Once upon a time, the Blackhawks were able to draft and develop defensemen with the best of them to build a foundation that led to Stanley Cups. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson were all part of Chicago’s top-four for all three Cups and Dustin Byfuglien was a fourth that was a major reason they won the first.
Hjalmarsson, a fourth-round pick in 2005, played 623 games in Chicago. Since then, the Blackhawks haven’t drafted a defenseman who’s played a full regular season’s worth of games (82) with the team. Adam Boqvist is close at 76. The No. 2 player on that list is 2013 second-round pick Carl Dahlstrom at 49.
Yes, they’ve been able to find complementary players for defense through trade and free agency, but their inability to to find even a single top-four defensemen via the draft has been a concern for well over a decade now.
This concern only got bigger as the Big 3 listed above got older, so the Blackhawks started selecting more defensemen and often higher in the draft. Since 2017, the Blackhawks have selected defensemen with nearly half of their draft picks, including five of their eight first or second-round picks. Of those five defensemen, one has been traded (Henri Jokiharju) and another is still in college (Alex Vlasic). The other three all played in some capacity this season for the Blackhawks. Since Adam Boqvist’s progress has already been discussed, this article will look at the final two: Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin.
Selected just one year apart in the NHL draft, Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin were often touted as two of the team’s best prospects prior to this season, even though they had slightly different expectations. Thanks to an excellent NCAA career in which he became a two-way, No. 1 defensemen who played in all situations, Mitchell was seen as the most well-rounded of the defensive prospects who would make the transition to the NHL easily. Nicolas Beaudin wasn’t as highly regarded, but his calm demeanor and high-IQ approach to defense made it seem like his game would translate to the NHL better than most.
Unfortunately for both Mitchell and Beaudin, the ‘20-21 season did not go smoothly. However, there were still enough bright spots with those down moments in both their games to reiterate that patience is still needed when it comes to young players.
Looking at the entirety of the season, the Blackhawks struggled at suppressing quality shots against, and Mitchell and Beaudin were not exceptions. While it’s positive to note that Mitchell and Beaudin’s expected (and thus more predictive) numbers were stronger than their actual results, it’s still difficult to separate how much the team-wide defensive issues contributed to individual results. For this reason, we’re going to focus primarily on the offensive side of the game.
Despite both being labeled as offensive defensemen, neither Mitchell nor Beaudin did particularly well in that regard in a sustainable way, as both have expected goals for numbers in the negative.
Beaudin had much better luck than Mitchell when it came to offense. As depicted in the charts above, the goals for per 60 when Beaudin was on the ice is above average, but the huge discrepancy between actual (GF/60) and expected (xGF/60) goals is worrying because it suggests that Beaudin’s offense is not repeatable without major changes.
For example, it’s unlikely he’ll shoot at 28 percent at 5-on-5 forever. This lack of sustainability can also be seen at a more individual level: his points per 60 (0.79) was third among Blackhawks defensemen at 5-on-5 (behind only Boqvist and Wyatt Kalynuk), but his shot attempts per 60 (4.5), scoring chances per 60(1.85), and individual expected goals per 60 rates (0.09) were worst or second worst on the team.
Conversely, Mitchell’s rate of actual goals per 60 were in line with his expected goals per 60, meaning that his poor results are exactly that: poor. His individual points per 60 rate (0.65) at 5-on-5 was better than three other teammates (Keith, Nikita Zadorov, and Riley Stillman), but that’s still disappointing considering how good Mitchell was offensively in college. Like Beaudin, his shot attempts per 60 (5.56), scoring chances per 60 (1.74), and individual expected goals per 60 (0.11) rates were worst or second worst on the team.
Despite their own lackluster shot stats, there were instances of Mitchell and Beaudin flashing their skills that contributed to others’ shots in meaningful ways. Even though their individual shot volume was low, their percentages of shot contribution to a scoring chance were well-above league average and top three for the Blackhawks — Beaudin was first with 29 percent and Mitchel third with 20 percent. Their percentages were high primarily due to their point shots resulting in rebounds and their passing connecting to players in prime scoring chance situations. Both Mitchell and Beaudin also jumped into plays regularly when they first were started playing, which resulted in their first NHL goals, scored about one minute apart in the same game:
Nicolas Beaudin's first NHL goal— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) February 24, 2021
Feb. 11 vs. Columbus pic.twitter.com/3k67UVmNEz
The issue is that Mitchell and Beaudin didn’t do those types of things enough to impact their overall offensive numbers, but it shows that they could potentially be very dangerous if they can find out how to increase the frequency of these high quality types of play.
The one thing we can’t completely determine via stats is why Mitchell and Beaudin had such issues in their rookie reasons despite the obvious flashes of skill and high hockey IQ. There are probably several reasons but some of the most likely could be any or a combination of the following:
- They were rushed to the NHL, having either zero professional experience or just a single shortened season in the AHL.
- Low, inconsistent playing time impacted their quality of play.
- The team-wide issues impacted them more heavily as young rookies.
- They hit a wall after a specific number of games, something fairly typical for rookies, especially defensemen 22 or younger.
- Transitioning from juniors or NCAA to the NHL is not easy, there are almost always struggles, and/or it may just not happen at all.
When looked at in their entirety, Mitchell and Beaudin’s rookie seasons were overall disappointing, but there are reasons beyond the players themselves that likely impacted their play. The good news is that some of these issues can be corrected by the Blackhawks figuring out the best strategy for Mitchell and Beaudin to recapture their junior and NCAA success (see below).
While becoming a regular NHL player isn’t easy, both Mitchell and Beaudin are young and skilled enough that they could adapt given more time. They need to be nurtured and developed in the right way for it to all come together.
Let’s hope the Blackhawks have a better plan than they’ve had the last decade or so.