2013-2014 Position Previews: Special Teams

Jonathan Daniel

A preview of the very special Special Teams of the Chicago Blackhawks

"Deeply problematic." – Pro HockeyTalk

"A special brand of awful." – Chicago Tribune

"Floundering…horrible…needs fixing." – Examiner

"DECLINE THE PENALTY! DECLINE! Oh fuck, here come the clownshoes." – SCH Commentariat

Yep. It’s time to talk about Special Teams. As Blackhawks fans, we live in a kind of bizarro-world when it comes to penalties. We aren’t thrilled to be a man down, but we’re certainly not distraught about it. On the other hand, if an opponent gets a whistle? OH GOD PLEASE NO DON’T GIVE US THE MAN ADVANTAGE, IT’S TOO AWFUL. Our special teams are special in a whole lot of ways;  the PK and the PP are practically bipolar they’re so different in execution and results, and we’re about to see the 2013 version take the ice. We’ll take a look at what we can expect to see this year after the zebras do their thing, and we’re going to start with the power play.

The Chicago Blackhaws, it is universally agreed, won the Stanley Cup in 2013 in spite of their power play, not with its assistance. It was, quite frankly, abysmal. Embarrassing. Terrible. Awful. Time-to-go-grab-another-beer-and-hope-it’s-over-before-I-get-back levels of bad. Here are a few quick stats, just in case you blacked out the Hawks’ man advantage performances in a self-protective fit of hysterical amnesia:

Regular season rank: 19th
Powerplay Goals: 25
Powerplay Opportunities: 157
Percentage: 16.6 (OUCH)

It didn’t get much better in the playoffs. They limped to an 11.4% against their shorthanded opponents. Despite the offensive firepower on display at even strength, the Blackhawks seemed to be content to pass around the perimeter, pass around the perimiter, pass some more, pass a few more times, try a shot, start passing so much it looked like ring-a-round-the-fucking-rosy out there, pass a little bit more, and then try a backdoor shot in the final seconds of man advantage. It was painful to watch, it was damaging to the flow and momentum of the game, and it allowed opponents to play with more of an edge. Who cares if you’re giving up a two minute power play, when the odds are so low that your opponent will actually DO anything with the man advantage?

In pretty much every interview last season, when asked about the power play, both players and coaches admitted it was an area that needed improvement. They’re still admitting it to this very day.

So what changes have the Blackhawks set in place this year, to make that improvement happen? Alarmingly, it doesn’t seem like much has changed at all.

Jamie Kompon, the special teams coach of an abysmal 2011-12 LA Kings powerplay unit, was inexplicably hired to guide the Hawks PP, and has been even more inexplicably kept on in that role for the 2013-14 season. Duncan Keith has stressed in interviews that they are trying to keep it simple, stick to the basics and take good shots, but that’s what he was saying last year, too. Coach Quenneville has stated over and over that he wants players to get more shots on net, for the point men to pull the trigger more often, which is--you guessed it!--what he said last season. He has named Nick Leddy, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Patrick Sharp as his point men, roles they occupied last year. He says he hopes to see Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw providing net front presence for deflections and rebounds, which won’t be coming if nobody shoots the damn puck (ever).

And possibly most telling, the powerplay was 0-for-6 in a preseason showing against Detroit, and 0-for-6 as well against Pittsburgh soon after. They were hesitant. They tried to get fancy. They played ring-a-round-the-fucking-rosy. Quoth Q, "We score 5-on-5 by shooting the puck, why can’t we shoot the puck 5-on-4?"

Indeed.

On a team with the creative offensive genius of Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, and the rest, it’s absolutely inexplicable that they can score at 5-on-5 seemingly nearly at will, and get great looks short-handed, but collapse into a black hole of hesitancy and inefficiency on the man advantage. At this point, I’m blaming Kompon. Feel free to draw your own conclusions. But I’m not anticipating a great improvement in the power play this season, given the weak showing in the preseason and the lack of any meaningful change in strategy, coaching, or focus.

My greatest hope for our powerplay is that every player we face is suddenly stricken with an intense desire to become a Lady Byng candidate. The Hawks play better hockey 5-on-5, 4-on-4, and even short-handed, then they have on the man advantage, and I don’t see that changing without some kind of miracle.

…so hey, that was depressing.

On a much lighter note? THE KILL IS FUCKING DIESEL. Check our stats from last regular season:

Rank: 3rd
Powerplay Goals Allowed: 18 (fewest in the NHL!)
Times Short-Handed: 141
Percentage: 87.2 (YAY!)

And in the playoffs they were even better. 7 goals scored against on 76 chances, for a 90.8 kill percentage. As a fanbase, we breathed a collective sigh of relief most nights when penalty calls went against us; our PK was everything our PP was not. Organized. Effective. Efficient. They moved, communicated, stymied offenses and flustered powerplay setups.

Unfortunately, we lost a huge piece of that penalty kill team with the trade of Michael Frolik. FroFro, together with his partner in defensive awesomeness Marcus Kruger, spearheaded the kill into a league-wide leader with their defensive awareness, fearlessness, and aggressive attack. The tears of fans are still falling as Fro makes himself at home in Winnipeg, and he leaves a huge hole on special teams.

Until we get into the regular season, it’s impossible to know who will replace Fro on the first PK squad, but a popular choice for now looks to be Joakim Nordstrom, a 21-year old prospect who has been working closely with Kruger and whose hard work caught Quenneville’s eye on the road to securing a roster spot. Kruger’s been helping his fellow Swede out with the system and the language, and their chemistry on the PK has been solid and promising. Quenneville specifically cited their success on the penalty kill as a key reason for Nordstrom getting that spot, acknowledging the importance of the PK and the huge benefit provided by Fro and Kruger last year in their penalty killing role.

Another potential killer is Ben Smith. Up from Rockford and established on the main roster, BENSMITH! had a solid showing in the preseason, displaying good defensive responsibility, blocking shots, even getting a shorthanded goal against Pittsburgh. He’ll add some physicality and good two-way awareness if he ends up on the Kill Squad.

With Nordstrom and Smith standing by as potential penalty killing superstars, and with Kruger still on as a veteran of last year’s shutdown kill, I have high hopes that the Hawks penalty kill will continue its winning ways. This is fantastic news, as Duncan Keith does not appear to have mellowed with fatherhood, Andrew Shaw is still Andrew Shaw, and I doubt Brandon Bollig will hesitate to punch faces that display too much punchability. They’ll have the penalties to kill, and I look forward to them stepping up and taking the challenge.

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