The Chicago Blackhawks have been among the worst puck possession teams in the league through their first 10 games, creating a bevy of problems on the ice. Interestingly, several of the team’s former players are having solid possession seasons so far in Carolina.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ 5-3-2 record so far this season isn’t poor, but the squad’s recent outcomes have left a ton to be desired. One major issue for the Blackhawks has been their inability to possess the puck consistently.
Last night, in a 4-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Blackhawks could barely string together a pair of passes and lost seemingly every puck battle, especially in the first two periods.
If you look at 5-on-5 possession from last night, the numbers don’t seem so bad. The Knights posted a 56.41 percent Corsi-for mark in the first period, a 50 percent in the second and a 45.71 in the third. But across all situations, the Knights did no worse than 52 percent in a single period, maxing out at 56.67 percent in the second period.
It didn’t help that the Blackhawks were taxed with five penalty kills, but even on their three powerplays, I’m not sure they did a whole lot to help their possession stats. That was a continuation of a sad running theme: The Blackhawks’ powerplay looks like it was set up by 5-year-olds (no offense to 5-year-olds).
But let’s get back to possession. As much as some people might not like to admit it, possession numbers are important in today’s NHL.
You can beat the numbers over the short term — of the teams ranked 20th through 31st in the league right now in Corsi-for at even strength, eight of them would be going to the postseason if the 2017-18 campaign ended today. But of the bottom 10 last season, only three qualified for the playoffs.
When you’re watching things happen, like the Blackhawks looking absolutely hapless against Vegas, or against Toronto for most of a game, or against Edmonton for all of the game, and then you look at the terrible possession stats, it starts to burn a bit.
And that’s where we jump into the former player watch. Today, we’re going to look at some former Blackhawks who are doing the exact thing in Carolina few to none of their former teammates can do in Chicago: possess the puck.
Carolina utilizing former Blackhawks
Now let’s get this out of the way first: The Hurricanes are off to a rough start, even as the league’s second-best possession team at even strength (trailing only the Oilers). Carolina has seven points in as many games.
Many will point to former Blackhawk Scott Darling‘s struggles (.896/2.64 statline) as the problem, but we’re still talking about a team that’s averaging fewer than three goals a game despite dominating possession most nights. So what’s the deal?
I contend the Canes don’t have a ton of guys with finishing power, to do anything with that possession. Jeff Skinner is the team’s leading point earner with six, including five goals. He might be the closest thing the Canes have to a guaranteed finisher. That is not promising.
Jordan Staal is fine. Justin Williams has his moments. Justin Faulk is a dynamo from the blue line. Then you have a crop of youngsters in Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Victor Rask who are developing that finish game right now, at the NHL level.
No, I’m not saying I want Nordstrom, TVR or Dahlbeck back. But let’s look at the stats in all situations. Teravainen has a Corsi-for of 66.83. The number is 52.29 for TVR, 48.94 for Dahlbeck, 48.59 for Kruger and 42.55 for Nordstrom.
Some of those numbers aren’t pretty, but Kruger starts 37.5 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, while Nordstrom begins just 34.6 percent of his shifts playing offense (Dahlbeck just isn’t very good; we’ll leave it at that).
Also, the stats start to trend well upward at 5-on-5. Teuvo’s Corsi-for mark actually drops to a still-strong 61.81. Everyone else’s mark jumps up; Kruger’s to 58.33, TVR’s to 54.55 and Nordstrom’s to 52.38. Even Dahlbeck’s number rises to 56.10, though he no doubt benefits from starting 70 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
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So what’s the point?
Well, let’s look back at the final all-situations possession mark Teravainen, Kruger, Nordstrom and TVR posted in Chicago.
van Riemsdyk: 49.44
So you’re telling me all four of these guys left Chicago and just magically became more able to possess the puck overnight? Of course not. It certainly helps that three of the four — Kruger, van Riemsdyk and Nordstrom — all start more of their shifts in the offensive zone this season than they did in their last season with Chicago. Team dynamic/roster construction will always play a role as well.
But it’s also clear these guys are benefiting from a system that’s actually focused on getting the puck and keeping it, like the Blackhawks used to be great at not so long ago.
If it was just these former Blackhawks bumping up their Corsi numbers, you’d chalk it up to something like those zone starts. But just one Cane has a possession mark worse than 50 percent at even strength. The current Blackhawks have an outstandingly bad 17 guys below 50 percent.
The argument is not that bringing back Teuvo, Kruger, TVR and Nordstrom would save the team’s possession numbers and drive the Blackhawks to more offense, thus putting less pressure on a weak defense and stressed goaltending. Not at all. The argument instead is that the Blackhawks’ modus operandi when it comes to maintaining the puck it terribly faulty.
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What would better possession mean?
This all goes back to my most exhaustive talking point of team speed, in that the Blackhawks didn’t do nearly enough to upgrade it this offseason. If more emphasis would’ve been placed on that versus just getting younger (admittedly important) and bigger (not so much), we might be seeing a team that doesn’t always look afraid of the puck.
And tracking this back to why Carolina is struggling despite possessing well, can you imagine the kind of chances Chicago could have on a nightly basis if it could manage the puck better? The finishing power that’s missing in Carolina is certainly not lacking in the Windy City.
Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Nick Schmaltz, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook when he isn’t asked to move much. These guys can all finish plays offensively. Heck, even Richard Panik isn’t bad in that department, and guys like Alex DeBrincat and Ryan Hartman are budding in that area in their own ways.
By giving any of these guys the puck, you’re giving the Blackhawks a great chance to 1) score, 2) limit scoring chances against and 3) put less stress on your defense and goaltending. Instead, the Blackhawks throw the puck all about the ice, lose races and board battles, and are watching 2-on-1s and breakaways happen at a really ugly rate.
This is not something that can be fixed overnight. The Blackhawks could overhaul the whole roster at the trade deadline (not advisable), and they’d very likely still be worse than 50 percent in Corsi-for at even strength this season.
But it’s something that can be fixed with time, and I think this 10-game start to the season is as good an indicator as any that general manager Stan Bowman ought to put a huge emphasis on that. He started by reacquiring Saad this offseason, but more must be done for this team to get out of the malaise it’s currently in.