Anyone watching the NHL Western Conference Finals so far has seen the same thing.
The Chicago Blackhawks just look better than the San Jose Sharks.
It would be naive to think that tweaking line or defensive combinations, or inserting role players who have been scratched in place of the current line-up, would change that fact.
A personnel shakeup can give the Hawks new problems to deal with, and could force Chicago to make adjustments. San Jose's move could take the Blackhawks out of their comfortable, successful pattern. This could narrow the gap between the two teams—a gap that is fairly narrow to begin with.
In terms of personnel tinkering, the easiest is juggling the lines.
I would give Scott Nichol, who has speed, energy, checks hard, and gets under the skin of the opposition, more playing time.
Moving him from the fourth line makes sense. Someone would have to be moved down to make room for Nichol.
While the top line has been a combined minus-eight in the series, their intensity has been there. They have been on the ice for all three of the Sharks goals. It would be counterproductive to break them up.
But, while the second line was playing so effectively through the first eight games this postseason, they have been silenced in the last five.
It may be time to break them up. It's particularly noteworthy that when Joe Pavelski gets kicked out of the face-off circle, Ryane Clowe has been a bad replacement (Clowe lost 12 of 13 vs. Detroit).
Were Nichol on the second line, there would be an option should Pavelski get booted.
However, switching Nichol and Clowe would not be a good idea. It would leave the second line with three smallish, right-handed shooters.
I would drop Setoguchi to the third line with Manny Malhotra. Like Clowe, Malhotra can do the dirty work. Logan Couture, who showed an ability to get to the front of the net late in the regular season, should also be on that line.
That gives each of the top three lines two centers for face-offs. All three lines would have multiple scorers, as well.
The move also forces the as-yet ineffective Mitchell to the fourth line (usually not involved in face-offs) with Jamie McGinn. The team cannot afford to lose speed to remove the most ineffective forward (Mitchell), and only true center on that line.
From there, it may be time to see what Brad Staubitz can do, if he is healthy.
Staubby is not as skilled as the other two forward options, but is big enough to contend with Dustin Byfuglien and to provide a screen like him, as well as capable of getting under the skin of some Hawks players.
If Staubby isn't healthy, Dwight Helminen's speed could be helpful on that fourth line against a fast Chicago team. While not as much of a change in approach as the alternative, this still inserts a player that was not in previously in this series.
I do not see any advantage to putting Jed Ortmeyer into this series. He does not provide the physical match up of Staubby's size or Helminen's speed, and he played very poorly against Detroit.
In the two games he played, Ortmeyer got in for only 15 shifts. Whether this was because he was battling injury, or was otherwise ineffective, the fact remains he was a liability. Detroit outscored San Jose 2-0 in those 15 shifts. They were outscored 8-4 the rest of the games.
Ortmeyer was directly responsible for one of those goals, he did not cover the man coming to the weak side.
Any of those changes would mean ending the seven defensemen experiment.
So, which blueliner should Todd McLellan replace?
Niclas Wallin has easily been the team's least effective player on the blue-line.
However, without the favorable home ice, it's the last change to get the match ups he wants. McLellan must keep the physical defenseman in so that all three pairs have a big body to deal with the front-of-net traffic (Wallin, Rob Blake, and Douglas Murray).
Since the team also needs more defensemen that get pucks to the net, replacing Jason Demers is also not a good idea.
That leaves Kent Huskins.
Thus, my suggested line and defence pairings are as follows:
- Marleau-Thornton-Heatley and Boyle-Murray
- Clowe-Pavelski-Nichol and Blake-Vlasic
- Couture-Malhotra-Setoguchi and Demers-Wallin or Huskins-Wallin if Staubitz and Helminen are not healthy.
- McGinn-Mitchell-Staubitz/Helminen (Demers if neither of them is healthy).