I never really cared for Peaches and Herb, did you Dunc?

Do you like to gamble? Me too. I’m sure you’ve been at a Blackjack table when someone has split 10s and wanted to hit them upside the head with your shoe. On the other hand, there’s one card that you always want to split. Aces. Well, after four wins and five games with Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith being split up, I’m starting to think that Joel Quenneville would be that guy splitting 10s if he reunites them. He needs to treat them like aces. The status of Niklas Hjalmarsson is still up in the air and Nick Leddy has really improved his play when skating with Brent Seabrook. The Hawks have allowed 2, 1, 1, and 1 in their four wins and even the three goal game in Nashville was a good effort. It was also Sami Lepisto’s first game since the Kennedy administration.

This mostly relates to even strength play. The penalty kill has seen Keith and Seabrook together with Sean O’Donnell getting time with Leddy. Hjalmarsson can take Leddy’s time on the PK when he returns, or even Dylan Olsen who has been seen there.  I’d rather not even begin to talk about the powerplay because there’s still a forward on the point there.

During the nine game skid the Blackhawks CORSI numbers (Edmonton, Calgary Phoenix, San Jose, ColoradoNashville 2/14, Nashville 1/21)  were actually pretty decent with the exception of Vancouver. They were being efficient and getting the puck to the net at a greater frequency than their opponents. The top pairing of Keith and Seabrook was holding its own while simultaneously being overworked, though. The second and third pairings were a bit more precarious in their own end, especially Leddy and Hjalmarsson. Here’s the frequency during the last 3 games:

Click to Embiggen

Since the injury to Hjalmarsson, it’s been a bit more even in terms of shots (St. Louis, Columbus, New YorkDetroit). The Hawks have seen more balance on their blue line in minutes, shot differential and style of play. The top physical defenceman Seabrook has been with the green puck mover Leddy while the top all around defenceman Keith has been able to bring a larger, younger defenceman like Olsen along. Lepisto, while not an elite puck mover by any stretch, has helped the slower O’Donnell move the puck out of the Hawks’ end at even strength. Still, the CORSI numbers don’t have quite the feast or famine trend to them that those of the nine game skid did. During the skid, we had games of dizzying highs in positive CORSI and some with jaw-dropping lows on the negative side. The games during this little winning run are closer, the Blackhawks are challenging more shots and the difference has been in net where Corey Crawford has regained his form. He’s been helped by getting much cleaner looks at shots and not having to worry about Hjalmarsson being out of position or Leddy getting physically worked in front of the net. It’s balanced and the Hawks talent is coming out in the end instead of seeing the mistakes compound themselves on the bottom two pairings.

The question then becomes where Hjalmarsson gets slotted when he returns.

Keith and Olsen compliment each other well and I can’t see a Olsen-Hjalmarsson/Lepisto/O’Donnell pairing working out well at all since #34 is still so raw. If there were ever a time that I’d want to see Joel Quenneville juggle his lines it’s on the other side of the blue line than he does right now. Sticking with the primary combinations of Olsen-Keith, Leddy-Seabrook and Hjalmarsson-O’Donnell/Lepisto is what I think should be the foundation of the defence. Slotting Seabrook and Keith together for key defensive zone draws, late in periods with close scores or on special teams would be prudent. Leddy and Hjalmarsson can be used in situations where Quenneville can play matchups against weaker competition. It’s a delicate balance of making sure Keith doesn’t skate the 32:31 that he did against Detroit and getting beneficial matchups in certain zone starts.

Just two weeks ago we were all ready to trade for a defenceman. Now, we’ve got a surplus if Olsen is kept at the NHL level or even with Lepisto since we now know he’s at least capable of handling 10 minutes a night. Not to belabor an already thoroughly beaten point, but John Scott should never dress for a hockey game once Hjalmarsson gets back. Even if the Blackhawks waive Sami Lepisto (who would actually cost more to waive) in favor of Scott, you’ve still got O’Donnell with Olsen kept at the NHL level. Olsen’s entry level contract does not have a 10 game limit like 18 and 19 year olds so we can keep him up here if it means winning hockey games.

As a small aside, that top six forward talk could be a bit more important, especially since the market is much more forgiving in acquiring a forward as opposed to defence. Detroit flipped a 1st round pick for an admittedly good player but there aren’t many more Kyle Quinceys out there. There’s a pretty easily hoodwinked GM in Edmonton and Ales Hemsky is definitely getting moved in the next week. Hemsky-Kruger-Hossa sounds nice, no? Especially if it doesn’t require the movement of top prospects.

Split your aces, Q. Keep the 10s together.

[image via, line combos via leftwinglock.com]