Chicago Blackhawks: How To Improve In Key Areas

Feb 25, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) with the puck during the second period against the Nashville Predators at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) with the puck during the second period against the Nashville Predators at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /
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Another day, another shelling at the hands of a playoff-caliber opponent. That’s certainly far too dramatic, as the Chicago Blackhawks have lost their last two games in regulation, not their last hundred. But after a 5-2 defeat in Dallas, a 5-0 thumping at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings — in the United Center, no less — was not the response Blackhawks fans were hoping for. Combine this with a 3-2 shootout loss in St. Louis last week, and sad emojis currently reign supreme around these parts.

There are many areas to look at when trying to assess what’s been tripping the Blackhawks up against solid teams of late. Outside nice wins against Washington and the New York Rangers, as well as two victories over a flailing Detroit outfit, the Blackhawks have lost to the Wild, Predators, Bruins, Blues, Stars and Kings once apiece since Feb. 21, and by a combined score of 26-8 (25 if you don’t count St. Louis’ third “goal” in the shootout). That’s … frightening, to say the least.

So, what’s going on with the men in the Indian Head? A whole lot of things, honestly. But I’m going to try to break down each specific area as best as I can to diagnose a problem and potential solution. Away we go.

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Mar 6, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Andrew Ladd (16) with the puck during the first period against the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

Even-strength offense

As The Committed Indian helpfully pointed out after last night’s debacle, the Blackhawks had six even-strength shots on goal through two periods. Six. This isn’t exactly an anomaly, either. Over the Blackhawks’ last nine outings, they’ve averaged just over 28 even-strength shots per game while allowing about 30 per from the other side. Combine this with a 6.1 shooting percentage at evens in that timeframe — as well as a 4.5 unblocked shooting percentage — and you start to see the problem. The Blackhawks aren’t getting as many even-strength shots off as their opponents in the last nine games, and to compound that problem, they’re not even coming close to making the most of the shots they do get off.

The Blackhawks are essentially playing with three lines right now, as Joel Quenneville shuffles guys in and out on the fourth until Marcus Kruger returns. So you could use that as an excuse. But remember the 12-game win streak the Blackhawks went on from December to January, during which they were consistently rolling two lines along with a bunch of AHL parts and Teuvo Teravainen? That group was averaging 33.4 even-strength shots per game versus 30.5 allowed, and it also had an on-ice shooting percentage of 9.1.

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Was that 12-game stretch against easier opposition than the recent nine-game run? Certainly. If the season ended today, two of the teams the Blackhawks faced in that run (Pittsburgh and Nashville, twice each) would be in the postseason, with Colorado a point from being the third. But that’s a hell of a drop off in shot percentage and attempts for a team that should be notably better now after the additions of Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise. (I’d add Christian Ehrhoff in this line of thought, but Q refuses to play him at this point; more on that later.)

So, what do the Blackhawks need to do to improve here? Kruger’s return obviously balances the lines more effectively, so that alone will help some. You know Q will go to the blender after the recent outings, and that generally turns up something good after a few tries. Ultimately, the Blackhawks don’t quite stack up to the even-strength power of a Dallas, and they may not even be better at even-strength than St. Louis. Outside Kruger, it’s not so much about wholesale personnel changes. The Blackhawks just need to get the puck to the net and follow up on their chances. A 6.1 shooting percentage is bound to turn for the positive (the Blackhawks hit multiple posts behind Jonathan Quick last night), so remaining aggressive is critical. Good, clean passing and not trying to force plays through the neutral zone would also be important to this task.

They also need some more push from the blue line. One thing that was apparent earlier this season was offensive production from the likes of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Erik Gustafsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson. That’s tailed off noticeably in the last nine games, with Keith boasting four points, Seabrook carrying five points (including three in one game), Gustafsson notching three points and two healthy scratches, and Hjammer hitting two points. That same offensive push just doesn’t exist right now.

Really, only the Blackhawks’ third line has been truly effective on even-strength offense of late. The Blackhawks need that same spark from the top two lines, but those lines are going to have to make do with what they’ve got.

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Mar 9, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) upends St. Louis Blues right wing Scottie Upshall (10) during the second period at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Even-strength defense

No one really wants to talk about this, right? The Blackhawks are arguably rolling two effective defensemen at this point, with Seabrook looking slow and often waving his stick helplessly at passing pucks, Gustafsson finding himself woefully out of position, Trevor van Riemsdyk watching as Crawford has to clean up mess after mess and Michal Rozsival … trying, but still being a 37-year-old defenseman coming off ankle surgery. Meanwhile, Ehrhoff toils away in the pressbox because Q is stubborn. What else is new?

Look, there’s no easy solution to the Blackhawks’ defensive woes, but they’re getting magnified now that Crow isn’t saving the blue line’s bacon every 45 seconds. We can hope Seabrook will show up in the playoffs, but he’s just looked really bad on defense over the past month or two. Gustafsson and TVR don’t look anywhere near ready for the postseason grind, which leaves you with Rozsival and hopefully Ehrhoff in for TVR.

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Stan Bowman could have tried to upgrade at defense before the trade deadline, but considering what was out there and the price (still laughing at Dallas’ deal for Kris Russell), that just wasn’t in the cards. Bowman dealt himself a bad hand by continually sending away defensive prospects in trades, essentially leaving himself with Viktor Svedberg, Ville Pokka and a handful of guys who are two to three years away from making any NHL impact.

Does bringing up Svedberg or Pokka ahead of the playoffs do anything to shore up the defense? Not really. Svedberg is inexperienced and slow, while Pokka has seen no legitimate NHL action. He’d have to get acclimated in a hurry, and even then he’s probably not an upgrade over Gustafsson at 6D.

I know “play better” isn’t a ringing piece of advice, but that’s pretty much all you can say for this group. It just has to be better than what it’s been.

Next: Goaltending and Special Teams