The Chicago Blackhawks have an impressive talent in Teuvo Teravainen. At 21 years old, the former first-round pick has already hoisted the Stanley Cup, won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships and become a mainstay on one of the NHL's top teams.
Teravainen is clearly a talent worthy of attention and that's why he's already such a big part of the Blackhawks at such a young age. Many up-and-coming players have tried and failed to crack Joel Quenneville's icy coaching inner circle with the warming glow of smart passes and good backchecks. Teuvo has pulled it off. He's often mentioned in the next breath after the team's much-discussed core, a key part of Chicago's hockey.
Except for most of the 2015-16 season, Teravainen has had trouble finding his groove. For a player who thrives in space and can attack in transition, Teuvo has spent too many games skating between ends without creating chances. This isn't to say he's not contributing at all -- nine points in 20 games is still better than his production from a season ago. We just expect someone this skilled to be more than a 15-goal, 35-point player, and rightfully so.
The question is just how the Hawks can get one of their most talented players going, as the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Lazerus pointed out Monday. The most obvious answer, to be brief, would be to adjust things outside of Teravainen's control. Few players have been affected as much by the Q-Brand Blender this season.
Teravainen has been a first-liner next to future Hall of Famers and a third-liner next to a pair of rookies. He's been a winger and, occasionally, a center. The Blackhawks have tried pretty much everything with Teuvo. The only thing they haven't given him to work with is stability. A brief absence due to a minor injury during the circus trip didn't help things, but for a player who's still learning the nuances of the game, Teravainen's rarely been afforded the luxury of playing the same role every night.
"I’ve been paying with a lot of guys in a lot of positions, and I’m just trying to find my game and get my going," Teravainen told Lazerus. "I know it’s a process, and I have to be patient. But I can do a lot better."
Constantly changing roles and linemates like this must have an impact on a player. The Hawks' system is all about positioning, instincts and quick decisions. A good system should lead to good habits. Learning and maintaining those habits has got to come easier when you're able to play in the same spots and develop chemistry with certain teammates. This is all stuff that's been said before, of course, and the team has had good reasons for most of its many lineup changes. Most fans live with and maybe even learn to love the blender. But, in the case of the developing Teravainen, there might be untapped upside in allowing him to get comfortable somewhere, anywhere.
One of the easiest ways to see just how varied Teravainen's usage has been this season can be gleaned from his zone starts. Here's a look at Teuvo's game-to-game numbers for relative zone start percentage, which shows how many offensive vs. defensive zone starts a player gets relative to his teammates. A positive number means a player took a larger percentage of his zone starts in the offensive zone than other players on the team.
You'll notice there's not much consistency here. Sometimes, Teravainen is getting lots of chances to play in the offensive zone and, presumably, create chances. In other games, he's playing far more of a defensive role. There are lots of reasons for why this can happen, but just compare it to the same graph for Artemi Panarin, who's been lucky enough to play regularly on the Hawks' second line and now is a prime Calder Trophy contender:
Yes, Panarin's line has been the Blackhawks' primary source of offense, which helps to explain why he gets more offensive zone starts than many other players. But if you're wondering why Panarin has looked so much better than Teravainen beyond the simple fact that he's playing next to Patrick Kane, the benefit of playing a consistently offensive role is a factor.
This isn't necessarily to say that Teravainen should immediately be afforded the same looks as Panarin. It's apparent that Panarin has earned his spot on the Hawks' second line and that group will continue to be relied upon for scoring until some other part of the team steps up. Still, part of how the Hawks will get away from their dependence on Panarin-Ani-Kane is to get Teravainen going on another line. Just giving the Finnish forward a more steady role, even if it doesn't yield as many chances as Panarin's, should be the next logical step.
Teravainen still has the ability to make a bigger impact this season. Despite the more defensive role and constantly changing linemates, he's still improved his points per 60 minutes from 1.2 to 2.0. He still has that ability to find the man and make a play in space when it comes. But far too often, those plays will only happen if Teuvo creates them single-handedly, and that's a tough proposition for a young forward who knows he can't risk making defensive mistakes to force things on the other end. Letting him feel his way through a more steady role might allow him to rely more on his instincts and take advantage of his impressive abilities, rather than have to re-calibrate every night depending on how the lineup and matchups stack up.
The Hawks have tried so, so many things this season. Quenneville has constantly moved around the pieces hoping to find a spark. This has long been part of how the team gets through the 82-game slate. Rarely does something last long in Chicago if it's not working.
Except in this case, it might be time to try a little stability. Let Teuvo have a position and some linemates for a few weeks. Maybe it's back with the rookies, even if the last time didn't work too hot. Maybe it's a proper look on a reunited first line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, who's recently been hanging down with Krugs and company. Maybe it's next to Brandon Mashi- okay, maybe not that.
The Hawks have moved Teuvo around constantly this season to no avail. Their next play should be to leave him alone somewhere for a little bit and see what happens.
(Stats via War-on-Ice)