The Blackhawks now stand 2-1-1 this preseason, and look to have figured out many of their lineup and personnel questions they entered this month with. The NHL players have already separated themselves, and while the Blackhawks still have several decisions to make, there are five takeaways from the first four games that can help with that.
1. If Corey Crawford is healthy, it’s his job to lose
Crawford entered his first preseason game with question marks, mainly focused on his health.
Two years of off-and-on head injuries will do that. Those types of questions were natural for someone who had to battle, often unsuccessfully, to stay on the ice the last 18 months.
Crawford seemed to answer those questions with an emphatic - well, he’s healthy now, and he plays like it. Crawford stopped 23 of 24 shots against the Red Wings, a team which included NHL players in Mike Green, Taro Hirose, Trevor Daley, and Jacob de la Rose as well as potential future ones in Filip Zadina, Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno.
Crawford looked better than Robin Lehner did in his first game, as the new goaltender allowed two goals on 17 shots in less than 30 minutes. Lehner improved in his second game, one against Boston, but against lesser competition, he was not nearly as excellent as Crawford.
Lehner has said he came to Chicago to help the team and compete for the starting spot against Crawford. But if Crawford is healthy, well, it’s his job for a reason.
2. Defense still has holes
Allowing 41 shots against to the Bruins, when their best player was Charlie McAvoy and every member of their top six (and perhaps top nine) was missing, is not great. Especially not when the Blackhawks were playing five of their theoretical top six, with only Calvin de Haan out due to injury.
The Blackhawks are averaging 33 shots against per game this preseason, which isn’t optimal considering Duncan Keith, Olli Maatta, Brent Seabrook, Connor Murphy and Erik Gustafsson have all played two games and Slater Koekkoek has played three.
Chicago’s biggest problem last season was its defense, and it entered this season with four of its top six from last season still on the roster and Koekkoek, who ended up as the seventh, in much the same position. While Adam Boqvist and Philip Holm have impressed throughout this preseason, Holm doesn’t appear to be competing for a spot and Boqvist may be the odd man out.
That’s not to say there haven’t been defensemen who haven’t impressed. Boqvist surely has, and his offensive game is certainly NHL ready. Maatta and Seabrook together have limited the opposition to 0.11 expected goals (and five shots) at even strength, and Maatta has played a large part in the recovery of Seabrook, who has allowed 0.35 xGA without Maatta in 6:28-minutes of ice time.
But while Maatta and Seabrook have worked as a duo, Keith-Gustafsson and Murphy-Koekkoek have not. Both pairs allowed more than 1.5 xGA at even strength and have negative possession stats despite offensive-leaning workloads.
There should be some experimentation during the next few games to find duos that work, because the goaltenders facing an average 33 shots per game will not work in the regular season.
3. Alex Nylander is complicated. Dominik Kubalik is not.
Nylander has played two games with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. That line has bad possession stats, with a 47.9-percent Corsi-For and 43.3-percent shot share. Nylander, in the 17 minutes he’s played without Kane and Toews, was better. Nylander is tied for the most points on the team this preseason with Kane at three, with two of those points being primary.
It seems like Nylander has made the NHL roster. The natural fit to spread out talent seems to be with Toews and Kane, but again, the line could be a lot better, especially as Nylander seems to be floating around at times and needs to be better without the puck.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kubalik. His third-line role has seemed ensured since he came over from the Swiss league in the summer, and he’s done nothing to discredit that notion. Kubalik has two goals in three games and continues to excel as a shooter and skater in the offensive zone. But that’s not the most impressive part, as Kubalik has racked up five takeaways and zero giveaways in the three games. That’s a part of his well-rounded game, where he can backcheck effectively, as well as forecheck.
There’s nothing complicated about Kubalik’s impressive start, while Nylander is still a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
4. DeBrincat-Strome-Shaw can work, but has it?
Theoretically, the trio of Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Andrew Shaw makes a lot of sense. Shaw provides three critical things the Blackhawks’ key young duo is missing: an ability to get to the dirty areas and dig the puck back out, transition effectively with the puck and add more effective backchecking.
But that’s not how it’s gone. In the line’s first two games, they’ve come out with a 41.7-percent Corsi-For and 26.5-percent expected goal share. Those are not good numbers, and it’s concerning that it’s happening against lesser competition. Part of that is the line’s altogether inability to win faceoffs.
It might be worth it to see what the Strome-DeBrincat duo can do with a different partner. Kubalik has earned a look at the top six, and he can supply the things the duo is missing, although he’s not as effective in the high-danger areas as Shaw.
Shaw can also be put with Brandon Saad to raise their effectiveness together, or with Toews and Kane.
5. New penalty kill
Last season the Blackhawks’ penalty kill was last in the league. Through the first four games, it seems like they are finding solutions.
One of them seems to be playing David Kampf more. He’s played the second-most minutes behind just Carl Dahlstrom and has allowed just one high-danger chance against and 0.57 xGA. Connor Murphy has also been up to the task as he’s allowed 0.41 xGA and just one high-danger chance against in five minutes. Brandon Saad should also get more penalty kill time this season, and has been good so far.
Newcomers have also done well with Ryan Carpenter not yielding a goal against, and Olli Maatta, who hasn’t allowed a goal nor a high-danger chance in more than four and a half minutes. But it’s Drake Caggiula who’s been the biggest surprise with four minutes played and next-to-nothing allowed.
So Kampf-Caggiula and Carpenter-Saad could be this year’s top duos offensively and Maatta-Murphy defensively, and the Blackhawks could see a changeover in how their penalty kill performs in the regular season.