While fans and experts talk about what is wrong with the Chicago Blackhawks’ offense, the underlying stats paint a different picture of where fault lies for the team’s recent struggles
Reading and listening to Chicago Blackhawks fans over the last few days, there seems to be a bit of panic in the air about what the 2017-18 team is going to be. After a hot start to the season that saw the Blackhawks score 21 goals in their first four games, the ‘Hawks have only been able to put up three goals or more in two of their last eight games.
Naturally, this seems to be a major issue for a team that many were hoping could light up the scoreboard night after night. But taking a look back at how the Blackhawks have started off seasons the last few years might help show the offense is not what fans should be worried about moving forward.
Taking a look back at the three years before this season, we can quickly see the 2017-18 Blackhawks’ record of 5-5-2 is the worst of any of the four seasons. In 2014-15, the last season the team won the Stanley Cup, the ‘Hawks started 6-5-1 in their first 12 games. They improved in 2015-16 to 7-5-0 in their first 12 games and topped that in 2016-17 with an 8-3-1 record. But as we all know, the record does not tell the whole story.
Many have said the offense is what is in a rut and causing the team to take losses right now. With some low-scoring efforts and defeats at the hands of teams that fans expected victories against, the offense is easy to point the finger toward. But after taking a closer look, the offense has actually been pretty productive so far this year.
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Going back four years, the offensive production over the first 12 games is as follows: 2014-15: 29 goals for, 38.4 shots per game; 2015-16: 28 goals for, 31.2 shots per game; 2016-17: 43 goals for, 27.8 shots per game; 2017-18: 38 goals for, 35.3 shots per game.
As I talked about in a post a few weeks ago where I warned to curb your early enthusiasm on the red-hot Blackhawks, the shooting percentage is a very interesting stat to look at as a year progresses. Right now, the entire NHL is averaging a 9.6 percent shooting percentage, meaning 9.6 percent of the shots on goal are resulting in a goal. The Blackhawks are sitting below that average at an 8.96 shooting percentage.
You can call it puck luck, lack of traffic in front of the net or goalies having good games against the ‘Hawks, but the team is sitting below the average you would expect to see. In fact, in the last eight games where Chicago has only scored three goals or more on two occasions, the team shooting percentage is 6.2.
When I talked about shooting percentage in my other post, the Blackhawks were far too high to sustain the percentage long-term. Now they are too low, and you would expect that percentage to equal back out again moving forward.
Instead of worrying about how the offense could improve a low shooting percentage, let’s take a look at where the issue may really lie with the 5-5-2 start for the team: the defense.
Just like the offense, let’s go back four years and look at two key defensive stats: 2014-15: 23 goals against, 27.4 opponent shots per game; 2015-16: 26 goals against, 28.5 opponent shots per game; 2016-17: 30 goals against, 32.1 opponent shots per game; 2017-18: 34 goals against, 34.5 opponent shots per game.
It is easy to see that as the Blackhawks’ defensemen who have been with the team all four years (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) have gotten older and new defensemen have come in to the fold, replacing players like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, defensive numbers have worsened.
Goalsagainst over the first 12 games have gone up every year by an average of almost one extra goal a game between 2014-15 and this year. On top of this, the Blackhawks are surrendering more shots on goal every year as well, jumping from 27.4 a game back in their last Stanley Cup-winning season to 34.5 shots a game this year.
That’s a 26 percent increase in shots on goal, giving the opponents almost an extra period worth of shots over the course of a game.
If you want to blame offensive players here, it is best to do so when talking about work in the defensive zone. This many extra shots on goal also indicates a drop in possession for the team and a failure to properly exit the zone.
While a huge part of that lies with defensemen, this doesn’t completely fall on them. Forwards playing in their own defensive zone need to work harder to create turnovers and blocked shots and get the puck going the other way.
Meanwhile, Corey Crawford is working his tail off, posting a .935 save percentage during this span. With the large number of shots on goal the defense is surrendering, Crawford is far and away your MVP through the first 12 games of the season. While 5-5-2 is nothing to be excited about, it would be much worse if Crawford wasn’t playing in top form.
While it is easy to point a finger at the offense and demand more goals from a team that has plenty of firepower, the stats clearly show a lot of the fault in the Blackhawks’ first 12 games lies specifically with the defensive play.
You may be saying that we knew the Blackhawks were going to have a rough blue line and that is why the offense needs to do more, and there is some validity to that. But instead of demanding that the offense score more than three goals a game to win, I think it is time to start asking the defense to find a way to stop surrendering so many shots and offensive chances to the opponent.