Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks Did Not Have Fun With Numbers In 2017-18

By Stephen Yatsushiro
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This season’s players metrics for the Chicago Blackhawks were not entirely bad.  The eye test was bad.  So what’s up with that?

The general consensus is that the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense never developed into a cohesive unit.  We’ve talked ad nauseum about the lack of depth and the need to address that this offseason. The obvious action is to look forward and take action to improve.  But looking back without emotion can also be a benefit.  Individual player statistics can help identify what went wrong.

On the defensive side, a popular statistic to look at is Corsi.  For those unfamiliar with this statistic, here are definitions of the measurements from http://firstlinestats.com/glossary/.

Why look at Corsi?

The value of Corsi is that it provides a picture of how a player is affecting puck possession by tallying shots for and against when he’s on the ice.  Defense controls the direction of any game.  A team with bad defense will spend the majority of the game in their own zone.  When that happens, the offense never gets on track.  Higher Corsi numbers imply that a team is controlling the puck more in the offensive zone when that player is on the ice.

A great website that takes Corsi to another level is HockeyViz.com.  When statistics are plotted visually, we start to see how the numbers reflect reality.  Let’s take a look at this.

Charting the Blackhawks defense

From Micah Blake McCurdy @IneffectiveMath and his HockeyViz.com site, here is the Blackhawks’ 2017-18 season of defense.  Note that he plots individual players and player combos on this chart.  Also, statistics that average out over 60 minutes will even the playing field, since not all players play the same number of minutes per game.

Wading through the data

You immediately see that Cody Franson, Michal Kempny, and Erik Gustafsson led the pack in individual differential.  The worst player was Blake Hillman at -14.  All four players are either no longer here (Franson and Kempny) or only played a few games (Gustafsson and Hillman).  What is left in the middle is the middling core of defense.

The fair-to-middling core is indeed packed in the middle of the chart.  They weren’t bad, but weren’t great either.  The big difference maker is a defensive player not on the chart, Corey Crawford.  It’s difficult to assess just how much better this core would have been if Crawford was bailing them out. But when we’re looking at Corsi, we are looking at possession, not goals allowed.

The other obvious points are that the pairings of Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook, Jordan OesterleJan Rutta, and Duncan KeithConnor Murphy were bad.

Root cause analysis

The numbers force us to think about what caused the situations.  Combinations of age, experience and player chemistry all played into this season’s downfall.  Partly to blame is coach Joel Quenneville and his player usage.  A current popular rant is that Michal Kempny couldn’t find ice time here, but just raised the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals.

If Coach Q is an alchemist who must combine elements to create gold, he first must have elements to work with.  Even with a year of experience under the belts of many newer defensemen, it’s unrealistic to assume they will suddenly transform into all stars next season.  Hello, Stan Bowman.  It’s definitely time to look outside the organization for defensive help.

More from Analysis

All points bulletin

In previous articles, we’ve looked at potential trade and free agent targets.  While we’re on the topic of Corsi in this article, let’s take a look at who the Corsi leaders were this year on defense. Hockey-Reference.com is a great website to view and sort statistics by team or by player.  I’ve sorted defensemen who played a minimum of 30 games this season by Corsi per 60 minutes at even strength.  This is the same statistic from the chart above.

https://www.hockey-reference.com/play-index/ppbp_finder.cgi?request=1&match=single&year_min=2018&year_max=2018&season_start=1&season_end=-1&rookie=N&age_min=0&age_max=99&situation_id=ev&pos=D&c1stat=games_played&c1comp=gt&c1val=30&order_by=corsi_pct

The two surprising names in the top 10 are Erik Gustafsson and Justin Faulk.  Gustafsson languished for most of the year in Rockford, working on the defensive side of his game.  Justin Faulk was demonized in Carolina for having a poor season.  When viewed alone, we see that statistics alone could be misleading.  However, the statistics may also tell us that the eye test may be subjective and misleading as well.

More stats

Of course, Corsi is not the only criterion to use when evaluating players.  Plus/minus tallies the number of goals scored for versus goals against when the player is on the ice.  This can be a cruel measurement to base a judgment on if the player’s team has a bad goalie.  So, let’s take a look at it for grins anyway.  Here are the top free agent defensemen sorted by plus/minus from CapFriendly.com.

https://www.capfriendly.com/browse/free-agents/2019/plus-minus/all/defense/ufa

Some of our favorite targets are in the top 10.  In a list of all current players, Justin Faulk is buried at number 294 due to a poor season from goalie Scott Darling, as seen here:

https://www.capfriendly.com/browse/active/2018/plus-minus/all/defense/all/desc/3

From Corsica.com here is their ranking of the top defensemen by their criteria:

"NHL Player Ratings & Rankings"

You can look for your favorite trade and free agent targets on this list.  Once again, some favorite targets are ranked high on this site.  Notables are Jacob Trouba, Josh Manson, Justin Faulk, Brandon Montour, Calvin de Haan and Ian Cole.

What is the moral of the story?

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.  We can have fun perusing stats and sorting them to look for tendencies.  They are definitely good references to corroborate what we are seeing with our own eyes.

What we see from the data is that the ‘Hawks were a fair-to-middling group of defenders.  In a league where teams are moving toward the speed/skill game, good defense is even more crucial to succeed.

If your mind is blown by looking at all these charts, you get the idea that it’s not that easy to just come up with names and make everything work.  There are so many moving parts in putting a roster together.  Advanced statistics are one aspect to consider when making these decisions.

Next: Analyzing The Chicago Blackhawks Equipment Picks

After a dismal season, this offseason will be the make or break one for general manager Stan Bowman.  His roster decisions will also affect the future of Coach Q.  John McDonough and Rocky Wirtz have both hinted that changes are very possible if next season does not go well.  So, I’ll end this with the great clip from the movie Airplane.

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