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Examining the Blackhawks’ special teams strategies

A deep dive into Chicago’s penalty kill and power play.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Chicago Blackhawks Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

Out of all the tools teams can use to gain a competitive edge over the competition, one of the most weaponizing are special teams. These are units that are made specifically for unusual situations – whether they work to help a team or hurt a team, they have the chance to impact the game in a variety of ways.

Today’s season recap article is going to focus on the Blackhawks use of their specialty teams: what worked, what didn’t, and how they compare to their counterparts throughout the NHL. It will also look into the future, and what newly hired assistant coach Marc Crawford can bring to the table.

Penalty Kill

First, let’s start with the penalty kill. Unsurprisingly, the Blackhawks ranked last in the NHL during the 2018-19 season in penalty kill, with a 72.7 penalty kill percentage, a whole 12.3 percent below the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

Chicago ranked first in goals allowed while defending shorthanded with 63 goals on 231 opportunities last season. The Hawks also came in at 21st when it came to penalties taken - the league most belonged to the Avalanche with 272 trips to the sin bin. However, Colorado only conceded 58 goals shorthanded.

What makes Tampa Bay’s penalty kill so effective has to do with their discipline in front of the net. They have three players clogging up the slot in a rotating triangle, while the fourth player takes care of the point shot – this lends itself to a system that revolves around the puck carrier either forcing a shot through defenders or trying to make a cross ice pass through three penalty killers. While it’s still a man-to-man structure, the main focus is keeping the puck above the face off dots and out of the slot.

Another strength to Tampa Bay’s system is their personnel: they have the choice of Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi or Anton Stralman on the back end, and Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Cedric Paquette and even Yanni Gourde up front. That’s not a bad list to pick from. But not limited to just those players, the Lightning have an abundance of players who can “do it all” – not only can they provide offense, but they can defend, too.

Back in December, NHL Network did a segment on the success of the Tampa Bay penalty kill. You can see the analysts break it down here, if you’re more of a visual learner:

Looking at the penalty kill from the Blackhawks point of view, it’s an issue that doesn’t provide one single answer, but yet, it was a multitude of things. For instance, the combination of a porous defensive structure, carelessness with the puck in the neutral zone, and inability for penalty killers to stick to their assigned roles were shown to be the primary contributors.

It’s not for the lack of trying: the Blackhawks were in the top twelve of the league at staying out of the box, so it can’t solely be pinned on the group for taking too many penalties.

But it’s what happens once the penalty kill is needed that there becomes a problem. The chaos that ensues in the defensive zone creates an unorganized structure, leading to more holes on the ice and more scrambling for the goaltender.

Marc Crawford, the Blackhawks new assistant coach and former assistant and interim head coach for the Senators, helped run the penalty kill for the last three seasons. While things didn’t go right in a majority of areas for the Senators last season, they did alright on the penalty kill: a 22nd ranked 79.2 penalty kill percentage, with 45 goals allowed on 216 penalties taken.

Some simple changes such as shoring up defensive responsibilities, switching up the personnel on the units, and becoming more disciplined in front of the net can all be small but mighty fixes to the Blackhawks penalty kill.

Power play

The power play was a brighter spot for Chicago. Ranked 12th in the NHL in goals scored, the Blackhawks cashed in 48 goals on 238 opportunities, good for a 20.2 power play percentage. While opportunities ranked 14th and percentage ranked 15th, it’s much better than being last in the league.

The power play was something of hope for the Blackhawks down the stretch: it was by and large their strongest skill during their surge to try and sneak into the playoffs (and hey, they held a wild-card spot for 45 minutes). Especially from the second half on, it was a major turning point. Under new head coach Jeremy Colliton, the Blackhawks scored 41 power-play goals on 188 opportunities, a 21.8 percentage.

The Blackhawks real run came after Jan. 20, when Chicago went 20 for 90 for a 22.2 percentage. That stretch saw four separate occasions where at least one power play goal was scored in back-to-back games, and eight different instances where the power play was producing at 50 percent or better.

Just like they were in penalty kill percentage, the juggernaut Lightning led the league in power play percentage with 28.2 percent, scoring 74 goals on 262 opportunities. Their 74 goals also ranked first, and their penalties drawn ranked fourth.

The Predators were the league’s worst power play, scoring just 33 goals on 255 opportunities, a mere 12.9 percentage. With talent like P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson on their roster and the addition of Dan Lambert, whose Spokane Chiefs had the best WHL power play, it’s hard to imagine Nashville remaining in the basement on the man advantage.

The Lightning’s power play was a topic of conversation all season long, and for good reason. Their setup of one player down in front, three straight across the middle, and one at the point makes for a world of opportunities. Not do they have elite wingers in Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos ready for a slap shot, they also have option of goal-scoring machine Brayden Point up the middle and a big body like Ondrej Palat up around the goalie ready for a rebound or tip-in.

Like their penalty kill, the Lightning use intelligent puck moving and handling strategies to buy them the most amount of time they can in the offensive zone. It’s tough for defenders to keep up with all the movement between players, and most times, it’s deliberate. Head coach Jon Cooper stressed deliberate hockey: making moves because they’re the right ones, not because they’re the easy ones. It sure paid off for them during the regular season.

Here’s an example of Tampa Bay’s power play from last season. Pay attention to the movement of the puck, as well as the positioning of each player, and how their role impacts Kucherov’s eventual goal:

The Blackhawks used a similar man advantage strategy with their first power play unit, which consisted of Dylan Strome, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Erik Gustafsson. The grouping of four forwards and one defenseman, like Tampa Bay’s unit, is frequently used across today’s NHL.

In Chicago’s case, Kane, DeBrincat and Toews formed that aforementioned line across the middle of the zone, Gustafsson was at the point and Strome was down low. Gustafsson, Kane and DeBrincat searched for open seams to create one timer opportunities, Toews would look for tips in the mid to high slot and drift out of the slot for puck interchanges with Kane and DeBrincat, and Strome would battle in the crease and open up for passes below the goal line. It was deadly at times.

However, the Blackhawks’ issue with the power play came when they got too cute with their passing, they did not utilize Toews in the rover position enough, Kane and DeBrincat rushed cross-ice passes, and Strome opted for the pass backdoor through multiple bodies instead of just swinging out in front and jamming the puck on net.


If the power play unit decides to use Toews in the rover position more often it can open up passing lanes, seams and angles that were never there before. Again, a simple fix, but one that can make a great impact.

Teams with the strongest special teams are often playing deep in the playoffs like this year with the Blues and Bruins.

Boston: 3rd in PP, 16th in PK

St. Louis: 10th in PP, 9th in PK

While the numbers don’t lie, it seems to be happening backwards: Boston is phenomenal at killing penalties, while St. Louis can’t seem to find the back of the net on the man advantage.

If the Blackhawks can get their power play to be more consistent and improve their penalty kill to the top 20 in the NHL, they could be in a really good spot (dependent on other factors, of course). Maybe grabbing a player in free agency to help boost those units can be a route the front office takes. Either way, they need to be fixed, but it’s all uphill from here.


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