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Why does the Blackhawks’ power play continue to struggle?

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Three key reasons behind Chicago’s drop to the No. 27-ranked power play in the NHL.

Chicago Blackhawks v Calgary Flames
Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames and Erik Gustafsson of the Chicago Blackhawks compete for position during an NHL game
Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

Despite two goals in the last four games, the Blackhawks’ power play is 27th in the NHL at just a 15.6-percent successful conversion rate. That’s not good. How did it end up that low?

There are a few causes:

  • The Blackhawks are among the bottom teams in the league in shot generation on the man advantage and when they do shoot, they rank No. 26 in shooting percentage.
  • The forwards, which could boil down to being as simple as the Blackhawks playing the wrong ones and not getting the shot production they need from others
  • The power-play quarterback — Erik Gustafsson has not been great.

System

The Blackhawks take the 22nd most shot attempts in the league per 60 on the man advantage, likely leading to having the 27th goals for per 60. They’ve played the 10th most minutes while at least a man up, but they’ve got almost nothing to show for it. A large part of that is their current system, which relies on getting shots from up close, and almost nowhere else.

Power play shot heat map
HockeyViz

The Blackhawks are getting the ninth most high-danger chances per 60, but the 23rd most shots and 16th most expected goals.

Chicago should be taking more shots from outside the high-danger area, especially while net-front guys like Andrew Shaw and Dylan Strome are out, and before Drake Caggiula returned (although, as the game against Florida proved, he can be good in that role). The Blackhawks have the shooting talent theoretically to do so, and they are currently without a top-tier screen, although Caggiula is proving to be capable of scoring on rebounds.

Until Shaw (concussion protocol) and Strome (right ankle) are back, the Blackhawks need to shift their mentality and where their shots come from. The high-danger area is not currently working, but it’s the only thing the Blackhawks have going for them.

Forwards

The Blackhawks may also be using the wrong forwards with Strome and Shaw out, forwards who are not currently lending themselves well to the power play. Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, however, remain mainstays of the first unit. DeBrincat needs to shoot more than his 11.43 SOG/60 rate, which has been his biggest problem, and ranks seventh on the team.

Chicago also needs more shots on net and xG/60 with Jonathan Toews on ice than anybody else. Those three aren’t the problem, although Toews having six power-play points, including one goal, is kind of a problem.

But everybody else has been bad. Outside of the first unit when healthy of Toews, Kane, DeBrincat and Strome and Dominik Kubalik — who could see more time on the power play — and Shaw hurt for the last two months, nobody else with a good sample size has played at an acceptable level.

Kubalik has helped the team to 45.4 shots/60 and 5.13 goals/60 and Shaw has 52.1 shots/60 and 5.10 goals/60. They’re playing better than anybody besides those big four first-unit forwards, and even their numbers are somewhat middling. Caggiula has been excellent, but has played less than five minutes.

Kirby Dach has zero goals, one assist and three shots on the power play, while Alex Nylander has zero goals, two assists, two shots in 69 minutes. Nylander has fewer expected goals than Duncan Keith. Brandon Saad hasn’t been much better, and neither he nor Keith have a power-play point this season. Outside of that, options are severely limited.

The lack of a concrete second unit has doomed the Blackhawks. Kubalik, who has two goals and three assists in 70 minutes, has shot the puck 15 times and has the fifth-most SOG/60 on the team (second above 30 minutes), is a good start to the second unit, but the Blackhawks need Shaw to return to build a unit capable of generating offense and successful high-danger attempts.

Gustafsson

Gustafsson has been a problem this season. Not just defensively, where he obviously struggles, but even at the areas he’s supposed to succeed. He has eight power-play points as the team’s most important defenseman on the unit although it can be argued the title belongs to rookie Adam Boqvist in the future.

Gustafsson is 34th in points per 60 among defensemen with more than 100 minutes on the power play. The Wild have two defensemen in Brad Hunt and Ryan Suter with more goals above replacement on the power play than Gustafsson, who ranks 36th. Gustafsson generated the 18th most G/60 and has the fourth-most goals against of any of those defensemen.

In other words: the Blackhawks should have made the shift to the younger Boqvist long ago. Boqvist has outplayed Gustafsson on the power play, as the Blackhawks have gotten more expected goals/60 and more goals/60 with Boqvist on ice (to the tune of more than a goal per 60 on that last stat). Boqvist has made a positive impact where Gustafsson has made a negative one, with Gustafsson at a minus-.30 power-play goals above replacement mark and Boqvist at a positive .40.

The Blackhawks power play isn’t good, whether that’s because of the system not changing to fit the team, distinct lack of a true second unit or being stuck too long with a bad quarterback. Any way you slice it, the Blackhawks’ man advantage has likely cost them games, and they need more if they’re going to be competitive.