The usage of Patrick Sharp has been a hot topic in Hawkland for the better part of two years now. Sharp was used primarily as the 2nd line Center during Chicago’s cup run, and placing him on the wing of Kane and Toews confused many Hawks fans last year, especially down the stretch, when David Bolland was injured. Loading up the top line then meant that Michael Frolik or Tomas Kopecky would play Center alongside Marian Hossa. Center depth is still somewhat a concern for the Hawks, and this same conversation about where to put Sharp in the line-up lingers on. Our goal is to use possession numbers to identify whether loading things up by playing Sharp with Kane and Toews actually resulted in an appreciable difference in the team’s ability to drive the play.
The results show that Chicago’s pure possession numbers take a slight hit when Sharp plays with Kane and Toews compared with when somebody else plays with the pair. Sharp – Toews – Kane were together for 427 Even Strength minutes last year. When those three were on the ice, the Hawks’ Corsi/60 was 15.155 against a Quality of Competition of -0.734. Kane and Toews as a pair played 930 minutes with any other teammate not named Patrick Sharp, their Corsi/60 and Corsi Quality of Competition were 19.4 and 0.458, respectively. What makes the decision to load up even more questionable is the impact on Marian Hossa. Mr. Hossa has played 618 even strength minutes with none of Kane, Toews, or Sharp. The Hawks still had a positive Corsi in that sample, though it was much lower, coming in at a Corsi/60 of 4.7.
Now that we’ve established that splitting the pair up makes the most sense, the question becomes how to split them up. The two primary options are either:
· Other – Toews – Hossa / Other – Sharp – Kane
· Other – Toews – Kane / Other – Sharp – Hossa
Toews was paired with Hossa and somebody not named Patrick Sharp or Patrick Kane for 259 EV minutes. The pair did well for themselves, putting up a Corsi/60 of 13.7. This is all the more impressive when realizing this pair was generally out against the opponent’s toughest competition. The Quality of Competition rating was 1.76. In other words, Toews and Hossa took on tough competition and still dominated possession. Sharp and Kane were also impressive, with a Corsi/60 of 20.8. The pair generally faced weaker competition.
The other alternative is pairing Toews with Kane and then Sharp with Hossa. Toews and Kane (and no Sharp/Hossa) put up a Corsi/60 of 19.4 in 929 EV minutes. The pair faced tough competition, though it was not nearly as tough as the minutes that Toews and Hossa played. Sharp and Hossa have been together for 570 minutes, putting up a Corsi/60 of 15.5. It is interesting to note the drop in the quality of Marian Hossa’s opponents when he plays with Toews compared with Sharp. The Quality of Competition rating of Toews – Hossa is 1.76 compared to -0.7 when the Slovak winger is paired with Sharp.
The numbers ultimately bear out that splitting up Sharp and Toews is the optimal solution given Chicago’s current line-up. From there, decisions on personnel get a bit murky, though there are some important implications. First, is that none of Sharp’s minutes at Center can be considered tough. This is interesting, as the defensive reputations of his two potential right wingers are quite different, yet the quality of opposition has not impacted who plays the right side on Sharp’s line. We do, however, see a big drop in the quality of opposition when we compare Toews’ minutes with Kane to Toews’ minutes with Hossa. The captain faced tough minutes regardless, though the 0.458 quality of competition when playing with Kane was a relative cake walk compared to the quality of competition he faced when paired with Hossa.
My personal belief is that the Blackhawks should pair Sharp with Kane and Toews with Hossa. We can see that any line that Sharp centers will generally get softer minutes; given this, why not load up in both directions? A line based Toews and Hossa features two elite two-way forwards who have shown the ability to crush territorially despite playing absurdly tough minutes; Sharp and Kane would reap the benefits of the other pair’s tough minutes. It is also important to note that a Sharp – Kane pairing is considerably better than a Sharp – Hossa pairing in terms of puck possession even though the quality of minutes are effectively the same.
In the end, this, to quote The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield, ‘sounds like one of them good problems’. As a team that likes to play with the puck (and does so better than everybody else), the Blackhawks have an embarrassment of riches in top end talent. The only thing that can undermine that would be playing Patrick Sharp on the left wing.