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Young Guns Report: Final progress check for Blackhawks’ developing defensemen

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A look at where the young defenders are statistically at the end of the season.

Chicago Blackhawks v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks season concluded last week, and although not making the playoffs was disappointing, the success of the season was always more about the development of the team’s younger players. We can debate over whether or not The Plan™ was really implemented as expected — lack of significant playing time for the better young defensemen being a key issue — but we did get enough of a sample size from many of those players for base-level of evaluation for the season.

Notes:

Nicolas Beaudin (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 19 13:46 1.38 1.6 -1.2 0.3 37.72% 50% 37.10% 66.67% 105.4

Most common partner(s) at 5-on-5: Zadorov (131:11)

After returning from his AHL demotion, Beaudin — unfortunately — wasn’t given much time to show much as he averaged just 12:37 of ice time over five games. He had a respectable 0.95 points per 60 rate in that span, good for third among Chicago defensemen, but that was exclusively through secondary assists. At 5-on-5, his shots per 60 (1.02) and expected goals per 60 (0.02) hit season lows, though his shots were, at least, all high-danger by location and generated the second most rebounds. He also struggled with giveaways: while the NHL tracking is more subjective than most, 5.11 giveaways per 60 was still the worst among Blackhawks defensemen by a decent margin.

Still, Beaudin’s season was overall pretty decent. Among Chicago defensemen, he had the best zone exit possession percentage (35%) while attempting the most per 60 (27.79) and his neutral zone passing led to the No. 3 rate of successful carry-in attempts (41%) by forwards on the team. Those carry-ins, unfortunately, didn’t lead to high shot contributions (second lowest shot assist per 60 off NZ pass) but some of that is due to being on the ice teammates who had lower shot volumes. Still, when his passing did connect with higher quality players, it was fairly successful: Beaudin had the highest percentage of shot contribution that were scoring chances (36%), the second most secondary assist per 60 (4.4), and the fourth best even-strength offense above replacement (1.6) among defensemen.

On the defensive side of things, Beaudin did a lot of things well but his results were some of the worst on the team. His shot attempt share (37.72%) and expected goals share (37.1%) were the lowest for Chicago defensemen this season and he was on the ice for the highest rate of shot attempts (66.37 per 60 minutes). There were times when his positioning and reactions to plays were excellent and then others where he seemed out of place in the NHL. Like with many of the smaller defensemen on the Blackhawks, Beaudin was smart with his stick play, especially when it came to pass break-ups, but he often lost one-on-one battles when the opposing player was more physical.

In the end, Beaudin took steps forward this season and showed that he could potentially be a useful player, but he still must figure out how to utilize his skills efficiently and consistently at the NHL level.

Wyatt Kalynuk (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 21 16:16 1.58 1.8 -3.9 -0.4 43.67% 38.24% 36.09% 54.55% 98.4

Most common partner(s) at 5-on-5: Keith (85:13), de Haan (64:43), Murphy (50:07)

Outside of Boqvist, Kalynuk is the young defender who was most consistent on an individual level this season, especially for play-driving and offense. His points per 60 (1.60) in all situations was only slightly down (1.57), while his individual expected goals rate (0.29) and shots per 60 rate (5.04) varied only minutely from his last sample.

Overall, Kalynuk had a good rookie showing. He was one of the best in transition: second in carry-in percentage (53%) and entries per 60 (7.21) as well as first in controlled zone entries per 60 (3.81) and rush shots per 60 (6.9). This translated to Kalynuk having the second best points per 60 (1.58), third best individual expected goals per 60 (0.22), and the highest individual point percentage (50) among defensemen for the season.

Now, there is the caveat that we don’t know if this level of consistency would last over a full season — he only played 21 games. But his offensive contributions are definitely a positive trend so far.

Defensively, Kalynuk was less steady but still solid. He needs to clear up his turnovers in the defensive zone — an issue he is not alone with on the Blackhawks — and he’s still learning to read defensive plays. Kalynuk has a good active stick for breaking up plays, but that didn’t translate into many takeaways (0.35 per 60 was second lowest for defensemen) or possession for the Blackhawks. Play disruption is the first step and now he needs to figure out how to retain the puck to give the Blackhawks a chance at meaningful offensive zone time. Again, that’s something the Blackhawks in general did not do well at this season.

Ultimately, Kalynuk was one of the better defenders this season and his issues are primarily due to lack of experience that, hopefully, will be worked out over time.

Ian Mitchell (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 39 15:01 0.72 -2.7 -1 -0.7 43.53% 39.02% 41.41% 54.46% 98.7

Most common partners at 5-on-5: Keith (275:25), de Haan (101:42), Zadorov (97:37)

There’s no disputing that Mitchell had a rough rookie season. The Blackhawks, as a team, were poor in terms of shot possession and expected goals share and Mitchell was the second worst regular defender in both categories. It’s a bit surprising that he struggled as much as he did considering that possession-driving was a calling card of his during college, but something was not clicking fully for Mitchell this season.

In Mitchell’s final seven games, there were some bright spots. Among defenders, he had the best points per 60 (1.85), assists per 60 (1.31), and the lowest giveaways per 60 rate (0.62). His transition ability is still a strength, as he was third best at zone exits with possession (31%) and fourth best at zone entry carry-in percentage (28%). Both of those numbers are just slightly below league average, but considering the Blackhawks defense as a whole struggled in both those areas, those are decent numbers.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Blackhawks do with Mitchell going forward. His skating and passing ability are obvious and he had decent defensive awareness, but he also hit a wall during the season and never really got over it. At only 22, Mitchell is still one of the youngest regular defensemen for the season and has time to progress, so we’ll just have to wait to see if he can translate his excellent performance from college to the NHL.

Riley Stillman (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 13 18:13 0.25 2.2 0.3 0.5 45.87% 55% 48.16% 41.30% 103
2019-20 34 19:07 0.41 -2.8 0.1 -0.4 48.62% 48% 46.82% 39.84% 99.7

Most common partners at 5-on-5: Murphy (85:40), Zadorov (32:17)

After a somewhat rocky first game, Stillman was more steady through the end of the season. He still made mistakes, but there were also definitive moments that were impressive.

He continued to be physical in a mostly meaningful way — such as disrupting the other team’s cycle and/or helping create turnovers — but he did occasionally take himself out of the play at inopportune times. The good news is that those typically happened earlier in the sample, so hopefully it’s more of a “finding his groove” situation that he’ll be more consistent at as he gains experience. His hits per 60 (9.37) was second on the Chicago’s blue-liners, trailing only Zadorov.

Surprisingly, Stillman also contributed well to shot generation. His 5.32 shots per 60 and 0.76 rebounds created per 60 were best and second best, respectively, among Blackhawks defensemen. As a result, his even-strength offense above replacement (2.2) was the No.2 mark among Chicago’s defensemen. Some of this is due to his smaller sample but it’s an interesting note, considering that Stillman was primarily deployed in the defensive zone. It may not translate into offense but could help with shot possession and cycling opportunities, two things the Blackhawks lacked at the team-level.

Stillman’s most obvious skill is his skating. His sample is too small for micro stats, but it seemed like his ability to transition — especially skating the puck out on zone exits — was more successful than several others on the Blackhawks, and he was also often able to use his skating to recover after mistakes. He finished with the most rush attempts per 60 (0.25) for defenders as well.

Stillman’s still a work in progress, obviously, but his skating ability combined with his solid foundation in terms of positioning and gap control suggests he could be a useful defender going forward. How useful is the question, though.

Alec Regula (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 3 12:22 0 -0.5 -0.9 -0.2 26.39 0 11.66 42.86 97

Most common partners at 5-on-5: Zadorov (11:55), Kalynuk (7:19)

As always, the sample size for Regula is too small to evaluate in a meaningful way, but we can at least touch on some observations from the game.

Regula has always been considered a good skater — especially for this size of 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds — and that was clear in his three games. While he’ll never be a speedster, he had decent foot speed and his agility was pretty impressive. Although he is not particularly physical, his size is something the Blackhawks are lacking on the backend and he used his body well when it came to battles and gap control. His passing was also decent, though there weren’t that many opportunities to showcase it.

Overall, Regula was fairly quiet during his cup of coffee with the Blackhawks this season, which is absolutely fine for a 20-year-old who is likely still a season or two away from competing for a spot in the NHL. Again, his size and offensive skill combination is not something the Blackhawks currently have on the roster, so Regula will continue to be one of the team’s more intriguing prospects.