There are many aspects that go into making an NHL team a Stanley Cup contender, and the 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks may be falling short in an underappreciated area
Do you know why the Chicago Blackhawks were abruptly ousted from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Nashville Predators? Of course, everyone knows that. It’s just that there are about 50 different answers fans will bandy about.
And that’s fine. There’s no surefire or singular answer as to why the Blackhawks weren’t good enough in that series. There are plenty of reasons you can combine to formulate an idea, however. And today, we’re going to talk about one of those.
The 2016-17 Blackhawks were not a very fast team. Prior to the 2004-05 NHL lockout, this wouldn’t have mattered. Even prior to the Blackhawks breaking their 49-year championship drought in 2010, it wouldn’t have been a major concern.
But in today’s NHL, teams that don’t boast speed up and down their lineup tend to get eaten alive. Nashville? Fast team all around. Edmonton? Fast team all around. Pittsburgh? Quicker than many teams. Ottawa? Played a slow style, but had quick bodies throughout the lineup.
Those are the teams that made the 2016 conference finals. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, couldn’t even win a game in the 2016 playoffs despite a talented core that had won three Cups already. Was there a singular issue that could’ve been addressed to “save” the Blackhawks? I doubt it. But an infusion of speed certainly couldn’t have hurt.
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Why do Blackhawks need to address team speed?
The Blackhawks went a slightly different route this offseason when assessing their postseason failure. Actually, they went a couple different routes.
First, general manager Stan Bowman worked to make the team younger and with some more cap-friendly contracts. The biggest instance of this was Niklas Hjalmarsson being shipped to Arizona for Connor Murphy. The Brandon Saad–Artemi Panarin deal was also part of this strategy.
This is one way to address team speed, in a sense. Generally, younger guys tend to be quicker on their feet. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it’s an idea. I don’t necessarily think that’s what the Blackhawks were looking at this offseason, though.
More so, they went down a second route: adding size and “grit.” Now I get it, the Blackhawks were tossed around quite a bit against the Predators. A natural reaction to this would be to make the team bigger and harder to move.
But I contend that this is the wrong reaction, for the reason I stated in my introduction to this post. Today’s NHL is not based on being big and gritty. It doesn’t hurt to be able to take a guy off the puck or push him from screening your goaltender, but today’s NHL is heavily planted in the speed game.
The Predators weren’t just a bunch of 6-foot-5, 250-pound guys obliterating the Blackhawks. They were using their superior team speed to wear down Chicago, thereby making the Blackhawks easier to take off the puck. It gave the view of the Predators being this physical monstrosity when in reality, the Blackhawks were just tired.
There are just two ways of seeing this situation, and therefore two ways of addressing it. You can either go after more speed-based athletes, or you can go after bigger bodies. The Blackhawks opted for the latter.
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Did Blackhawks do enough to improve speed?
So, let’s see what the Blackhawks did from a speed perspective in their offseason overhaul.
— Moved Panarin for Saad: Downgrade in team speed, though an upgrade in two-way play.
— Moved Hjalmarsson for Murphy: Murphy is younger than Hjammer, but also a bigger body; this is probably a speed push.
Then, just looking up and down the lineup, there aren’t a ton of guys who you’d classify as “fast” or “quick.” Patrick Kane obviously has wheels. Saad isn’t slow by any means — just slower than Panarin. Nick Schmaltz can move. Vinnie Hinostroza is quite fast. Beyond that? Anywhere from average speed to Rozsival speed.
Sure, there are plenty of youngsters who can get the call during this season to boost team speed. And there are guys like Michal Kempny who aren’t terribly quick, but who can also skate their way out of trouble. None of that should be overlooked.
But overall, I think the Blackhawks didn’t focus quite enough on improving their team speed this offseason.
Their potential top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is aging and was clearly exposed speed-wise by the Preds. Jonathan Toews has his moments, but speed is far from the top of his assets list as a No. 1 center. Same for Artem Anisimov as a No. 2 center. Richard Panik is … a fine skater in his own right. Ryan Hartman doesn’t move all that well, preferring to use his body more than his feet.
What does it mean moving forward?
There needed to be more support for these key guys in the way of speed, and I just don’t see it. The Blackhawks instead opted to bulk up (and, in the case of Sharp, go to the well once more). Sure, they got younger and more cap-compliant. But while important (and it is important), that’s not all that goes into being a Cup contender in this era.
I don’t know that the Blackhawks needed to be so focused on bulking up this offseason. You can strategically alter your training or playing style to adapt to something like a big body trying to take you off the puck or a player screening your goalie. It’s much tougher to rapidly adjust to speed.
Of course, maybe the options weren’t there via trade or free agency for the Blackhawks to try and inject The Flash’s spirit into their lineup. And that’s fine. But I’d argue the Blackhawks made themselves slower this offseason versus at least going for an overall push in team speed.
Maybe my fears will prove unwarranted. After all, the Blackhawks’ roster is far from settled. Training camp will go a long way toward that. So perhaps this team could still boost its speed heading into the 2017-18 season. I think it’s not just important, but necessary.