You know what’s always fun to do with regard to NHL hockey? Look at advanced stats. Sure, at this point in the Chicago Blackhawks’ season, five games is a pretty small sample size to draw definitive conclusions. But after a pair of three-goal losses in which the Blackhawks looked a bit off, I think it’s fair to see what these statistics have to say (as always, courtesy war-on-ice.com).
We’re going to start with the Blackhawks’ offense, which has put up a paltry one goal in the last 120 game minutes, and that was from Viktor Svedberg last night. I’ve read the idea that the Blackhawks have just two capable scoring lines at this point, but I absolutely don’t think that’s true. If you watched last night’s game, you saw the fourth line of Andrew Desjardins–Marcus Kruger–Andrew Shaw swarming Braden Holtby and Co. in the first two periods. Bryan Bickell had perhaps his most productive game since the 2014-15 regular season, even though he didn’t hit the scoresheet, while on the third line with Teuvo Teravainen and Kyle Baun. I think giving Viktor Tikhonov more time alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa could produce some great results, and the second line … we know what that is.
I’m not saying the Blackhawks are rolling four pure scoring lines, but they’re not rolling just two. The team has racked up shot totals of 34, 35, 34, 30 and 27, outshooting their opponent all but once (the New York Islanders recorded 36 shots in the Blackhawks’ OT win at Barclays Center, outshooting the Blackhawks by one). By the same token, the Blackhawks have been fine in the possession department thus far, winning the team Corsi-for battle in all three games they lost (60.6 percent against the Rangers, 52.1 percent against the Flyers and 50.5 percent against the Capitals) while faltering against the Islanders (44.9 percent on the road, 48.1 percent at home). So it’s not like the offense is kicking its feet up and having a beer, although the Blackhawks haven’t always looked inspired from first whistle to final horn through the first five games. But that’s nothing new.
Here’s something interesting, though. For those unaware, Corsi measures shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots by a team. Meanwhile, lesser-discussed Fenwick measures shots on goal and missed shots by a team. So no blocked shots go toward a team’s Fenwick number in a game. With that info, let’s look at the Blackhawks’ team Corsi-for and Fenwick-for numbers in all situations through the first five games:
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vs. New York Rangers: CF60 — 63.0 | FF60 — 48.0
at New York Islanders: CF60 — 44.9 | FF60 — 41.7
vs. New York Islanders: CF60 — 48.1 | FF60 — 42.0
at Philadelphia Flyers: CF60 — 52.1 | FF60 — 45.0
at Washington Capitals: CF60 — 50.5 | FF60 — 36.0
As you can see, the Blackhawks get quite a few of their shots blocked. While there’s one idea I have about this that I’ll discuss shortly, I think part of these discrepancies has to do with the Blackhawks often shooting from well outside the home-plate area. You’ll hear Pat Foley and Eddie Olczyk harp on getting to the net for scoring chances, and this is among the reasons why. It’s pretty hard for an opponent to block a shot from the home-plate area of the ice, considering how tight the shooter would be to the net. But from far out, it’s much easier for Niklas Hjalmarsson clones to throw their bodies in front of the puck.
Of course, it’s not always as easy as saying “Get to the front of the net.” A price is often paid, and opponents will try to send players into the next century with a big hit in that situation. But this is among the reasons the Blackhawks’ offense is sluggish out out the gate, at least in my view. The forward corps are actually among the deepest they’ve been in the Joel Quenneville era, so I think attributing early struggles to a lack of properly structured lines is misguided (especially now that the Bickell-Shaw-Baun line no longer exists).
But there’s something else to this blocked-shots issue, and I noticed it a lot in last night’s game. The Blackhawks have often used their defensemen to start offensive plays and drive possession, Duncan Keith being the prime example. But through five games this season, it almost feels like there are six more forwards hanging out on the blue line. And it’s a good and bad thing.
It’s a good thing because it helps create scoring chances, of course. Through five games, only Trevor Daley is without a point from the blue line, which is equal parts hilarious and disturbing considering he plays better offensively than he does defensively. Brent Seabrook has a goal and nine shots, Keith has two assists and seven shots, Svedberg has a goal and seven shots, Hjalmarsson has an assist and four shots, Trevor Van Riemsdyk has a goal, an assist and four shots and Daley has seven shots. At one point last night, Seabrook and Van Riemsdyk actually led a rush up the ice. As in, they were the only two guys in the offensive zone while the three Blackhawks forwards were probably confused out of their minds.
But here are some issues with this. First of all, when a blueliner gets involved in an offensive play, he only has so many options. You’ll see Patrick Kane go from below the crease to the blue line because he has defensemen right there to back him up if he mishandles the puck. Who does that if a defenseman tries the same thing? That’s why Daley’s shotgun nature creates a certain level of fear for Blackhawks fans. By a similar token, if a blueliner tries to fire the puck from the point through traffic, it’s going to get blocked more often than not. I think we saw Svedberg have about 10 shots blocked last night before finally getting one through, and that was only after his initial attempt on that play was blocked, too. That doesn’t mean defensemen should stop getting involved in offensive plays, but it can stunt the team offense at times.
And that, in turn, can stunt the team defense. It’d be fair to say Daley and Van Riemsdyk are most-involved in jumping in on offensive plays, with Keith, Seabrook and Svedberg in the next tier and Hjalmarsson doing his own thing. In the season’s first three games, Van Riemsdyk (3.52) and Daley (3.37) had the highest on-ice-for goals-allowed average among the six Blackhawks defensemen who have played so far. And that’s while they both had a Corsi-for percentage better than 52 percent.
If these stats suggest anything to me, it’d be that the Blackhawks’ defensemen should be encouraged to get involved in offense plays while also not losing sight of the defensive zone, and that forwards need to be taking more of the team scoring chances and getting them into the home-plate area of the ice whenever possible.
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