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A few observations on the Blackhawks defense

After Calvin de Haan said the Blackhawks give up chances, but not grade-A ones, it turns out they actually do.

Chicago Blackhawks v Nashville Predators
Erik Gustafsson of the Chicago Blackhawks skates against the Nashville Predators in NHL action
Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks are having problems defensively. What was kind of expected has turned out to be a bigger problem than accounted for, especially after Stan Bowman took measures in the offseason to trade for defensemen who might help this team.

Nearly 20 games into the season, the Blackhawks have the second-worst expected goals against per 60 mark of any team at even strength. Their 2.85 mark is better than only the New York Rangers, who are having problems. The good news is the Blackhawks 2.46 xGF/60 is in the top 10.

So what’s going wrong? How do the Blackhawks turn this around so they can stop relying almost solely on the performance of their goaltenders and allow both Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner the occasional off game? Here are three factors to take into account for Chicago:

1. They have one elite defenseman and he’s on LTIR

The best Blackhawks defenseman this season is Connor Murphy. And he can’t seem to stay healthy, having his second stint on injured reserve in two seasons. But when he’s healthy, Murphy is a clear top-pairing defenseman and somebody the Blackhawks can rely on to both drive offense and play solid defense.

Connor Murphy regularized adjusted plus minus
Evolving Hockey

Murphy’s 1.61 xGF/60 leads all Chicago defensemen. He has the best marks in shots against/60 (24.43), high-danger chances against/60 (9.09) and the best expected goal share (68.26 percent). He’s clearly the No. 1 defenseman until further notice.

Murphy and Duncan Keith have been the best pairing. They’re the best both in terms of defense and possession across every stat, and that’s despite playing against the top-tier talent. Keith has been alright without Murphy, but he’s much better with him.

Getting Murphy back and playing him hefty minutes will help tone down shots against.

2. Some major problems

Erik Gustafsson has the second-worst shots against/60 at even strength (40.31), the second-worst expected goal share (40.94), and the worst expected goals against/60 (3.44) on the blue line. He has the second-highest offensive zone start percentage to the rookie, Adam Boqvist (65.15). Those numbers, for somebody the Blackhawks rely on, are inexcusable especially when he’s not having the most productive season offensively.

Brent Seabrook isn’t having a great season either, but he’s been much better with Calvin de Haan. In fact, de Haan and Seabrook as a pairing have allowed just 2.47 xGF/60 at even strength, 9.16 high danger chances against/60 and have a 50 percent shot share and 53.85 percent high-danger share. They’re doing well.

Gustafsson hasn’t found that pairing that elevates him, despite the Blackhawks trying multiple combinations. He’s making his partners consistently worse, regardless of who they may be. Gustafsson has the third-most giveaways on the blue line and has created the fourth-fewest rebound chances.

Boqvist is replacing him, it would just be preferable if that was sooner rather than later.

3. Olli Maatta needs more help

Moving the puck, specifically. For somebody who gets trapped in his own zone time and time again, Maatta isn’t giving up too many bad chances. Despite the worst high-danger share, Corsi and shot share, he’s not giving up a ton of chances there, at least not the most. If the Blackhawks can find him somebody who can help him get the puck out of the zone and put the puck on net in the other end, they have something there.

That’s why Boqvist might be the choice. In their first 21:15 of even-strength ice time, Boqvist and Maatta have improved marks over Maatta’s alone, and they’ll likely get better as Boqvist continues to adjust to the NHL and develop chemistry and communication. Boqvist is the kind of player Maatta has been proven to play well with, as some of Maatta’s best stats have come as partner to Kris Letang in Pittsburgh. That’s the type of player Boqvist will likely develop into.

What should Blackhawks defense look like?

When healthy, here’s what should be rolled out:

Keith — Murphy
Seabrook — de Haan
Maatta — Boqvist

Dennis Gilbert has better stats than he’s given credit for and likely should be the seventh defenseman at this point.