Chicago Blackhawks’ Requirements for Forward Groups
By Tim Martens
The 2017-18 season is fast approaching and there has been a lot of talk about what the Blackhawks will look like defensively and what extra help they may get. But let’s take a look at what the ‘Hawks will need from their forwards this year if the team is going to find success.
Throughout the offseason, it has been well documented that the Blackhawks are going to be weaker defensively heading into the 2017-18 season. With the trade of Niklas Hjalmarsson and the retirement of Brian Campbell, the Blackhawks lost two veterans on the blue line. Hjalmarsson’s loss, in particular, is going to be very hard for the Blackhawks to overcome.
Thinking about what it will take for the Blackhawks to be a contender again, there is the realization that they will require a strong group of forwards that can contribute everywhere. While Patrick Kane is still in his prime years and always has the capability of scoring on every shift, the ‘Hawks don’t have another pure scorer on the team with Artemi Panarin being traded to Columbus this summer. And the loss of Marcus Kruger leaves many question marks on the state of the ‘Hawks bottom lines and penalty killing.
So what will the Blackhawks need from their other forwards to make the team competitive throughout the 2017-18 regular season?
As stated before, the Blackhawks will be hurting at the blue line this year. Depending on players with a little less NHL experience like Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling, there will be a ton of weight on the shoulders of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
But the ‘Hawks top two defensemen do not need to bear sole responsibility. If the ‘Hawks are going to be successful, their forward groups are going to have to contribute in chasing pucks in the defensive corners, blocking shots, and exiting the zone whenever they can. On top of this, the urgency to have success at the face-off dot could not be higher. The ‘Hawks cannot afford to lose draws in the defensive zone and give the opponent extended time in the ‘Hawks zone.
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Jonathan Toews had a 54.9% face-off percentage last season. That may seem decent, but it is his lowest percentage since his second year in the league in 2008-09. Artem Anisimov was 45.1 percent at the dot. Tanner Kero had a 44.4 percentage at face-offs. In a limited 272 draws, possible 2017-18 third-line center Nick Schmaltz was 30.9 percent at face-offs.
If Jonathan Toews remains the only positive center at the dot, the Blackhawks are going to be giving their opponents far too many extra opportunities in their defensive zone. This team can ill afford to have extra shots heading towards Corey Crawford, who will already be put to a hard enough task being the netminder in front of a very inexperienced defensive group.
The forwards, and the centers in particular, must contribute defensively every night or the ‘Hawks will be forced to put up huge offensive numbers to stay in games.
With all of that talk about defensive forward play out of the way, we focus on what matters most to every forward that takes the ice: scoring. The likelihood that the ‘Hawks will be surrendering more goals than they did a season before seems high. Unless Corey Crawford can one-up his already stellar run of goaltending in recent years and several defenseman can surprise us, the offense will need to find the net often.
The 2016-17 Blackhawks were able to score four or more goals in a game in 34 of their 82 games last season. They averaged 2.92 goals scored a game for the entire season. On the opposite end, the ‘Hawks surrendered 2.59 goals a game last season.
The scariest part about these stats is that you can imagine the 2.59 goals scored against the ‘Hawks per night has a likelihood of increasing with the inexperienced defense. But that 2.92 goals scored per night may also take a hit as the team lost a top ten scoring forward in Artemi Panarin. Panarin had 74 points last season. This means of the 240 goals the Blackhawks scored, Panarin had an integral part in 31 percent of the goals.
On top of this, Marian Hossa, who contributed 45 points a season ago, will not be adding anything to the Blackhawks goal total. His loss defensively will hurt the team, but his offensive abilities are often forgotten as an extremely important aspect to the team’s success since his arrival in 2009-10.
While Brandon Saad’s 53 points a season ago is nothing to scoff at, the loss of Panarin’s pure scoring ability and Hossa’s consistent contributions could really have an impact on the Blackhawks offensive output if other players do not step up.
The ‘Hawks will hope Patrick Sharp can be somewhere around a 35 point producer as he was two seasons ago in Dallas. They will hope Richard Panik can chip-in 40-plus points once again next season. They will need Jonathan Toews to contribute in the high 60 point range at the very least (if not scoring near his career high of 76 points in 2010-11).
The job of getting the puck in the back of the net is going to need to be shared amongst all the forwards on all four lines. The loss of a dynamic scorer like Panarin and a major contributor in Hossa cannot be picked up by one player. The ‘Hawks will need balance and efficiency from every player that hops over the boards if they are going to score consistently next season.
The harsh truth
Since the playoff format changed in 2013-14, there have only been 4 teams out of the 64 that have made the playoffs that have made it to the postseason with a negative goal-differential. On top of that, 5 teams have actually missed the playoffs after having a positive goal-differential on the year.
The Blackhawks are going to have to blend a mix of defensive responsibility and offensive contribution from all of their forward lines if they are going to keep their head above water and score more goals than their opponents. It will not be as easy to rely on the offense to put up 4 goals a game just as it will not be fair to rely on Corey Crawford to stand on his head every single night he is in net.
The Blackhawks will need balance throughout the entire lineup of forwards. If the team falls into the same pattern of only having the second-line scoring the high majority of goals or losing face-offs and failing to exit the defensive zone efficiently, it could be a very long season for the team.
This isn’t the requirements for the ‘Hawks to win the Stanley Cup once again. This is the requirements for the team to simply make it to the postseason. While the lack of depth and experience on defense could be the downfall for the 2017-18 team, the inability to pick up the slack from the forwards would be the final nail in the coffin.