The Chicago Blackhawks do not appear poised to loosen their grip on the Stanley Cup. After winning a championship last season they sit atop the Central Division with a 32-9-12 record thanks in part to optimizing $2,462,500 worth of assets: their fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith.
That trio has been used by Coach Joel Quenneville to take the brunt of the defensive responsibility, which includes defensive-zone draws and shutting down the opposition’s top line, giving the team’s more offensively gifted players greater opportunities in the offensive zone.
The chart above illustrates those responsibilities. On the horizontal axis is zone start ratio. Players who start more often in the offensive zone are toward the right and those starting more in the defensive zone to the left. On the vertical axis is quality of competition. Players who face the toughest opponents (i.e. top six forwards) are higher and those that face easier competition, lower. A player’s bubble is colored somewhere between blue and red according to the percentage of even-strength shot attempts that go in his team’s favor while they are on the ice, with the blues better than reds. Players’ bubbles are sized according to their average time on ice.
Every one of Quenneville’s forwards is given a majority of their draws in the offensive zone with the exception of Bollig, Kruger and Smith. Plus, those three are lining up against the likes of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin when the Blackhawks face the Dallas Stars; Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in their matchups against Anaheim; and Gabriel Landeskog when they clash with Colorado. Despite that, Chicago’s shutdown line has been driving play. Ignoring special teams and lead-protecting situations, the Blackhawks have seen 49 percent of shot attempts in their favor with Bollig-Kruger-Smith on the ice. That’s a strong number for a fourth line going against top competition and comparable to the Islanders’ John Tavares (48.8 percent) and Montreal’s Max Pacioretty (48.4 percent) in addition to bettering Carolina’s Jeff Skinner (46.7 percent) and Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk (45.3 percent).
They contribute to the scoreboard, too. Bollig-Kruger-Smith has produced almost as many even-strength goals (11) for Chicago as the second line of Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw (12).
“They’re accustomed to knowing that defensively we want them to be responsible,” said Quenneville of the trio. “Offensively, there’s something there, but their job description is to make sure you’re not scored on.”
This fourth line trio doesn’t boast any Olympians or get as much ink as the team’s superstars but make no mistake, they are every bit as important to the Blackhawks’ success.