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Concerning trends for the Blackhawks

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A deep dive into a few aspects of Chicago’s game after passing the quarter mark of the 2019-20 season.

Los Angeles Kings v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

Over the losing streak, I’ve thought a lot about the Blackhawks. Well, one Blackhawk. See, I predicted before the season that Alex DeBrincat would be the guy to dethrone Alex Ovechkin on the Rocket Richard throne. It made sense at the time - a 20-year-old kid who scored 41 goals seemed like the natural successor. Auston Matthews and David Pastrnak can’t seem to play 80 games and Leon Draisaitl had to be moved off of Connor McDavid’s wing eventually. DeBrincat was both healthy and had his long-term center. (I may have been wrong about everything but the factors going for DeBrincat).

Well, 23 games into the season, DeBrincat is at just five goals. He’s on pace for less than 20. That’s half his production from last season. Pastrnak, the current Richard leader, has 20 already. DeBrincat’s got 18 points through 23 games, he’s turned himself into a solid playmaker, but in what was supposed to be a contract year — remember DeBrincat got extended? Cause I sure didn’t — the Blackhawks’ best goal scorer should be... scoring goals. He’s not. Part of that is his shooting percentage, which has plummeted 10-percent, but there’s more there.

And that’s just one of the problems so far with the Blackhawks, who are now 9-9-5. A .500 mark is not the progress this team was expected to make, especially not after a nice winning streak to kick off November. Here are some of the others:

Nobody is scoring

To be fair to DeBrincat, it’s not like anybody besides Patrick Kane is doing well offensively this season, besides maybe Dylan Strome, on pace for 65 points when he had 51 in 58 last season. Jonathan Toews had 81 points last season and is currently on pace for a little under 45. Erik Gustafsson has gone from 60 points to a 28-point pace. The team’s leaders are not doing well.

Part of that is still the Blackhawks’ luck. Drake Caggiula, Kane, Kirby Dach and Gustafsson are the only players over a goal above their current individual expected goal total. Brandon Saad, David Kampf, Andrew Shaw, Zack Smith and Ryan Carpenter are all a goal or more below.

That feeds into the next concern.

The power play is below-average

Again, a big part of the Blackhawks’ poor power-play performance so far this season has been luck. They’re 27th in shooting percentage on the man advantage (19th at all strengths, 13th at even strength) and last in high-danger shooting percentage on the power play (27th at all strengths). Those marks have to improve and they should.

But, the Blackhawks power play is also 19th in terms of expected goals for per 60 on the power play. They have to do a better job at almost all aspects of the man advantage. Their passing is off, they’re whiffing on chances, they’re turning the puck over entirely too much, and their transitions up the ice just do not work. The drop pass is harming them more than it should, and it’s too easy to get Chicago out of its zone on the power play and then keep them out.

Whether this is an issue with the current lineups or an issue of the players on the power play not being strong enough on the puck, the power play needs to be worked out if the Blackhawks are going to return to their offensive brilliance of last season. The near-universal consensus has been that the Blackhawks have a better roster this season than last year, it’s time to figure out how to translate that on the power play, and to do it consistently.

But the system doesn’t work in general

The Blackhawks’ offense is 23rd in Corsi for events per 60, 21st in shots/60, 16th in xGF/60, and 16th in high-danger chances/60. For a team who’s defense is still — well, it’s better than last season but it’s still missing pieces — those marks are not near good enough. While there’s a chance these improve as the players readjust to the Colliton system of last year, that hasn’t proven out over the past two games. The Blackhawks have gotten beat by both the Hurricanes and Lightning at the possession game, at least until the third period.

That’s been a massive part of this — excluding the last few games, or even including them, the Blackhawks get worse as the game goes on, but they are just horrendous in the middle frame. The Blackhawks have a 43.3-percent Corsi-For, 42.3-percent shot share and 42.5-percent expected goal share at even strength in the second period. That is unacceptable. They’ve still managed to outscore teams 14-12, but their play indicates that that should be much worse.

Blackhawks shot rates for and against, score adjusted
Micah Blake McCurdy

They’re not able to play well with a close lead, and the best the Blackhawks have been this season is when leading by two goals. The run and gun style fits the Blackhawks much better, but when they’re tied, or one goal up, they need to stay on the throat. Losses like that against the Jets earlier this season where the Blackhawks just squandered the lead instead of continuing to pounce are unacceptable.

The Blackhawks have been outscored in the third period 27-22 so far this season, and until that improves they’re not going anywhere.

In the end

Is it fair to blame all of this on Jeremy Colliton? I don’t think it’s 100-percent on him, but it’s approaching that. His system was bad, it’s getting better, but saving your best hockey for the third period against both the Hurricanes and Lightning is unacceptable. If they had played like they did in the third period in the first and second, the Blackhawks likely win those games.

Again, a big part of this is luck. The Blackhawks need to stop whiffing and start converting on chances on the power play. They need to pass better throughout the game, and they need to continue working on possession entries. This new system has been better for the Blackhawks, but it’s based heavily on the Blackhawks having better luck in four games than in the last two at even strength.

Age may also be a factor. It has yet to be determined, concretely, that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook at their advanced ages can hold down play like the third periods over the last two games during the entire 60 minutes. But if they can’t, well, the Blackhawks need to find a new solution to that. Whether it’s elevating Connor Murphy to more minutes again (it’s this one) or raising the Murphy/Olli Maatta pairing to either the primary or secondary unit and putting Erik Gustafsson with Calvin de Haan until the former is traded, possession and passing starts from the blue line.

But don’t think that excuses DeBrincat. The Blackhawks still need more goals out of him than five through 23.