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Young Guns Report: Kubalik, Debrincat standout among Blackhawks’ developing forwards

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The two forwards are soaring to new heights as top forwards on the Blackhawks.

Detroit Red Wings v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

The Plan™ for this season was simple: focus on developing young players and rebuilding the roster. The Blackhawks have done an admirable job weaving the young forwards into the lineup and placing them with key veterans to assist in their development. It’s worked so well that this young team has put themselves in a position to potentially make the playoffs — something no one thought was realistically possible coming into the season. Granted, that’s primarily due to goaltending and a hot power play to start, but the contributions of the young forwards should not be overlooked.

As with the defenders, the ongoing team-wide statistical issue has negatively impacted several of the young forwards, so some of the information below isn’t pretty, but it hasn’t been without growth either.

Notes:

  • This series will include any player that is 25 or younger who plays at least one NHL game this season and/or three games since the last article (so no Strome, Johnson). The latter point is to try to weed out wild swings from one data set to another.
  • Other articles in the series with Forward/Defense/Goalie 1-10, Forwards 10-19, Defense / Goalies 10-19.
  • This sample size is 13 games due to scheduling.
  • Remember, any stats used are just a starting point for analysis and not a definitive evaluation of a player. Shot metrics are from Natural Stat Trick. Even-strength offense above replacement (EVO), even-strength defense goals above replacement (EVD), wins above replacement (WAR), goals saved above expected (xGSA) are from Evolving-Hockey, zone entry/exit data is from Corey Sznajder / @ShutdownLine.

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 (358:57), Suter (261:22)

To say that DeBrincat is having a good season is an understatement, as he has vaulted into the top 20 in scoring in the NHL while becoming a more well-rounded player in the process.

Along with Kane, DeBrincat had a team-leading 13 points in the last 13 games, including the best points per 60 rate of 2.93. In his first 16 games, DeBrincat was getting most of his production via assists. While he’s still racking those up as well, the pucks finally started to go into the net at a consistent rate: he has seven goals and 1.71 goals per 60 rate, both of which lead the team in this span. Considering DeBrincat was shooting at just under six percent to start despite having strong shot and expected goals rates, it’s good to see that positive regression come to fruition.

DeBrincat continued to improve in terms of passing quality, and he currently has the highest high-danger shot assists per 60 rate on the team (1.78) at 5-on-5 — he, Kane, and Strome are the only Blackhawks forwards above league average in this stat. Another area where DeBrincat shined was in transition: he also has the best zone entries per 60 rate (27.92) and second highest success carry-in percentage (66%) at 5-on-5 among forwards on the team. The Blackhawks are one of the best rush teams in the league, and DeBrincat is the best of the best with a 5.17 carry in chances per 60 rate at 5-on-5.

The one area that DeBrincat (and his line) struggle with is suppression of shots, in terms of both quality and quality. At 5-on-5, DeBrincat is sixth worst in shots attempts against per 60 (57.59) and scoring chances against per 60 (29). Though it’s important to note that DeBrincat sees the highest quality of competition along with Kane, those are the type of numbers that bring his overall shot possession down to a measly 47.07 percent and his even-strength defense above replacement to minus-1.1. If DeBrincat is this offensively dangerous with less than ideal possession metrics, think of what he would be like with even more meaningful offensive zone time.

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 (168:01), Kubalik (154:37)

Hagel initially struggled with converting his high-effort style into production, but the points finally started trickling in over his last 13 games, as he had the fifth best points per 60 rate (2.06) and fourth best assists per 60 rate (1.37) among forwards — an impressive feat considering his lack of power play time. Some of this is due to his primary linemate — Dominik Kubalik — finally taking off in goal scoring, but also it seems that Hagel’s efficient passing is compatible with Kubalik’s shooting style.

Although the Blackhawks, in general, are having shot possession issues, Hagel wasn’t as affected by these negatives as other forwards. At 5-on-5, his shot attempts percentage only dipped to 49.08, which is top five among forwards. Hagel is the best on the team in entries per 60 (23.49), forecheck pressures per 60 (8.24), and recovered dump-ins per 60 (6.07) — all of which help in driving and maintaining puck possession. The only transition category he seems to be below average in his carry-in percentage (45), but Kampf is the main driver in that regard on his line while Hagel seems to be used primarily to fetch pucks.

Hagel’s even-strength defense above replacement also continued to slip, despite his general strength in defensive categories, but it’s likely the overall team’s defensive woes are impacting those numbers.

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 (96:43), Carpenter (91:27), Wallmark (41:46)

Highmore is having a mediocre sophomore season as both his individual play and results have been fine but not particularly noteworthy. His shot attempt percentage is top five among forwards — though it dipped to 47.55 percent in his last 10 games — and while he has been deployed predominately away from the offensive zone, his quality of competition has slipped as the season as progress — possibly due to skating less with Kampf after he was moved to center between Kane and DeBrincat.

Most of his individual stats are average as well: in transition, puck recovery numbers, and forecheck pressure per 60 rates. His shot per 60 at 5-on-5 dropped from being one of the highest at 10.09 to being middle of the team at 5.71, though his high-danger scoring chance per 60 (3.45) remains top five among forwards. Highmore also attempts more rushes at 5-on-5 than all but four other forwards, but he’s been ineffective at generating goals or assists on those rushes.

Ultimately Highmore has been a replacement level player, but he also doesn’t have a clearly defined usage on the team. Ideally, he’d be used more in a checking line role as he was at the start of the season, but right now, Highmore seems to mostly a body who can eat minutes and take some defensive zone shifts.

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), Hagel (154:37), Kurashev (106:07), Kampf (96:03)

Much like DeBrincat, the positive progression of Kubalik’s season cannot be understated, especially at 5-on-5, where he went from one of the players most struggling to produce to being the top producer. Kubalik is now third in points per 60 at 5-on-5 and overall (1.64)

Kubalik was the best points producer when adjusting for TOI in the last 13 games with 2.83 points per 60 and 1.61 goals per 60. And he earned those points by topping every shot category: 10.9 shots per 60, 4.04 high danger chances per 60, and 0.92 expected goals per 60 in that span. Kubalik was essentially an offensive juggernaut whenever he was on the ice and his even-strength offense above replacement (2.6) shot up to fourth best on the team — and it’ll likely continue to climb if his performance stays consistent.

Kubalik was also one of the very few forwards to be above water in terms of shot attempt percentage (50.38), shot percentage (50.96), and expected goals percentage (53.80) in the last 13 games. This is especially impressive considering Kubalik’s offensive zone start percentage dropped to 40 percent in that span. Granted, he wasn’t facing top-quality competition or high defensive zone starts — he started primarily in the neutral zone — but his production wasn’t affected by a drastic swing from one deployment type to another.

One area in which Kubalik could improve is in transition, as his carry-in percentage (46) and zone entries per 60 (15.49) are some of the lowest among forwards. He does attempt more rushes than most players on the team (1.21 per 60) but he’s below average in controlled entries that result in a scoring chance (45.01 percent). Some of this is likely due to who is on his line as both Hagel and Kampf are excellent in transition, either with carry-in or dump-in recovery, so Kubalik is not necessarily tasked with transition.

Kubalik has also improved in terms of pass efficiency. He may never be a creative playmaker, but Kubalik has above average straight-line passing, especially to mid-danger areas of the ice. The issue is that his passes aren’t turning into shot assists, but that’s likely due to his most common linemates lacking shooting ability.

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: Janmark (157:04), Soderberg (140:27), Kubalik (106:07)

Kurashev is one of the forwards that has been feeling the impact of the team-wide issue with shot metric possession the most over the last 13 games. His shot attempt percentage (43.95) is the second lowest and he has the worst expected goals percentage (38.72) at 5-on-5 among Blackhawks forwards in that span.

Individually, though, Kurashev is still performing well, as he’s statistically in the top five or six of several offensive categories at 5-on-5. Among Blackhawks forwards, his individual shot attempts per 60 (11.91) and expected goals per 60 (0.62) rates are fourth, his carry-in percentage (49) and entries per 60 (18.76) are sixth best, and his shot setup per 60 (7.8) is fourth best. Some of these are below average for the league and it’s not necessarily resulting in shot generation for his line, though the latter can be attributed to his linemates lack of shooting ability, similar to Kubalik’s situation. Overall, his points per 60 (1.36) is still good for seventh for the season, which is not bad at all for the youngest forward on the team.

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 (298:46), DeBrincat (261:22)

Suter is another forward who has been fine but not as noticeable as in his first 20 games. Despite being the center between the two most offensive players on the team, Suter doesn’t factor into the scoring as much: he has one of the lowest individual point percentages at 40 and it dropped to nearly 22 percent over the last 13 games. Suter produced just 3 points and 0.95 points per 60, which is still top nine among Chicago’s forwards, but a far cry from his 1.15 points per 60 rate earlier in the season.

Realistically, Suter has been fine as a pivot between DeBrincat and Kane, but it’s likely that their monogamy isn’t ideal for Suter as an individual. For example, Suter has excellent carry-in percentage (59), good for fourth best on the team, but he also attempts to carry the puck zone into the zone the least often, likely due to his linemates performing that duty. Also, he’s also top five in high-danger pass attempts, but he is bottom five in actual shot assists. It’s a small sample, obviously, but Suter saw an increase in his passes resulting in shots with Kubalik and Hagel in the last couple of games.

So while Suter has been good as top-line center, it might be better for Suter’s individual development to be given more opportunities to shine rather than be a placeholder. It’s definitely a trend we’ll want to follow as the season progresses.