When the St. Louis Blues lost game six to Chicago hockey writers started to take a look at ice time for Blues' players and suddenly discovered that the Blues' best scorer was not seeing the ice time you would normally expect from a team that was struggling to clinch a playoff series they were once leading 3-1.
Tarasenko's ice time is just one piece of a larger strategy that comes into play during the playoffs when coaches are looking for the perfect match-ups and ways to exploit their opponents. Conventional wisdom says you give your best players the most ice time especially when you need to win. However, in this discussion about Tarasenko's ice time, the larger picture of Hitchcock's ice time allocation is being missed.
The 'Player 5v5 TOI for CHI/STL Series' chart in the first tab below pretty much says it all. Throughout this playoff series Hitchcock has rolled three lines with an almost equal distribution of ice time. Meanwhile, Quenneville is allocating ice time in a more traditional fashion. Of course this varies from game to game as you can see in the second tab '5v5 Time on Ice by Game.' This chart shows how much ice time each player for each team had during the first 6 playoff games. The chart is sorted by game 1 by default. However you can sort each game yourself with the sort button that appears when you hover your mouse over the axis label at the bottom (where it says "TOI"). One thing you will notice is that for almost every game the Blues' players' ice time almost all cluster around the median for their position/team. While the Blackhawks have a more diverse distribution in the amount of ice time allocated to their players. On the third tab, you can actually see the ranking in ice time for each St. Louis Blues' player for each game across the series. Click on a player's name in the table to highlight their trend line. For instance, clicking on Tarasenko shows that he received the 4th most ice time at the start of the playoffs, but in game 6 he received the 2nd most ice time (tied with Jaden Schwartz). Berglund has had a decent series, but his ice time dropped dramatically, in relation to his teammates, between game 3 and game 4.
The takeaway from all of this for me is Hitchcock is allocating his ice time in a much different manner than Quenneville is. And while it may seem like Tarasenko is being slighted, overall, Hitchcock is distributing ice time pretty much equally throughout the team when looking at the big picture of all 6 games. However, when examining ice time game by game, we see much bigger discrepancies in how player ice time is being allocated between games. When you look at the Blues' player ranking by game they are all over the place. Meanwhile, Quenneville has been somewhat consistent with the ice time he has been allocating to each of his players. Is it fair to say the results speak for themselves?
Below is the head to head match-up charts I screen capped from War-on-Ice. Each game shows the Blues players on the side and the Blackhawk players across the top. The size of each square is the amount of ice time shared between a Blues player and a Blackhawks player. The bigger the square, the more ice time they shared during that game. The color of the square indicates the corsi for percentage for the Blues player when on the ice with the Blackhawks player. For instance, in game 1, Backes saw most of his ice time against Kane, Panarin, and Anisimov. And unfortunately, the red hue of those squares indicates those three Blackhawks players generated more unblocked shot attempts when facing Backes, than Backes and his teammates did against those three Blackhawks players. It gives you a general idea of the results of the head-to-head match-ups between the Blackhawks and the Blues.
The bottom line and the reason why I even started writing this article was all about Tarasenko and the amount of playing time he is getting during the playoffs. Conventional wisdom says you give your best players the most ice time. Hitchcock is bucking that wisdom and changing ice time allocations between games resulting in an overall more equitable allocation of ice time between his top forwards. With the Blues on the verge of yet another first round exit, it appears that his strategy is struggling against Quenneville's more conventional and consistent allocation of ice time for his Blackhawk players.