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Chicago Blackhawks May Need To Consider Embracing Trap Style

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GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 21: Richard Panik
GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 21: Richard Panik /
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The offense is still shaky and the defense is surrendering multiple scoring chances. For the Chicago Blackhawks, has the time come to make some major changes?

The Chicago Blackhawks had to feel better after their 3-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night.  However, the game just didn’t feel right.

For the first half of the game, they appeared to be out of sync with not much clicking. Their offensive output occurred in the span of 20 seconds in the middle of the game.  And if not for a stellar performance by goalie Corey Crawford, they very well could have come out on the wrong end of the score. What is going wrong with this team, and is it time to change its systems?

They are surrendering too many scoring chances

Crawford stopped 35 of 35 shots on goal, several of which were A-1 scoring chances. This high amount of shots allowed, in addition to the number of quality scoring chances, was not an aberration but a continuing problem this season.

Changes in defensive pairings have netted mixed results while not resolving this problem. Here’s a look at Expected Goal Rates, courtesy Sean Tierney.

The ‘Hawks are in the danger zone of allowing a disturbingly high rate of expected goals against. The law of averages tells us that Crawford’s super-human performance cannot carry the team for an entire season. The enigmatic statistic of PDO shows that the ‘Hawks are playing very lucky right now.

Suppressing shots, reducing high-quality scoring chances

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One method is to change the defensive pairings. Storm Mensing of Blackhawks Breakdown examined this approach in this offering.

The ‘Hawks did unveil new pairings against the Flyers with Duncan Keith paired with Cody Franson, Jan Rutta with Brent Seabrook, and Michal Kempny with Connor Murphy.  The result was a better performance, yet clearly not a great one.

At this point, there is not a true shutdown pair within this group. Elements of speed, size, and experience are not all inherent in every defenseman.  Keith ended with 26:14 of ice time, which even he can’t sustain all season.

Another method is to move to a different style of defense to prevent speedy zone entries, which are leading to defensive breakdowns. These charts show that while the ‘Hawks are playing fast-paced end-to-end hockey, they are on the losing end in the share of shots.

Considering the neutral-zone trap

To repeat, opponents are gaining too much speed entering the attack zone, and the ‘Hawks’ defenders are having problems with the fast-paced end-to-end play.  Until help arrives in the form of a trade or until newer defenders become more adept at their craft, the forwards will have to become more engaged in a team-oriented defensive scheme.

There has been much debate as to whether this defensive scheme is good for the sport, but it is effective. The New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup utilizing this system in the 1990s. Since then, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators have revisited this system with success.

So what is it that makes this system so effective? Jeremy Weiss take a good look at this system in this video:

What stands out in this video? A zone coverage results in less chasing of the puck by defensemen as they get help from the forwards.

Does this sound like a way to get help for the Chicago defense corps? I would say that it is.

Stacking the blue line would prevent speedy zone entries, force the play to the perimeter and thus give the ‘Hawks a better chance at limiting chaos and quality scoring chances.

What does this do for the offense?

The ‘Hawks have been showing that they are very good offensively in transition but weak on set plays, especially with their zone entries. When they play with speed and urgency, their offense creates chaos and tremendous scoring chances.

However, they’ve either hesitated to enter the zone or have not had crisp passing.  Forechecking with the trap would allow them to force turnovers, get behind the defense and turn on their quick-strike offense. Take a look at Jeremy Weiss’ explanation of the forecheck:

Again, the point is that if this year’s version of the ‘Hawks can no longer enter the zone with speed and skill, they must simplify their attack and work to create chaos from a quick transition off forced turnovers.

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine and revisit the days of playing the old Nashville Predators. They were an offensively challenged team which made its living off of forced errors. With an effective trap, the Preds would turn the play around with a turnover, catch the ‘Hawks going the wrong way, and give their offense a head start.

Remember also the Colorado Avalanche, whom the ‘Hawks would outplay and outpossess for 75 percent of the game, but give up silly goals to off turnovers in transition.

Yes, the trap can make for some really boring hockey.  I always dreaded having to watch the ‘Hawks play the Predators under coach Barry Trotz.  In 2011, NBCSN analyst Mike Milbury walked off the set in disgust rather than discuss the Lightning’s use of the neutral zone trap.

Is it worth sacrificing the high-flying “Blackhawk Hockey” for a potentially boring defense-first system?  I would answer yes.

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The problem of allowing a high number of shots on goal started last year and has gotten worse this year.  An aging core is showing it cannot defend well and can only “flip the switch” late in games.  The younger players have not yet come into their own to pick up the slack for the core’s dwindling skills.  The ‘Hawks need a new system to compensate for these deficiencies.

Some egos may be hurt by “dumbing down” the game plan, but aging with grace means accepting change.  You’ve seen baseball pitchers go from young flamethrowers to crafty finesse pitchers.  You’ve seen champion boxers go from knockout brawlers to patient, elusive technical knockout artists.  And you’ve seen young, scrambling quarterbacks become quick-strike pocket passers.  So why not let an aging core evolve and win some more Stanley Cup Finals?

The trap would not eliminate the ‘Hawks’ exciting offensive attack.  It would allow them to strike with deadly force when they catch the opponent skating in the wrong direction. Right now, they do not seem capable of playing up to their old standards on a sustained basis.

If the current tweaks with personnel don’t start showing improvements, the ‘Hawks will have to start looking at their systems instead.  I can’t see them having a successful season if they can’t get things going in all three zones of the ice.

Next: ’Hawks Should Start Crawford At Wild, Forsberg Vs. Habs

A good test for the latest line up comes tonight against division rival Minnesota, and then quickly the next night against the Montreal Canadiens.  I’d like to see these new alignments work, but if they don’t, it will pretty much show that the roster as constructed is not up to the challenge of playing in the current system.

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