One of the hallmarks of the Chicago Blackhawks during the Joel Quenneville era has been their strong penalty killing in Stanley Cup-winning seasons. In fact, looking at Chicago’s penalty kill numbers can be used as a decent reference point when it comes to their postseason success that year.
Since the 2009-10 NHL season, the Blackhawks have finished in the top-10 in the NHL in penalty kill percentage, three times: 2010, 2013, and 2015. They also went on to win the Stanley Cup in each of those seasons. They’ve finished outside the top-10 four times: 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2016. They did not win the Stanley Cup in those seasons. While there is obviously more to championship success than penalty killing, it’s clear that a strong penalty kill has helped the Blackhawks play at that level.
So with the Blackhawks’ penalty kill playing so horribly to start this NHL season, it’s understandable that many Hawks fans are concerned.
Through six games this year, the Blackhawks have successfully killed just nine of their 21 penalties, resulting in a 42.9 percent success rate. That means that when the Blackhawks take a penalty, the are currently more like to be scored up than not. That is very bad.
The question on the minds of many is what has been the cause of this horrid shorthanded performance early on. In an effort to find the answer to this question, I went back and rewatched every power play on which the Blackhawks have been scored upon this season, in addition to some of their successful ones. Here’s what I learned.
As bad as the Blackhawks penalty kill has been, they have still done some things well. As Mike Darnay of SB Nation pointed out, they’ve done a good job at holding their box formation. pressuring puck carriers when the puck is low in the zone. When the puck is below the goalline, the Blackhawks do a good job of applying pressure and taking away passing lanes from the opposition.
They also pressure the puck carriers well when it is along the boards, pursue the puck well when it is up for grabs, often forcing players along the boards to make quick decisions.
This kind of aggressiveness and willingness to pressure puck carriers down low is encouraging, and the way they stay tight in their box to prevent the puck from getting through the zone down low helps to prevent goals from being scored in the slot. So, while it is a silver lining at best, at least they have that going for them.
Now, let’s get to...
Now, it would be melodramatic of me to tell you that there is a lot wrong with the Blackhawks power play. In reality, they really only have one major issue — the problem is that it is a really, really big issue.
The Blackhawks do not defend the point on the power play. No qualifier here; it’s not that they “rarely” defend the point, or don’t defend it well. It’s that they do not defend the point. Full stop.
Looking through all of the power play goals allowed by the Blackhawks, there are only a handful that have not resulted from the Blackhawks being far too passive when it comes to defending the point. They do not pressure puck handlers at the point, they do not try to shut down point-to-point passing lanes, and they really don’t even take away passes to the point from lower in the zone.
This is a result of their rigid box, as Darnay points out in his piece. They hold firm in that tight box around the net wherever the puck is, and while that is a good thing when the puck is lower in the zone, it’s a nightmare when you’re allowing a team’s best point players to pass or shoot without any pressure.
Take a look at this set up from the season opener against the St. Louis Blues. Colton Parayko — the Blues’ hardest shooter — has the puck at the point, and no one on the Hawks even approaches him to force him to make a play.
Later in the same power play, Alex Pietrangelo is unchecked at the point, and after a few uncontested passes between himself and Vladimir Tarasenko connect at the point and they change up their positioning, Pietrangelo makes an uncontested pass to an uncovered Kevin Shattenkirk, who one-times the puck into the net.
This is a consistent issue. It happened against the Predators on P.K. Subban’s goal:
Against the Flyers, Shayne Gostisbehere was able to make an uncontested point pass across the zone, which led to a goal being scored just eight seconds later.
In the GIF below, against the Blue Jackets, Zach Werenski walks across the entire point area unchallenged before whipping a wrist shot into the net.
In the image below, Marcus Kruger doesn’t take away the pass to Werenski at the point, which Werenski one-times toward the net and creates a rebound for Nick Foligno to pound home.
And Saturday against the Leafs, the Hawks left the Toronto point men all alone, and a point-to-point pass to Auston Matthews freed him up to hit William Nylander with another cross-ice pass, and Nylander sniped one past Scott Darling.
Overall, the Blackhawks are far too passive on the power play. They aren’t even attempting to pressure the point, resulting in their opposition being able to set up for easy, uncontested shots or passes. This passiveness trickles down, as well; the Blackhawk are being outshot 54 to nothing when they are shorthanded, leaving them as the only team in the NHL without a shorthanded SOG, per Natural Stat Trick. This is already a huge change from the 2015-16 season, in which they tied for third in the NHL with 10 shorthanded goals.
The solution here may not be as simple as “be more aggressive,” but that’s where the Blackhawks have to start. They need to be forcing their opponent’s point players to make a play with the puck, not letting them do so. Making that change likely won’t turn them into an elite penalty killing team, but it’ll be a step in the right direction towards preventing more power play goals than they allow.
Adam Hess is a staff writer at Second City Hockey. Follow him on Twitter at @_adamhess.
All images and GIFs herein captured using NHL.tv or NHL.com.