As I watched the Blackhawks dominate possession and still manage to get pummeled by the Colorado Avalanche last week, Brandon Pirri was on my mind. Pirri holds Blackhawks fans' collective hopes and dreams of a legitimate second line center on his stick every time he hops over the boards. He has played twenty games with the Blackhawks this season with mixed team results.
The Blackhawks do not rise or fall on the shoulders of Pirri's performance. The depth of this team is undeniable and has led to our great fortune of living through the Golden Age of Chicago Blackhawks Hockey. Despite this depth, fans, media and analysts have hotly discussed the solution to the second line center problem for several years. Enter Brandon Pirri, fresh off of leading the AHL in scoring last season while with the Rockford IceHogs, to be held under the microscope.
Pirri was not initially included on the roster coming out of camp. He did have a groin injury for some of that time, which likely hurt his chances of making the team, but a lack of trust from Joel Quenneville seemed a more plausible explanation. After Michal Handzus went down with an injury, Pirri was called up from Rockford and called upon to fill the second line center position. Fans collectively held their breath as he skated into his first game, fearing that one mistake would lead to his demotion. We then held our breath through his second and third games and eventually began to breathe more easily as he skated his way into double figures in the games played column.
Pirri had one of his best games of the season against the Nashville Predators. You'll recall that game as the one that made you start ordering shots at the bar a little earlier on a Saturday night than you had planned. You may also recall that the Blackhawks simply owned the puck during that game but could not seem to find the back of the net. The exception to this problem was Brandon Pirri and the line he centers. Pirri was on the ice for both of the Blackhawks goals, scoring one himself. He posted the following numbers in 17.4 minutes of ice time versus the Predators: Corsi For % 80, CF% Relative +21.5, Fenwick For % 80, FF% Relative +22.9, Goals For (while on the ice) 2, Goals Against (while on the ice) 0. These impressive numbers came while ranking fourth on the team in Quality of Competition (29.2%) and starting primarily in the Neutral zone (55.6%). (Statistics found at Extra Skater).
This performance, in an otherwise lackluster game, prompted me to look further at Pirri's performance over the season to get a better understanding of how he has done. Pirri is averaging just over 12 minutes a game in ice time but that is on the rise. In October, Pirri's on ice time was very limited. In several games, he struggled to eclipse the 10 or 11 minute mark. In November, as Quenneville has presumably grown more comfortable with him, Pirri has more regularly seen between 15 and 17 minutes on the ice per game. He is also seeing consistent use on the power play, but not in penalty kill situations.
Throught the Colorado game on November 19th, Pirri had 6 goals and 5 assists while taking only 24 shots. This puts his overall shooting percentage at an astounding 25%. Without further inspection, that shooting percentage may look incredibly positive, but it actually reflects an area of his game that needs to see growth. Simply put, Pirri is not shooting the puck enough. Granted, he has appeared in about four or five fewer games than many of his teammates, but Pirri is currently thirteenth on the team in shots. This places him below the likes of Brandon Bollig and four defensemen in that category.
As is often seen with rookie forwards, centers in particular, the urge to defer to more experienced line mates is likely behind Pirri's lack of shots. It is understandable that rushing down the ice with superstar Patrick Kane and sophomore sensation Brandon Saad in his peripheral vision may cause him to think "pass first". Saad experienced the same thing during his rookie campaign while skating with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Luckily, if Saad is any indication, Pirri will become more comfortable making decisions and trusting himself to make a play, i.e. take the shot, instead of instinctively deferring to the magical hands of his line mates.
As Brandon Pirri and Joel Quenneville learn to trust Brandon Pirri, so shall we. Pirri's best games so far in this young season have occurred with no real consistency to the Quality of Competition he has faced or Quality of Teammates. Even more encouraging is the fact that Pirri's performance does not seem overly reliant upon his zone starts. Obviously, Quenneville will not consistently throw an offensively loaded line out for heavy defensive zone starts; however, there is no discernible pattern to his possession performance and O/DSt%, which vary from 50% to 100%.
Pirri's most dominant possession performances (based upon CF%Rel) have come against the Oilers (11/10/13), Predators (11/16/13), Stars (11/9/13), Sabres (10/12/13), and the Wild (10/28/13 and 10/26/13). While the game against the Sabres can likely be scratched as an outlier given the relatively poor quality of that team's play, the other performances from Pirri are indicative of a steady progression in his level of play. The Wild have been one of the top possession teams in the NHL this season. The Stars have been improving quickly after a shaky October. As any Blackhawks fan is well aware, the Oilers are the David to the Blackhawks Goliath every season. Pirri's level of play versus these teams is thus very positive.
It is early in the season and we have only been given the opportunity to see Pirri compete at the NHL level for seventeen games, but perhaps this information will help us moderate our expectations of him over the next quarter of the season. Once Pirri finds some semblance of a comfort level on NHL ice, expect him to flourish. He looks to be a player who, much like his line mate, Patrick Kane, is capable of raising his game in times of need.