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No formula for how Quenneville picks Blackhawks’ sixth defenseman

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Updated: January 15, 2014 9:42PM

After 12 months of waiting for the nod, of making educated guesses based on what color practice jersey he’s wearing the day before a game, of going to work wondering if he’ll be wearing a Blackhawks uniform or a suit later that night, Michal Rozsival has started asking Joel Quenneville if there’s any rhyme or reason to the way he chooses his sixth defenseman on a given night.

“I try to talk to Q about it, I ask him about it,” Rozsival said with a wry smile. “He says something like, when you want to take a pay cut, then you can start thinking like a coach.”

It’s possible Quenneville is just being coy about his master plan.

It’s also possible there isn’t one.

When pressed on the subject, the Hawks coach talked about “keeping guys in the mix.” He also said that “sometimes there’s a matchup.” He then said “it’s almost kind of a rotation.”

“Sometimes there’s a thought process to it,” he added, a sly comment that carries with it the implication that often there isn’t.

The fact is, Quenneville has eight defensemen on the roster that he likes and trusts. Five of them — Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy — are in the lineup every night. That leaves Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank and Michael Kostka in perpetual limbo, preparing to play every night even though the math suggests they won’t be.

Last year, it was just Rozsival and Brookbank rotating in and out of the lineup. With Kostka in the mix, even Quenneville admits “it’s a little trickier.”

“It’s a little bit harder,” Brookbank said. “It’s one extra guy, and I’m sure they feel the same, but I know I want to play as much as possible. So it gets tough when you sit out sometimes. We’re just trying to do the best we can with it.”

Rozsival — who seized the job for good in the playoffs last season and played in every game — has played the most in the sixth spot this season, 26 games. Brookbank — who said sitting out for all but one game in the playoffs last year was “one of the toughest things in my career” — also has played 26 games, but that includes his stint as a forward in November. Kostka — who missed nearly seven weeks with a foot injury — has played in seven.

They don’t simply rotate. There are no “turns.” Rozsival played back-to-back games last week, then sat out the last two. Brookbank has been a healthy scratch three straight games twice in the last three weeks. And Kostka seems to get in once every fourth game or so.

All three want to play every day. But all three realize that’s not the plan.

“You have to just kind of surrender to what it is and understand the situation,” Kostka said. “In a perfect world, we’d want to be playing every game, but that’s not the situation. We just do our best to bring enthusiasm in practice and be prepared as much as possible.”

Leddy always partners up with whichever of the three dresses on a given night, and he’s frequently asked how difficult is is to adapt to different partners — the reliable Rozsival, the physical Brookbank, the offensive-minded Kostka. But Leddy said it’s far more difficult for them, to stay sharp and focused with such long gaps in between appearances.

And while Leddy and the other four everyday defensemen can get away with an off night here or there, the pressure’s on Rozsival, Brookbank and Kostka to be at their best every time they play. Not just because a poor night could mean three or four straight games in the press box. But because chances are, only one of them is going to play in the playoffs. Quenneville’s looking for someone to take the job and run with it, like Rozsival did last year, and every night’s an audition.

Brookbank hopes he’s earned it. Kostka hopes he’ll get the chance to prove it should be him. And Rozsival hopes he showed last spring that he’s the right choice. And that’s all they can do — hope, and work hard, and hope some more — because if Quenneville has a long-term plan in mind, he’s not sharing it.

“It’s always the hope, but the best I can do is do my job on the ice and make sure to show them with my play that I’m ready and I can be the guy that he can trust again when the playoffs come around,” Rozsival said. “It’s all going to depend on how well you’re playing. I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed in this league — even in this hour on this club. You always have to prove yourself. That’s how all three of us look at it. Nobody has anything guaranteed here.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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