make the authority model outmoded, at least for a Cup contender. (For some young teams, having a fiery, commanding coach can be instructive.)

Conversely, it is also worth pondering whether Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who has a reputation for grating on his players, is the right coach to steer his extremely talented squad to the promised land. Some coaches can adjust their philosophy and comportment to changing times. Hitchcock certainly has modified his hockey philosophy. Whether he can abate his intensity will be a fascinating subplot next season.

Final thoughts

Any doubts about the NHL’s transition to speed and skill over grit and grind were quashed this postseason. That is not to say that checking and size are not positive attributes — they are. But the idea of a cemented paradigm when constructing rosters has disappeared. If a young forward who has top-six potential is not good enough to crack the top two lines yet, he can be placed in the bottom six. If a defenseman has defensive anchor potential but is still too green to carry that workload, teams can opt to put him at third pair instead of burying him against inferior competition in the AHL.

Quenneville was happy to put Teuvo Teravainen on the third or fourth line and let him assume puck-handling duties. Cooper moved Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Nesterov around the lineup, sometimes putting them in complementary roles, other times sticking them with the high-end players.

The modern NHL is about stockpiling talent regardless of fit-of-system or size. The two primary boxes that need to be checked are speed and puck skills (on the offensive, defensive, or both ends). It was a sensational NHL season, and the countdown to the 2015-16 season is well under way.