The 10 Riskiest Lineup Choices in the 2014 NHL Playoffs So Far

Rob VollmanContributor IApril 26, 2014

The 10 Riskiest Lineup Choices in the 2014 NHL Playoffs So Far

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    Nick Wass

    Down three games to nothing last year, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella made the bold decision to scratch former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards from the lineup. Two games later, his team was eliminated and he was looking for a new job, with his inability to use the team's second-highest-priced asset effectively playing at least some small part.

    An NHL coach's job is not an enviable one in the postseason. Difficult choices have to be made, and by definition, they don't work out for 15 out of 16 teams. Which coaches have made the biggest gambles so far?

    To answer that, I went team by team looking at the biggest differences between player usage in the regular season and the playoffs. Zone deployment, quality of competition and ice time in each manpower situation were all compared on a player-by-player basis to find the 10 boldest lineup decisions. They included:

    • Healthy scratches and/or underutilization of star veterans
    • Increased usage of depth-line players, especially against top-line opponents
    • Selection of the backup as the starting goalie

    Each of these 10 choices have been subjectively ranked, along with an idea of what the alternatives were, and how the decisions have worked out so far. Let's begin!

10. Scratching Erik Cole, Dallas Stars

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    Jae C. Hong

    The Gamble

    Ignore the $4.5 million cap hit, because what's done is done. Erik Cole has 12 seasons of NHL experience, including a Stanley Cup championship with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

    While the 35-year-old certainly did not have a strong season, he is one of the few sources of scoring beyond the Dallas Stars' elite duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Cole scored 35 goals and 61 points as recently as the 2011-12 season.

    Coach Lindy Ruff has nevertheless scratched Cole from the lineup after the first two games, during which his ice time was cut by about a quarter. He's not alone on that latter front, as fellow veterans Ray Whitney and Sergei Gonchar have seen their ice time cut to a similar extent.

     

    The Alternatives

    In lieu of veterans such as Cole and Whitney, Ruff has turned to three rookies—Alex Chiasson, Colton Sceviour and Valeri Nichushkin—for secondary scoring.

    As for veteran leadership, Ryan Garbutt recently praised Vernon Fiddler and Shawn Horcoff for effectively filling that role, as reported by Brandon Worley of Defending Big D.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    The Stars won two straight games at home before dropping a 6-2 disappointment in Game 5.

    The three youngsters have only scored two goals so far, and the team has been outscored 5-0 at even strength when Chiasson's been on the ice.

9. Kevan Miller, Boston Bruins

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    Carlos Osorio

    The Gamble

    If the Boston Bruins had a weakness this season, then it was blue-line depth. Once past Zdeno Chara and the team's top veterans, there were only rookies and depth options who remained.

    That's why the absence of Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid to injury and Matt Bartkowski's flu left coach Claude Julien with potentially little choice but to lean heavily on Kevan Miller.

    Miller, a 26-year-old rookie, played his first 47 NHL games this season, scoring six points and averaging 17 minutes, 30 seconds per game, eighth among the team's defensemen. In the postseason, he ranks fourth with almost 22 minutes a game.

     

    The Alternatives

    Corey Potter and veteran Andrej Meszaros have been healthy scratches, but "impressed in game 1 loss" according to Mark Daniels of the Boston Herald and did a "commendable job," according to Jimmy Toscano of CSN New England.

    Even with Miller in the lineup, Julien could choose to lean more heavily on Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton instead, who trail him in ice time by about three minutes per game.  

     

    The Results (So Far)

    The Bruins have won all three games with Miller in the lineup, and the Detroit Red Wings are yet to score against him at even strength.

    Boston has been fantastic defensively, and the right selection and usage of its blue line will be increasingly more critical as the playoffs progress.

8. Scratching Martin Havlat, San Jose Sharks

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    Jeff Chiu

    The Gamble

    It's a little risky to face one of the league's best defensive teams without potentially the team's most creative offensive talent. Martin Havlat had 52 points in 74 playoff games and finished top three in team scoring in each of his three previous appearances.

    Of course, the 33-year-old Czech is no longer anywhere near his best. He has just 27 goals and 67 points in 127 games in three seasons as a San Jose Shark.

    The good news is that Havlat responded to his last healthy scratch by recording a hat trick against the Colorado Avalanche in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

     

    The Alternatives

    Rookie Matt Nieto, who scored 10 goals and 24 points in 66 games this season, has assumed the role of second-line scoring winger.

    The Sharks notably also decided to add Mike Brown to increase the toughness of their lineup, especially since they are one of the more skill-based teams taking on one of the most physical teams.

    Brown, along with Tommy Wingels, Brent Burns, Raffi Torres and James Sheppard, has allowed the Sharks to go hit for hit with the Los Angeles Kings.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    The Sharks are averaging five goals a game against one of the league's best defensive teams and are one win away from advancing to the second round a lot quicker and easier than everybody thought. 

    Nieto has scored two goals and five points, while his line has outscored its opponents five to one at even strength. Even Brown has a goal and two points. 

7. Adam Cracknell, St. Louis Blues

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    The Gamble

    Release the Cracknell!

    That's what coach Ken Hitchcock has decided to do in light of the team's injuries, increasing his share of available ice time by over 30 percent, the sixth-largest leap this postseason.

    The 28-year-old winger played just 19 games this season, which was actually only five shy of his single-season career high.

     

    The Alternatives

    Veteran Derek Roy was a healthy scratch for Games 3 and 5, both losses where the St. Louis Blues managed only two goals. Of course, Roy doesn't play the same role as Cracknell, but his insertion into the lineup would allow others to handle some of those minutes.

    In a critical situation, do the Blues want the puck on the stick of Cracknell or Roy? As reported by Brian Haenchen of InsideSTL, Cracknell himself said, "I had one come out on the wing and it just kind of rolled off my stick. That's the difference."

    In fairness, it's the team's injuries that require players such as Cracknell, Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves to remain in the game, but it's Hitchcock's bold gamble to use them so frequently.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    Cracknell scored the first goal of the series, and his first playoff goal, five minutes into Game 1.

    Here's what Hitchcock had to say, as reported by Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

    "They protected the puck, they created scoring chances, they followed the script and they really played well as a line together. They did the things we needed them to do. We needed them to draw even. They did more than draw even. It was a good sign."

    Cracknell is tied with Steve Ott for the team lead with 24 hits and has had only a single goal scored against him.

6. Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks

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    Tony Gutierrez

    The Gamble

    Rookie Frederik Andersen filled in nicely for the injured Jonas Hiller this season. The 24-year-old Dane posted a nifty .923 save percentage en route to an eye-opening 20-5-0 regular-season record.

    But wait! Andersen's regular-season totals may have been boosted by favorable conditions. He enjoyed an average offensive support of 3.61 goals per start, third-highest in the league, and the average shooting percentage of the opponents he faced was the lowest in the league.

    His playing conditions were absolutely perfect for such strong totals, and the fact that he posted only 13 quality starts in 24 attempts is potentially more telling.

     

    The Alternatives

    Veteran Jonas Hiller would have been the safer selection for coach Bruce Boudreau.

    No one would have questioned opting for the 32-year-old Swiss veteran who finished ninth in Vezina voting last year and led the NHL with a .943 save percentage in the 2009 postseason.

    This year, Hiller posted 29 quality starts in 50 attempts, edging Andersen 58.0 percent to 54.2.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    Andersen posted a reasonable .914 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average through the first two games before being chased in Game 4.

    He bounced back to a strong performance at home in Game 5, stopping 34 of 36 shots, his second quality start of the series.

5. Marc-Andre Cliche, Colorado Avalanche

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    The Gamble

    Rookie Marc-Andre Cliche and tough guy Cody McLeod, who combined for six goals and 20 points this season, have been relied on heavily by coach Patrick Roy this postseason.

    The checking-line forwards have seen their share of ice-time increase by 50.9 and 31.4 percent, respectively, which ranks first and fourth in NHL.

     

    The Alternatives

    Roy doesn't have a lot of options with Matt Duchene, Alex Tanguay and John Mitchell all out of the lineup. He has even had to resort to stretching Jamie McGinn into a top-six role.

    Other than increasing the share of ice time for the top lines, Roy's option is to spread out the remaining ice time more evenly among the depth choices, such as Patrick Bordeleau and Brad Malone. Both are averaging under eight minutes a game, barely half that of Cliche and McLeod.

    Joey Hishon and Paul Carey have both already been added to the lineup, while veterans J.T. Wyman, David Van Der Gulik and Mark Olver also remain as potential depth choices.

    Roy may not have had a lot of choice in the matter, but relying so heavily on depth options is surely one of this postseason's greatest risks.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    Though they have been outshot 33-14, only a single goal has been scored against Cliche (and McLeod) at even strength.

    Colorado has been outshot 143 to 94, but has outscored the Minnesota Wild 10-9 and has the series locked at two games apiece.

4. Jack Skille, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jay LaPrete

    The Gamble

    Who leads the Columbus Blue Jackets in toughest average quality of competition? Surprisingly, the answer is Jack Skille.

    Signed as a free agent this offseason, Skille played just 16 games for the Blue Jackets, recording four points. The 26-year-old has 194 games of NHL experience, during which he has scored 53 points. 

    There's nothing risky about having him in the postseason lineup, but rather his joining Boone Jenner (another candidate for this list) and Ryan Johansen on the top scoring line. Skille's share of the even-strength playing time is consequently up by a third, and he has had the second-largest increase in average quality of competition.

     

    The Alternatives

    The Blue Jackets have a wealth of secondary scoring options who can also take on top opponents.

    Coach Todd Richards could choose to lean more heavily on Artem Anisimov, for instance, a complete player who was one of only four players to score nine out of 10 on the do-it-all index this season. And now that he's back in the lineup, veteran R.J. Umberger becomes another candidate for top-six duty.

    Even beyond those two veteran options, Richards could consider anyone from Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson and even Mark Letestu for an enhanced role.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    The Blue Jackets are dead even with the much-favored Pittsburgh Penguins, in everything from shots and goals to wins.

    Skille has no goals and one assist in four games. Columbus has been outshot 31 to 25 and outscored two to one with Skille on the ice, which isn't bad considering the caliber of his opponents. 

3. Erik Haula, Minnesota Wild

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    JACK DEMPSEY

    The Gamble

    While everyone from Kyle Brodziak, Dany Heatley and Stephane Veilleux have been healthy scratches, 23-year-old Finnish rookie Erik Haula has enjoyed the largest postseason jump in ice time in the NHL.

    Haula, who scored 15 points in 46 games with the Wild this year as a strict depth-line option, has seen his share of the ice time increase by 33.5 percent at even strength and 52.4 percent while killing penalties. His average quality of competition is also up 12.2 percent, third-highest in the NHL.

    The move comes as a surprise given that "[coach Mike] Yeo repeatedly said during the regular season that Haula wasn't ready for the responsibilities that come with playing against top players as the third-line center," according to Chad Graff of the Pioneer Press. This is quite a time for Yeo to change his mind.

     

    The Alternatives

    Obviously Yeo would have raised fewer eyebrows by leaning on established veterans such as Brodziak, Heatley and even Veilleux instead of lesser known players such as Haula and 26-year-old Justin Fontaine, who has also enjoyed a big increase in ice time.

    Brodziak is the default choice for the third line, but an unaffordable turnover in Game 1 gave Haula his opportunity.

    Minnesota has relied on the 29-year-old for five years to kill penalties and take on all the toughest defensive zone assignments at even strength. It is no small gamble to try Haula instead.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    The Wild have outshot the Avalanche 22 to six with Haula on the ice at even strength, but the two are tied at a single goal apiece. With Brodziak, they have been outshot 16-10 and outscored two to one.

2. Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Gamble

    Coach Joel Quenneville has decided to spread out the offense, switching up Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane over two or three lines. In all the shuffle, who was selected to join Toews on the top two-way line? Bryan Bickell.

    At first glance, the move makes a lot of sense, as the 6'4" 28-year-old had considerable success last year. His 17 points in 23 games ranked second on the team to Kane. That makes it easy to forget that he scored just 15 points in 59 games this year while playing on a depth line with Andrew Shaw.

    Thanks to this promotion to the top line, Bickell's even-strength playing time has consequently gone up 26.8 percent, the seventh-largest increase this postseason, while the average quality of his competition has gone up 14.5 percent, the biggest jump in the league.

     

    The Alternatives

    The Chicago Blackhawks have a wealth of options for the top lines, not the least of which are Kane, Hossa and Sharp.

    Sharp in particular has been underused. The 32-year-old veteran, who led the Blackhawks with 34 goals and 78 points this season, has seen his ice time drop by over 10 percent and the average quality of his competition drop down below the team average.

    Sharp is nevertheless second on the team to Hossa with 21 shots, but has yet to register a point.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    Bickell tipped in a critical goal in Game 4, prompting Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune to declare the move a success.

    The Blackhawks have outshot the Blues 45-36 at even strength with Bickell on the ice and tied them at three apiece. That's good, but Toews has outscored the Blues eight to four overall.

    Bickell does lead the team with 31 hits, but he has also taken three penalties, including a nasty knee-on-knee hit with Vladimir Sobotka, without drawing any of his own.

1. Scratching Teemu Selanne, Anaheim Ducks

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    Jae C. Hong

    The Gamble

    In a move that his son Eemil felt should get the coach demoted to the AHL, as reported by Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun, Teemu Selanne was a healthy scratch for Game of the Anaheim Ducks' first-round series with the Dallas Stars.

    Even when he was in the lineup, Selanne has seen his playing time dramatically cut. Granted the 43-year-old future Hall of Famer recorded only nine goals and 27 points in 64 games this season and has failed to capitalize on a few prime scoring opportunities, but benching him is a gusty move.

    Even as one who embraces hockey analytics, I can only speculate what the effect must have been on team morale or coach Bruce Boudreau's karma.

     

    The Alternatives

    When on the power play or down by a goal late in the game, it's highly unlikely that a team would be better off with Emerson Etem in the lineup, but that's the decision that Boudreau made.

    Even if Etem needs to be in the lineup, there are safer options for healthy scratches, such as Pat Maroon or Rickard Rakell.

     

    The Results (So Far)

    The Ducks took an initial 2-0 lead but ultimately lost Game 4 4-2. With Selanne back in the lineup, Anaheim won Game 5 6-2 to take a three-to-two series lead.

    Selanne hasn't had a strong series. While the Ducks have outshot the Stars 20-17 at even strength, the Finnish legend is one of only three players with whom they've failed to score when he's on the ice.

    It's a bold move that will be seen as an unnecessary insult at best if it doesn't pay off and a disastrous blunder at worst.

     

    Player usage and on-ice shooting information sourced from Extra Skater. All other advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.