Even in this modern age of hockey analysis, in which new metrics and tools open the door to all kinds of previously overlooked information, one item that gets overlooked all too often in individual games and individual series is the battle of wits between coaches of opposing teams.
2014’s Western Conference Final offers an intriguing test case.
The coaches at either end of the rink are among the most accomplished in the game, the depth charts of the two teams are exceptional, and there is an element of familiarity between these two clubs after they met in Round 3 of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Combine exceptional coaches, exceptional teams and history, and few series offer the same fertile soil for an analysis of coaching tactics.
Before comparing 2013 to 2014, it is important to note how the teams have changed.
The Kings have a very similar structure, but with clear upgrades. Anze Kopitar’s line is still the top unit, but it now features Marian Gaborik in place of Justin Williams, which provides a little more offensive juice. Jeff Carter still centres a secondary scoring line and Jarret Stoll still centres a checking unit, but the wingers on the former now skew younger (Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli), and the instillation of Williams on the latter gives it a dimension it didn’t have before. The fourth line, which at least theoretically consists of Mike Richards, Dwight King and Kyle Clifford, has been massively upgraded from the group that was there in 2013 (Clifford with Colin Fraser and Brad Richardson).
Chicago is running the same defence corps and the same top six as in 2014; the only changes there are in the bottom-six forward group.
So what have the coaches done differently?
We highlighted one of the big changes in our postgame piece on Sunday—Duncan Keith is no longer getting the matchup with the Kopitar line for Chicago.
At home in 2013, the Blackhawks showed no real preference as to whether the pairing of Keith and Brent Seabrook or the one with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya got the matchup against Kopitar; time was split almost down the middle, with Keith’s pairing taking 47 percent of the Kopitar minutes and Hjalmarsson’s getting 46 percent (the common factor in both years was a clear desire to keep Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival as far away from Kopitar as possible).
Why the change? The Kopitar unit being more dangerous this year seems to have prompted Chicago’s coaches to designate a specific shutdown unit (more on that in a moment), but the real reason for the blue-line shift probably has more to do with the Kings’ improved depth.
Not only are the players on the lower lines better this year, but Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter has taken to doing things like double-shifting Williams (nominally a third-liner, he got significant play on all three non-Kopitar lines in Game 1). This means that the ‘Hawks don’t generally have safe minutes for their third pairing, and so using Keith/Seabrook as all-purpose defenders helps negate some of the potential damage from an uneven forward matchup.
Of course, that still leaves a dangerous Kopitar line against the Hjalmarsson/Oduya duo. Joel Quenneville acknowledged the difficulty of shutting that unit down in his postgame availability on Sunday.
"That's going to be a work in progress, it's going to be a challenge game in and game-out," he told assembled media. "They've got three nice players that all complement one another, and they're dangerous. Every time they touch the puck, every time they're on the ice you've got to be aware."
Quenneville has more than words to address the threat; he's taken action as well:
|Percentage of Kopitar minutes played by Chicago's forwards|
|Forward Unit||First two games, 2013||First game, 2014|
In the first two games of 2013, Quenneville mostly went for the power-vs.-power matchup (Jonathan Toews against Kopitar), but he wasn’t strict about it. This time around, he has heavily focused the Toews unit against Los Angeles’ deadliest trio.
It is a shift that serves as well as any to illustrate how this series has changed. In 2013, there were plenty of matchups that Chicago had no problem with at home. In 2014, Quenneville has been line-matching furiously, working harder to contain Kopitar and deploying the Keith pairing as spackle to prevent the Kings’ depth from doing damage.
It is harder at this point to determine where the Kings are going with their strategy. In 2013, Sutter made massive changes once his team arrived in Los Angeles. After allowing either of his top-two defence pairs to play against the Toews line, he shifted to using Drew Doughty’s pairing nearly exclusively and altered his lines, sticking Stoll between Dustin Brown and Williams to form a high-end checking line that was matched against Chicago’s captain.
As the SB Nation blog Jewels from the Crown notes, a lot of that had as much to do with Kopitar as Stoll:
The interesting thing is that when we look at the home and road splits, Kopitar sees more time against Toews in Chicago than vice versa. A lot of this was driven by last year's playoffs where Kopitar was having a tough time staying above water versus Toews. Toews has been nothing short of dominant against the Kings these last two seasons. He has a +47 Corsi over that span while seeing most of his time against Kopitar and just a 52% ozone start ratio (much lower than his norm over the last two seasons). In order to have better luck against Chicago this time around, LA will need Kopitar to do better at limiting Toews possession time.
We’ve seen early indications that Sutter may be more diligent in controlling the Toews trio in this series than he was the last time around. In the first two games in Chicago in 2013, the Doughty pairing took on most of the Toews minutes (51.8 percent) with the Slava Voynov pair getting 36.1 percent of them. In Game 1 in the 2014 series, Doughty took on 72.3 percent of the Toews minutes, with Voynov getting just 23.0 percent of them.
It will be interesting to see if there are any shifts in Game 2. The Toews line did its job despite the Kings' best efforts, while the Blackhawks at times struggled to contain L.A.'s depth players. Sutter could not have been happy with the result of Game 1, but there were enough signs that his strategy was working to keep up the same approach going forward.
It’s going to be a fun series to watch, tactically, and particularly on the Chicago end, where Quenneville faces a much tougher challenge than he did in 2013.