The Chicago Blackhawks, in case you haven't heard, are a team in disarray, lacking in competitive spirit and led by a man content to jumble lines with reckless abandon. They're also one of NHL's legit contenders for the Stanley Cup, an advanced stats darling with an experienced and talented core that's already been there and done that multiple times.
It's been funny discussing the Blackhawks a few weeks into this season, because the conversation can fluctuate so wildly depending on who you're talking to and when it happens. I don't know how many teams elicit tweets that alternate between utter desperation and satisfied confidence, but the 'Hawks certainly take the cake in Chicago.
Still, there's something important to point out about this current Blackhawks team that goes beyond possession numbers, shot quality, line blending and whatever else has been scrutinized this season. It's a pretty simple idea that boils down to a simple statistic, and it's the reason I'm still supremely hopeful about where this season is going, regardless of an exciting 6-2 win over Dallas on Sunday. Drum roll, please:
The Blackhawks allow fewer goals than practically any other team in the league.
I can't stress enough how important this is even though it's painfully obvious. Yeah, duh, Satchel -- giving up fewer goals is obviously a good thing. But more important than simply being good at preventing goals, the Blackhawks appear to be in the true upper echelon this season.
Over the course of recent NHL history, that's been an incredibly strong marker of success. Let's take a look at the different performances of top-5 defensive teams in the past five years:
|Top-5 Defenses, 2009-13
|Year||Teams (PT ranking)
|2013-14||LAK (9), BOS (1), STL (4), NYR (12), SJ (5)
||248-123-39, 65.2 percent of all possible points||All 5 reach playoffs, LAK (1) beats NYR (4) for Cup|
||CHI (1), OTT (12), BOS (5), NYR (14), STL (6), DET (13)
||168-89-31, 63.7 percent of all possible points||All 6 reach playoffs, CHI (1) beats BOS (3) for Cup
||STL (3), LAK (13), NYR (2), VAN (1), BOS (9)
||240-124-46, 64.1 percent of all possible points||All 5 reach playoffs, LAK (2) beats NJD (8) for Cup
||VAN (1), NSH (11), BOS (7), WAS (2), LAK (12), NYR (18)
||282-157-53, 62.7 percent of all possible points||All 6 reach playoffs, BOS (3) beats VAN (1) for Cup
||NJ (5), PHO (4), BOS (14), BUF (10), CHI (3)
||234-131-45, 62.6 percent of all possible points||All 5 reach playoffs, CHI (5) beats PHI (T15) for Cup|
The Blackhawks are currently ranked second in the NHL with 2.0 goals allowed per game, just ahead of several teams. The Blues are narrowly above at 1.88 GA/G, which represents a difference of two goals over 17 games. This doesn't necessarily make Chicago an elite defense, but paired with some other numbers, there are reasons to be confident the team can remain in the top-five by the end of the season.
There's been a lot of good work done by others (cough, Jen LC, cough) on the importance of shot suppression, including how it affects goaltender performance and the way it's impacted by score effects. For the Blackhawks, most of that is good news, because limiting shots has been shown to be a pretty smart way of making things easier for your goalie.
The Blackhawks are currently fifth in the NHL in shots allowed per game, and that's after a recent increase thanks to facing good teams like San Jose, Tampa Bay and Detroit. Joel Quenneville's system is predicated on dominating possession and keeping the puck in the offensive zone, and so far this season, that's worked. Notice the trend on this graphic, and how the 'Hawks stand to drop from there:
We've seen that good goaltenders can consistently deliver high-level performances when they're not forced to stop overwhelming numbers of shots, and this season, the 'Hawks have shown they can put their netminders in those positions. A big part of that is limiting zone starts on the defensive end, something Chicago's system thrives at, and it's resulting in some solid shot suppression that could be even better. It's not a coincidence that Crow is playing some of the best hockey of his NHL career, and this may be the strongest reason to believe he won't let up.
The Blackhawks have given up too many shorties on the power play, but down a man, the team has been pretty stingy this season. A 92.3 percent efficiency rating on the penalty kill is downright impressive, and puts Chicago well above the other 29 teams so far this season.
Strong numbers on the penalty kill have been somewhat routine for the team over the past few years, thanks to stellar defensive-minded forwards like Marcus Kruger and Jonathan Toews, and that's been no different this season. Even if the team regresses somewhat from here, dropping a few percent still means one of the best penalty kills in the game.
Twenty-two teams have already allowed 10-plus power play goals this season, and all but three have allowed at least eight. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have allowed just four. In an aspect of the game that requires communication and precise execution, Chicago's PK remains a strength.
The Blackhawks' defensive corps consists of veterans still in their respective primes and young players figuring things out. There's also Michal Rozsival, but I think we can fairly agree that any ideal scenario doesn't involve the 36-year-old playing a prominent role.
Rather, what everyone really wants to see is Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad continue to blossom after a few weeks of fits and starts. Both young defensemen have shown varying degrees of potential, with TvR looking like the more steady option, and locking down that third line seems like the next area for improvement.
While losing van Riemsdyk for some time due to an injury suffered Sunday puts a dent in this effort, it stands to reason that TvR and other young players can still make an increased impact later in the season. Whoever gets the NHL reps in his place -- likely Adam Clendening or Klas Dahlbeck -- could also emerge as a pleasant surprise.
The team undeniably misses Nick Leddy at times, particularly when the offense gets stagnant and his ability to move from zone to zone with the puck could've stirred things up, but these new young defensemen have shown that the pipeline isn't dry. While the Blackhawks still have one of the older defensive corps in the league at roughly 29 years old on average, it's surprising that people don't give this team more credit for seamlessly transitioning young players into the lineup while maintaining such a high level of defensive performance.
Guys like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook probably aren't going to improve upon their already stellar contributions, but it's not inconceivable that the young guns could provide more. TvR and Rundblad have definitely shown more comfort looking for shots on the offensive end in recent weeks. Even with the unfortunate injury to TvR, both guys can still progress before the playoffs roll around.
Again, this is all incredibly good news
This isn't to say that a struggling offense can't sink the team's Stanley Cup chances, or that Crawford is no longer susceptible to stretches of mediocrity. An elite defense can mitigate those issues throughout a long regular season, though, and at least put the Blackhawks in a position to compete for a championship should the rest of the team come together (which, again, is entirely within reason, just look at Sunday).
Recent history has shown that teams as stingy as this year's Blackhawks are borderline locks to make the playoffs, and usually make noise once there. For a team that's often framed as waiting to flip the switch until the real games begin, Chicago may indeed have the chance to spend 80-plus games rounding into form on offense. As long as the defense remains this good -- and I don't believe a TvR injury will have a significant impact -- the rest of the team doesn't need to peak for months.