CHICAGO -- You want to be known as a player’s coach in the NHL? It’s simple: Give your players extra days off.
Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville does it more often than most and he believes it pays off come game days, while the players simply like the rest and freedom a day away from the rink brings.
“He understands the schedule is quite grueling,” veteran Jamal Mayers said. “It’s heavier at times than others. Especially for the guys that play big minutes. It’s good to maintain that practice level so when we do get out there as a group we’re practicing at a high tempo.”
Mayers was on the ice with his teammates on Tuesday at Johnny’s IceHouse West for the first full-team, non game-day practice session in 13 days. In between were seven games, three full off-days and two optional practices. Mayers and teammate Andrew Brunette agree, no coach in the league gives his players that much time off – but, of course, they’re not complaining.
“One of the most [days off] of any team in the league,” Brunette said with a smile. “It feels like he understands the player’s point of view. They are very welcome for it and they work hard. Not every coach sees that. It’s hard to see that in the course of the season. You have the blinders on. It’s one game means everything, every night.”
Brunette said some coaches don’t feel secure enough to back off, especially when things aren’t going well on the ice. But the Hawks have mostly stuck with their schedule under Quenneville over the years, even in the face of some terrible hockey, including this season.
The Hawks went right to Las Vegas for some rest and relaxation in November after a brutal 9-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers and they responded with a great finish to their circus road trip. When they returned they played downright awful, losing their first game back, 4-1, to the Phoenix Coyotes, but yet again had the next day off. They went 7-0-1 over their next eight games.
“Everybody has their ways about doing things but I find when you save some of that energy for games, it helps,” Quenneville said.
There are plenty of coaches that view the 82-game regular season with the same intensity they do the playoffs. That’s a mistake, but more might be following Quenneville’s lead.
“It drains you mentally, but every coach adapts over the years and I think more are trending to ‘less is more,’ ” Mayers said. “And giving guys rest. The game is faster. It’s a lot more demanding.”
Having both played for Quenneville previously, Brunette and Mayers concur this is pretty much how he’s always operated. But the Hawks coach admits the Stanley Cup playoff run in 2010 taught him even more about getting proper rest for his team.
“I think we learn as you go along here,” Quenneville said. “I thought that playoff run helped us. When you hit the ice you can feel and see the difference by giving them a day off.”
And of course his players love him for it.
“No question, but I think it’s smart,” Mayers said with another grin.
Who gets the ice time?
With Daniel Carcillo now done with his suspension and on injured reserve after left knee surgery on Tuesday, the Hawks recalled Ben Smith, giving them 13 healthy forwards. The competition for playing time should be fierce.
“They’ve taken advantage of playing,” Quenneville said of his young players. “It’s internal competition but at the same time we want to max out our team and what it’s capable of doing.”
So who sits from night to night?
Obviously, how they play moving forward will determine it but Andrew Shaw, Jimmy Hayes and Marcus Kruger seem to have the upper hand right now. Shaw and Kruger lined up with Marian Hossa on Tuesday at practice as they did over the weekend. Hayes skated with Brunette and Dave Bolland while Mayers was between Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell. Smith was the extra forward and took line rushes with the defensemen.
Smith might be the most recent recall but Bickell, among others, is probably on notice yet again. He has three points in his last 16 games and just four goals in 40 games this season. For comparison, Shaw has four goals in seven games, Hayes has three in eight games and even Smith has two in nine games played. Frolik is also struggling to put up goals and points, but as a penalty killer he has value on the defensive end. Bickell isn’t playing on power play or penalty kill which makes him a prime candidate to be a healthy scratch as he was for five games in early December.
Then again, the rookies have to keep it up or they’ll find their way to the bench. Of course, barring new injures, when Patrick Sharp returns from his ailment the Hawks will have some more tough decisions to make. But as any coach, including Quenneville, would say… it’s a good problem to have.
Quenneville tried some new looks with his power-play units on Tuesday. He had forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Shaw on one unit with Brent Seabrook and Steve Montador on the point while Bolland, Hossa, Brunette, Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy made up the second group. The right-handed Montador is the new addition on the point. He was previously playing in the slot but he took Sharp’s spot on the left side of the blue line -- at least in practice.
“I think our power play has just gotten to the point where we just need to concentrate on getting shots,” Montador said. “For the most part, the bread and butter is going to be the simple plays.”
Hawks defensemen have just one power-play goal combined on the season from the point. Montador tallied twice from his previous spot in front of the net. Quenneville had Hossa on the point on the power play on Sunday against the San Jose Sharks. He leads the team with seven man-advantage tallies, of which several have come from the blue line.
Montador will face the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday for the first time since being traded to Chicago this past offseason. Montador was a healthy scratch for his final contest as a Sabre; a Game 7 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round last postseason.
“I’ve moved on,” Montador said. “I enjoyed my time there. The reality is I’m happy to be a Blackhawk and happy to be here and that’s that.”
Viktor Stalberg turned 26 on Tuesday, one day after being named second star in the NHL. He said he had no plans for his birthday. “I don’t like making a big deal out of birthdays,” Stalberg said.
Game time for Wednesday’s Hawks/Sabres game is 6:30 p.m. to accommodate national television.