We’ve spent plenty of time talking about the things that went wrong during the 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks season. As we start to bring this season recap in for a landing, it’s time to focus on a few aspects of the season that exceeded expectations. And there’s no better place to start than with the player who began the season as a teenager and ended it as the team’s leading goal scorer.
Alex DeBrincat was everything the Hawks hoped he would be during his first NHL season.
Although it didn’t start way. DeBrincat had just one goal and four assists in his first 12 games during October, with calls for the second-round pick (39th overall) in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to get a demotion to the AHL.
And then he scored on November 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers. And then he scored in the next game against the Minnesota Wild. Then he scored four goals in three games in mid-November. Then he had a hat trick against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks just after Thanksgiving. By the time the 2018 started, it was obvious that DeBrincat belonged in the NHL.
He would add a hat trick against the Detroit Red Wings on January 25 and one more for against the St. Louis Blues on March 18, breaking the franchise record for hat tricks in a rookie season that was set by Steve Larmer in 1982-83.
His 28 goals were the most on the team, one ahead of Patrick Kane. Adding in 24 assists put him into a three-way tie for second (along with Jonathan Toews and Nick Schmaltz) with 52 points. The possession numbers look good as well, with DeBrincat checking in at a 53.76 CF%, fourth best among forwards (with one of them being a former teammate in Richard Panik). He did benefit from having one of the higher offensive zone start percentages on the team at 37.2, behind only Kane, Schmaltz and Patrick Sharp. To his credit, though, DeBrincat made those opportunities count.
It wasn’t just the goals DeBrincat scored, either. It was how he scored them.
The diminutive DeBrincat displayed a strong hockey IQ and a quick, accurate shot on so many of his goals. For example, take a look at his final goal in the aforementioned game against the Blues.
As the Hawks gain the zone, DeBrincat loops behind the net when a shot hits traffic and bounces towards Artem Anisimov. DeBrincat sees the play before it happens.
The puck (highlighted by the yellow arrow) hasn’t even reached Anisimov’s stick, but DeBrincat has already recognized the open lane for the pass. Instead of drifting towards the slot, he stops and even moves back a step or two, making a potential save on this shot virtually impossible.
As the puck arrives, DeBrincat has loads of space available to bury the puck into the net, because he created that extra room. If he’d drifted closer to the hash marks, he could’ve given Jake Allen a chance to stop this shot or allowed Colton Parayko to get across for a block. Those subtle little movements were evident in DeBrincat’s game all season, as he defied two of the biggest concerns of his transition to the NHL: he was not afraid to go to the “dirty areas” to make plays happen, and he fired shots so fast that defenders didn’t have time to use any size advantage against him.
But can he do it all again?
Why not? In fact, why can’t he be even better? DeBrincat’s goals did come in bunches. Nine of them were in the three hat trick games. He had seven goals in seven games in November and eight goals in 11 games in January and February. If his continued evolution at the NHL level can lead to more consistency, there’s no reason why he can’t break the 30-goal plateau and start eyeing 35 or (fingers crossed) 40.
DeBrincat’s shooting percentage of 15.6 percent will likely regress next season, because that number is just not sustainable. The best pure goal scorer this century, Alex Ovechkin, has a career mark of 12.4 percent. But a lower shooting percentage doesn’t have to mean fewer goals, because DeBrincat can certainly improve upon his number of 181 shots on goal during the 2017-18 season. For comparison’s sake, and using a player with a similar offensive skill set as DeBrincat, Patrick Sharp had the following totals for shots on goal during his prime seasons in Chicago: 266, 268, 282, 313. That averages out to just over 280 each year. A season with 280 shots on goal with an 11-percent conversion rate results in a 31-goal campaign. Seems like a realistic average figure for DeBrincat, doesn’t it? Of course, there is one way to ensure that DeBrincat gets both higher quantity and quality shots on goal next season.
Playing DeBrincat with Kane
According to Natural Stat Trick’s Line Tool, DeBrincat and Kane played together for a criminally low 88 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time last season. They had a CF% of 55.03 but were outscored 8-4 by when playing together and gave up more high-danger chances against (18) than they generated (13). And this duo started in the defensive zone just nine times. Those numbers aren’t great, but the sample size isn’t, either.
It seems like a perfect fit, doesn’t it? Kane’s never had better seasons than the ones he had with Artemi Panarin on his opposite wing, and DeBrincat’s scoring touch is the closest Chicago can get to replicating that skill set with players currently on the roster. Adding Nick Schmaltz between those two would only heighten the potential for some highlight-reel action. Coach Joel Quenneville even hyped up that line in the preseason:
Quenneville on DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane line: "I think the upside of that could be really big."— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) September 17, 2017
But it did not become a staple during the 2017-18 season, for reasons known only to Quenneville and his staff.
We’ll see if we got more looks at that combo during 2018-19.