Through the first 12 games this season, the Blackhawks look all out of sorts. For once, it’s not the defense’s fault (although Connor Murphy missing time is a huge blow, considering he makes defensemen he plays with better and might be Chicago’s best d-man now).
No, this is on the offense. Outside of a few games, the Blackhawks offense has been bad. Jonathan Toews is struggling. Patrick Kane is somehow on a cold streak. The three forwards driving play consistently started with defensive assignments on the third line. Brandon Saad is still averaging less than 16 minutes a game despite being in his prime and the Blackhawks’ best forward. Things have to change.
Here are some of the important ways to address the offense.
Jeremy Colliton has argued line combinations aren’t a problem, and said they don’t matter. That hasn’t been the case as Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat have proven they’re much better together than apart, and Saad, David Kampf and Dominik Kubalik have shown it every time they’re together.
The problem also isn’t work ethic with the players Colliton seems to indicate he thinks are having those issues. How DeBrincat and Strome ended up on the fourth line no one knows. Strome isn’t doing anything wrong, in fact, he’s second in individual expected goals for per 60 behind Saad. DeBrincat was a 40-goal scorer last season.
Instead, blame falls with the stars that made three championships possible for Chicago. Kane and Toews are having bad seasons, but particularly Toews.
Toews, however, hasn’t been put in the best position. That’s Colliton’s fault for not putting together lines to generate chances or possession at the level the team should given the talent they have.
The NHL’s best teams — Boston, Carolina, Colorado and Vegas — stick with their lines. Boston’s not splitting up David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron because they have chemistry and have proven they work incredibly well together. Same with Vegas and William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith and Carolina with Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho.
Even as Colliton has shifted lines to better the offense, they’re still not doing as well as they could be.
DeBrincat and Strome
With Ryan Carpenter: 40 percent Corsi-For rating and 47.07 percent expected goal share
Without Carpenter: 53.23 percent Corsi-For and 52.16 percent expected goal share
Colliton may have a valid point that DeBrincat and Strome need a more defensive player with them (they don’t however, as Strome has turned himself into a two-way forward) but can’t it be one of the other — Alex Nylander and Andrew Shaw spring to mind — options? Carpenter has generated just .21 xG/60 this season.
The combination that may work best but hasn’t been tried:
Saad — Toews — Kane
DeBrincat — Strome — Nylander
Shaw — Dach — Kubalik
Caggiula — Carpenter — Kampf
No points from the point
Last season, when the Blackhawks were capable of scoring points, three of their top 10 scorers were defensemen: Erik Gustafsson had 60 points, Duncan Keith 40 and Brent Seabrook 28. This season, only one of those three is in the top 10 with Gustafsson eighth with four assists, and even he’s not on the same pace as last season. Gustafsson, the power play quarterback, also has just two points on the power play.
Keith has the same number of points as rookie Kirby Dach, who’s played seven games. Seabrook has one point, a power-play goal, and that remains the only goal scored by a defenseman. Last season, Blackhawks defensemen scored 40 goals, so the fact they have one through 11 games this season is concerning.
But the focus of the team’s defensemen has always been playmaking, and until they have that again the offense will struggle. Gustafsson needs to be better than two assists if the power play is going to get going.
Also, you could take 10 guesses and not get who leads the blue line in xG/60. It is Connor Murphy. That shouldn’t be happening since he’s a defensive defenseman, but it is. Until that changes and Gustafsson or Keith improve their production or Murphy comes back, this may not improve. But hey, Adam Boqvist offers hope.
Average power play at best
The power play has scored four goals. For a team lacking offense as much as the Blackhawks currently are, a good power play could be a momentum turner. A bad one, like Chicago has now, is a killer. The Blackhawks need to get more from their power play if they’re going to get more from their offense because neither is good enough.
The Blackhawks rank 24th in Corsi, 28th in shots for and xGF and 23rd in high-danger chances for on the power play. Part of that is the lack of net-front presence on the first power play unit — despite having both Shaw and Strome — Colliton has previously elected to put Nylander on the unit. Nylander is an excellent shooter with a lot of potential, but he’s not hanging out in front of the net.
Getting more high-danger chances will be crucial as the Blackhawks try and re-establish their power play, and keeping either Shaw or Strome there will help. Kane and Toews haven’t been offensive drivers, which means adding Saad could be a good idea. Boqvist should also help. But at the same time, the Blackhawks should want Dach on the power play as much as possible, and he proved to be good there against the Kings, helping score the first power-play goal in quite some time.
Realistically, the Blackhawks have 11 players who should be getting power play time, two defensemen and nine forwards. Gustafsson is currently out, but if he and Boqvist are ever in at the same time, there’s the two power play quarterbacks. When somebody is struggling with their power play minutes and not showing up, it’ll be nice to have an extra forward capable of playing on the man advantage. Right now, as much as he’s been the best forward for the Blackhawks, Saad should be getting more even strength minutes and taking on the lion’s share of the penalty kill, where he’s been exceptional. He’s the extra man, and if somebody, say, Kubalik or Nylander, is struggling, Saad can come in.
Right now, here’s how the power play would look best:
Shaw — Strome — Kane — DeBrincat — Boqvist
Dach — Toews — Kubalik — Nylander — Gustafsson
Colliton wants the second unit up and running as well and lending them Toews and Gustafsson might help.
Stars must align
Coming into this season, if you had told me the best member of the Blackhawks’ power 4 — DeBrincat, Kane, Strome and Toews — would have been Strome, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s the case. Strome has been quietly reliable pretty much everywhere except on faceoffs.
Strome has some room for growth, but the other three aren’t anywhere close to being as good as they need to be. When Olli Maatta is more threatening than Toews, it’s been a tough 12 games. Part of this is the mix and match lines as it has been hard to develop chemistry. Saad is perhaps the winger Toews could play the best with, but hasn’t been given a chance on the first line.
The Blackhawks may lack offense until players who have proven to be able to provide it are once again their normal selves. Until then, the Blackhawks will continue to need Saad to be the possession beast he always has been, but now it’s turning him into team MVP.