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Chicago Blackhawks’ Changes: Turn And Face The Strange

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CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 06: Head coach Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks watches as his team takes on the Carolina Hurricanes at the United Center on January 6, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Hurricanes 2-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 06: Head coach Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks watches as his team takes on the Carolina Hurricanes at the United Center on January 6, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Hurricanes 2-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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The Chicago Blackhawks’ recent struggles resulted in a spirited practice on Tuesday with some personnel changes

After losing five of their last six games with a sputtering offense, the Chicago Blackhawks worked with more line changes in practice Tuesday.  Per the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus:

Frustration is starting to set in as a talented roster is experiencing great difficulty denting the back of the net.  After lacking effort in games, the team did not display a desirable amount of effort in practice.  Showing his displeasure with their lackadaisical approach, coach Joel Quenneville ended Tuesday’s practice with a bag skate and a flurry of F-bombs.

So, things are going to improve or get a whole lot stranger.  Not only are the forward lines changing, but so are the defensive pairings.

Let’s take a look at these changes and project the potential for improvement.

Line 1

The insertion of Alex DeBrincat at left wing places the winger on his correct side and gives him another chance to display his elite playmaking and scoring skills.  Many have been clamoring for this to happen, as the highly-touted rookie has been misplaced on the third and fourth lines.

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Although making rookie mistakes, the young winger occasionally flashes the skills that made him a prolific scorer in the OHL for three seasons.  If he can thrive playing with top-six linemates, he will avoid being sent to Rockford for some seasoning.

Playing DeBrincat with Jonathan Toews is certainly a scintillating prospect.  However, I’m not sure that Richard Panik at right wing is the correct complimentary player.  Panik is an intimidating forward, but he tends to hold onto the puck and not involve his linemates enough.

His role in this trio would be to create separation, get the puck to his playmaking linemates and create havoc in front of the net.  If they’ve worked on this concept in practice, this combo could work.

No doubt that a line of DeBrincat-Toews-Kane would be pretty unstoppable.  But that would detract from a potent Line 2.  So DeBrincat-Toews will have to develop as a creative playmaking duo to compensate for the loss of Brandon Saad from this line.

Line 2

Placing Saad with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane is brilliant.  Kane has developed great chemistry with Schmaltz, which has evoked a Pavlovian response from fans.  Kane has also worked extremely well with Saad in the past and most recently on a beautiful overtime winner against Nashville.

The puck possession ability of this trio could fly off the charts with its combination of skill, speed and Saad’s physicality.  This is no ordinary Line 2 — more like a 1-A.

Line 3

This line will really need to step up to take the defensive pressure off Lines 1 and 2.  The two-game resurgence of Artem Anisimov will need to continue.  High-energy John Hayden should force Anisimov to keep up with him in forcing possession in the offensive zone.  Patrick Sharp may be the guilty party in the who-done-it mystery of what’s ailing Line 3.

As Anisimov has stepped up his game to clear his name, Sharp must do the same to prove he is not the weakest link.  There are understudies by the names of Vinnie Hinostroza and Tomas Jurco who are heating up in Rockford and chomping at the bit for a chance on this line.

Line 4

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  • Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and Ryan Hartman make up this line of heavies.  Bouma and Wingels have rounded out nicely as a couple of attack dogs who are forcing extended play in the offensive zone, wearing down the opponents.

    Hartman is the surprise here, as he started the season as a winger on Line 2.  In their second game together against Philadelphia, perhaps they’ll even manage to find the back of the net.

    The Defense

    The defense corps is going through some changes as the producers are rising up the ranks.  Cody Franson has quietly done everything that has been asked of him and is being rewarded with a top-pair role with Duncan Keith.  Both players like to move the puck, so this might be a mismatch, but this is probably better than pairing Franson with Brent Seabrook, another right-handed stick.  We’ll see how this develops.

    The second pair of Jan Rutta and Seabrook combines two right-handed sticks, forcing Rutta to his off-handed left side.  The rationale here is probably that Rutta has shown enough skill to handle this type of change.  When paired with the now-injured Gustav Forsling, Rutta has been forced to bail out his younger partner on many occasions, floating over to the left side.  So here’s another wait-and-see pairing.

    The third pair of Michal Kempny and Connor Murphy combines the two most physical defensemen on the team.  They’ve both been prone to errors, but these errors seem to be from hesitation borne from fear of making a mistake.

    With a defense giving up a record number of shots on goal, the development of this pair is important to the success of this team through the season.  These two are young, mean and mobile, and can make a difference if brought along properly.

    “Changes are taking the pace I’m going through”

    The coaching staff is obviously feeling the heat of frustration as it is making these changes.  It’s still early in the season, but the backward trend is not a good sign and needs to be reversed.  Traditionally, practices have been short with organized line rushes and then player-decided skills practice.  Tuesday’s practice was a full-on coaching led session.  And needless to say, it was necessary.

    Major coachable items to watch for in tonight’s tilt with the Philadelphia Flyers will be clean breakouts, offensive puck possession and the oft-maligned powerplay.  Here are some quick coaching kernels from some notable references.

    Breakouts

    Here’s a video from ProSmart Hockey on the role of defensemen in zone breakouts:

    And here’s one on winger breakout skills by Mike McGinnis:

    Here’s a link to offensive zone puck possession.  Please notice the emphasis on entering the zone WITH SPEED.

    Powerplay

    I wrote about the ‘Hawks’ powerplay in a previous post.  This has been a sore spot for a while and was a focus in Tuesday’s barnburner practice.  For a refresher on powerplay concepts, here is the link to that article.

    “They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”

    Good fundamentals are what make good hockey players.  Sometimes really good hockey players forget that fundamentals are what made them really good.  So as we sit back and watch tonight’s tilt with the Philadelphia Flyers, look for the coachable items to be put into practice by these fiercely-coached-up Blackhawks.

    Remember, this is a new group of players, and sometimes there are stumbling blocks on the way to success.  Adversity is not part of the comfort zone, so it’s only natural to be upset with this team, as seen here:

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    Clever stuff.  But as fans, we should appreciate the fact that the team is recognizing flaws and is proactively working to overcome those flaws.  This team’s track record is something to marvel at, so don’t hit the panic button yet.  But these ‘Hawks do need to press the ON button.  LET’S GO!

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