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Young Guns Report: Tracking the progress of Blackhawks’ developing forwards

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A look at where the young forwards are statistically after a quarter of the season.

Carolina Hurricanes v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

While the Blackhawks have been slightly more successful than the average NHL team at drafting forwards that have played at least 200 games, not many of them have done so for the Blackhawks, unfortunately. The narrative that they’ve traded all their top-end drafted talent is rooted in fact, even if many of those trades were due to salary cap issues (Teuvo Teravainen, Nick Schmaltz) or during a time when the team was chasing cups (Phillip Danault). As a result, the Blackhawks haven’t been able to retain as many of their own higher quality players and instead have been finding talent elsewhere — such as in European leagues (Dominik Kubalik, Pius Suter) and reclamation projects of other team’s former first round picks (Alexander Nylander, Dylan Strome, Nikita Zadorov).

Although The Plan™ to focus on the young players this season took a hit with Kirby Dach and Nylander’s preseason surgeries, the Blackhawks still have one of the youngest forward groups in the NHL with many promising players.

Notes:

  • This series will include any player that is 25 or younger who plays at least one NHL game this season. Part 1 with forwards/defense/goalies, Defense part 2 is here.
  • This sample size is not quite 10 games since the last article because of scheduling changes, but it’s close enough that we should be able to evaluate new or ongoing trends for most of the players.
  • Remember, any stats used are just a starting point for analysis — not a definitive evaluation of a player. Shot metrics are from Natural Stat Trick. Even-strength offense goals above replacement (EVO), even-strength defense goals above replacement (EVD) and wins above replacement (WAR) are from Evolving-Hockey.
  • Important as well that when reading the stats below, remember that there is a team-wide issue when it comes to performance at 5-on-5 (the Blackhawks are 27th with a 45.45 expected goal percentage, for example). This does not mean the players individually are still not playing well, but it does mean there needs to be a more consistent team-level.
  • Sorry in advance to mobile users — the tables are unlikely to display clearly. Try rotating the screen.

Alex DeBrincat (23)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 52 20:32 3.15 11.1 -2.2 2.1 45.74% 55.00% 43.94% 58.95% 103.6
2019-20 70 17:29 2.2 -0.6 0.3 0.8 48.34% 49.30% 47.05% 66.82 94.4

Most common line mate(s) at 5-on-5: Kane (176:19), Suter (139:40)

DeBrincat missed a few days while on the COVID-19 Protocol List, but it didn’t slow him down. He has a career best 1.2 points per game and 3.55 points per 60, second to only Kane in both categories. He, Kane, and Suter are also the only line consistently producing at 5-on-5, which is interesting considering DeBrincat’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage is still extremely low at a measly 5.41 — down from double-digits in his first two seasons.

Most of DeBrincat’s 5-on-5 production has been via assists, as he leads the team in assists per 60 (1.59) with a majority of those being primary. We saw an increase in DeBrincat’s passing success last season and that has continued this season. However, he is still not finding the back of the net as consistently as he was in 2018-19. Despite his low shooting percentage at 5-on-5, his scoring chances per 60 (9.79) and expected goals per 60 (0.78) rates are slightly higher than last season, so hopefully he’ll start to see a positive regression in terms of goal-scoring soon.

Also of note, DeBrincat’s even-strength defense above replacement (0.4) is tied for second best among forwards.

Brandon Hagel (22)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 52 13:59 1.98 3.9 0.3 1 46.21% 41.51% 43.33% 42.42% 98.6

Most common linemate(s) at 5-on-5: Kampf (82:12), Carpenter (56:00), Stome (38:01), Kubalik (31:36)

Hagel’s high-effort style has endeared him to the fans and coaching staff alike, and he was rewarded by the latter with a promotion to a more offensive line playing with Kubalik and Strome. On paper, it makes sense — neither Kubalik nor Strome are possession drivers by themselves and Hagel is one of the best in transition. Despite scoring a goal together, the line unfortunately floundered and all three saw drops in their points and several underlying offensive metrics.

It is a testament to how well Hagel’s previous shot metric possession stats were before the promotion that he’s still at or near the top in most of those categories among forwards. Hagel was still high-energy, great on the forecheck, and he actually saw an increase in his shots per 60 rate (6.05 to 7.24) but they were lower quality and did not result in offense. His even-strength defense above replacement also slipped into a negative, despite his general strength in defensive categories.

There are two primary possibilities for Hagel’s statistical decline: he either wasn’t compatible with Kubalik and Strome together or Hagel isn’t going to contribute much offensively regardless of his other pace-pushing abilities. Hagel does have one of the lowest PDOs on the team, though, so there is likely a positive regression in his future.

Kirby Dach (20)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 18 18:34 1.79 2.1 -0.7 0.1 43.85% 40.74% 40.06% 54.90% 99.2
2019-20 64 14:15 1.51 2.3 0.9 0.8 48.45% 53.23% 46.81% 64.20% 100.4

Most common linemates at 5-on-5: Kampf (69:58), Carpenter (23:34), Johnson (16:31)

Highmore has also been used as a checking-line winger, taking on mid-quality competition while deployed predominately away from the offensive zone. His shot metric possession is strong, though the expected goals share with him on the ice is below-average. This is likely due to having the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts on the team, but his individual shot attempts per 60 (15.09) at 5-on-5 is the second highest on the team.

Although Highmore seemed to be somewhat overshadowed by Hagel, he continued to prove how he can be valuable in a lower-line role: smart positioning, responsibility with and without the puck, and effective forechecking.

Reese Johnson (22)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 3 8:25 0 -0.1 0.1 0 50.00% 0.00% 48.96% 50.00% 94.7

Most common linemates at 5-on-5: Kampf (21:58), Highmore (16:31)

Johnson has only played two more games with the Blackhawks since the last update and the sample is still too small to evaluate meaningfully. He was noticeable in his initial debut but less so in the next two games — not necessarily a bad thing for a lower-line, extra forward.

Dominik Kubalik (25)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 56 15:31 2.62 3.9 0.3 1 46.15% 50.00% 47.27% 52.66% 101
2019-20 68 14:22 1.07 11.1 -1.1 1.8 50.40% 42.86% 50.56 51.98% 100.8

Most common linemates at 5-on-5: Strome (161:33), Kurashev (89:52), Hagel (31:36)

Much like in the first 10 games, Kubalik is still struggling to produce at 5-on-5 like the rest of the Blackhawks and has only three points (1 G, 2 A) in 19 games. His 0.75 points per 60 rate this season is a far cry from his 2.59 last season. His 5-on-5- shots per 60 (8.23) and expected goals per 60 (0.75) have also declined in the last nine games and are now slightly lower than last season’s rates. Kubalik’s even-strength offense above replacement is still top-six on the team (0.4), but it’s much lower than last season (11.1), too.

It’s very possible that this is a line-balance issue. When Kubalik and Strome were with Kurashev, for example, both were having issues producing but their underlying offensive trends were strong — it seemed inevitable that they’d regress up as the team would. Other wings, such as Hagel, have not had a similar positive impact offensively. Kubalik’s even-strength defense above replacement (1.1) is the highest on the team and much better than last season, which Hagel likely influenced, but the offensive woes are troubling.

One area Kubalik did not struggle was on the power play — of forwards who played at least 10 minutes on the PP, he leads the team in points per 60 (16.48), shots per 60 (29.66), and expected goals per 60 (2.52). Kubalik’s individual point percentage — which shows how frequently a player was awarded a point when his team scored while he was on the ice — was at 100 percent until only recently, showing that he has one of the highest impacts with the man-advantage.

Still, Kubalik’s lack of production at 5-on-5 — and Strome and Kurashev’s — is concerning and something the Blackhawks will want to remedy as quickly as possible, especially considering the expected negative regression to the power play.

Philipp Kurashev (21)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 54 13:04 1.36 0.2 -0.9 -0.2 46.03% 42.86% 41.31% 59.24% 99.8

Most common linemates at 5-on-5: Kubalik (89:52), Strome (76:40), Janmark (71:15), Soderberg (49:06)

Kurashev has been a delight to watch on an individual level, but he’s seen a decline across the board statistically at 5-on-5, like a majority of the Blackhawks. Comparing his first nine games to his second nine games, Kurashev’s shot attempts per 60 rate of 7.87 dropped to 6.67, his scoring chances per 60 rate dropped from 6.74 to 4.85, and his points per 60 rate went from 2.25 to 0.61. As a result, Kurashev has only one point at 5-on-5 in his last nine games.

As mentioned several times, 5-on-5 performance and production is a team-wide issue for the Blackhawks, but Kurashev previously has strong underlying trends. It’s possible the issue is with linemates as the decline was sharp and immediate when separated from higher quality, top-nine forwards. Getting Kurashev — and Kubalik and Strome — going at 5-on-5 should be a priority because otherwise the team only has one line producing consistently 5-on-5.

Luckily Kurashev was still producing on the power play. His points per 60 (12.8) is the third best for the season but his rate (18.46) actually topped the team in the last nine games, including leading the team in goals per 60 (9.23) on the PP. He still needs to shoot more on the PP as his shot and scoring chances rates are the lowest among forwards that played at least 10 minutes with the man-advantage.

Dylan Strome (24)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 40 15:30 1.64 -0.2 0.2 0 46.10% 37.21% 48.69% 58.12% 96.6
2019-20 58 15:56 2.47 5.2 -0.8 0.8 48.80% 47.14% 57.14% 64.91% 103

Most common linemates at 5-on-5: Kubalik (161:33), Kurashev (76:40), Hagel (38:01)

Clearly Strome has been struggling for the last two weeks, possibly a little longer. It’s disappointing because his start to the season was strong and many people were excited to see not only a jump in pace for him offensively, but he was engaged defensively at a higher degree. Unfortunately, everything about that flipped in the most recent games.

Strome is on a six-game pointless skid, the longest period without a point since coming over to the Blackhawks. He only has two points at 5-on-5 with the 11th lowest points per 60 rate (0.52) and 12th lowest individual expected goals per 60 rate (0.37) among forwards. All of these numbers were consistent or slightly better than last year’s performance in the first 10 games. Most of the Blackhawks are struggling to produce 5-on-5, but others like Kubalik are making up for that lost 5-on-5 production by scoring on the power play. Strome is still making top-three quality passes on the team, but it’s not resulting in goals at the pace it was last season.

Interestingly, Strome’s even-strength defense above replacement is third-best among forwards despite his terrible shot metrics at 5-on-5. It’s likely because, while Strome is on the ice for the most shot attempts per 60 against (66.24), he’s on the ice for the third lowest high danger chances per against (9.35). Strome is one of the better forwards at pass suppression historically, especially into or through the slot, so it’s possible that skill — when combined with Kubalik and Hagel’s board battle prowess — that their line is more apt at keeping opponents to the outside. However, allowing that quantity of shots is going to be disastrous in the long-term.

Strome was very consistent last season when it came to offensive production, so this sudden drop in performance is startling and something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. The Blackhawks need Strome — and Kubalik and Kurashev as mentioned above — to get back to their rate of production as last season at 5-on-5 for the Blackhawks continue winning as the power play predictable regresses to more sustainable levels. To note, Strome does not have the power play success Kubalik and Kurashev to offset to the loss of 5-on-5 production, so the issue is greater with him.

Pius Suter (24)

Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
Season Games Played TOI per Game Played Points per 60 EVO EVD WAR Shot Attempt % 5v5 Goals % 5v5 Expected Goals % 5v5 Off. Zone Start % PDO
2020-21 55 16:20 1.8 4.6 0.4 1.1 47.14% 46.58% 47.78% 63.83% 99.5

Most common linemates at 5-on-5: Kane (176:58), Debrincat (176:19), Janmark (51:40)

Although Suter was placed on the fourth line for a few games, he has maintained his role as the top-line center between DeBrincat and Kane. They are one of the few lines that has a positive shot attempt percentage (53.95) and expected goals percentage (51.93), though though they do allow more high-danger chances against than they produce themselves (-2.32). It’s likely that DeBrincat and Kane would have similar results with other centers — Janmark and Kane did with both Strome and Kurashev is smaller samples — but Suter deserves credit for keeping pace with the best two forwards on the team.

Suter still has the fifth best points per 60 rate (1.15) and sixth best individual expected goals per 60 rates among forwards, but he drops to ninth in individual shot attempt generation (9.64) and tenth in shot assist rates (0.64). The latter could be due to Kane being the primary playmaker on the line — most players in recent years, excluding Strome, have seen a dip in passing rates when on the ice with Kane — but we haven’t seen Suter away from Kane to know enough. It possible that’s why Suter has the lowest assists per 60 rate (0.23) among players who have assists at 5-on-5.