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Why did Dominik Kubalik continue to struggle?

Every year has gotten worse for Kubalik. Why?

Chicago Blackhawks v Tampa Bay Lightning
Dominik Kubalik of the Chicago Blackhawks in NHL action against the Tampa Bay LIghtning.
Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

For the first time in Dominik Kubalik’s NHL career, he was part of a full 82-game season. He played in 78 of them, setting a new career high.

But he also set career lows with 15 points and 32 goals in those 78 games — Kubalik had 17 goals and 21 assists in 56 games last season. That’s an even farther cry from his 30 goals and 46 points in his rookie season, when he played 68 games.

The results weren’t good, as indicated by the numbers above. So what went into those subpar numbers for Kubalik?

Kubalik’s struggles can’t be explained simply by his drop from a 19.1 shooting percentage in that rookie season to 9.3% — although that doesn’t help. Kubalik’s seen a fall off in his overall play, as his plummet in expected goals above replacement shows. Kubalik went from 18.7 xGAR in his rookie season to -1.6 in 2021-22, continuing the downward trend in every season he’s played.

Despite those numbers dropping every year, though, Kubalik’s three-year average is still quite good.

Over the last three years, according to JFresh Hockey, Kubalik is in the 78th percentile in projected wins above replacement — better than 78% of the NHL. He’s been proficient on the power play, in the 65th percentile and great at finishing, in the 84th percentile.

Part of the problem this season may have been that Kubalik saw quite the reduction at his unequivocal best area: the power play. Kubalik went from averaging 2:24 on the man advantage last season, resulting in 1.81 goals per 60 and 1.81 primary assists, to just 1:37 this season, resulting in 1.41 goals per 60 and 0.94 primary assists.

While Kubalik’s drop in shooting percentage has coincided with a decrease in shooting at 5-on-5 (Kubalik has fallen from a 19.33 S% in 2019-20 to 8.33% in 2021-22; his shots have gone down from 8.79 per 60 at 5-on-5 to 7.4), that isn’t the case on the power play. In fact, Kubalik has shot more on the power play every season, seeing a bump in each season in shots per 60, resulting in 16.96 this year.

Kubalik isn’t having much luck while shooting, as seen by the fact his shooting percentage has also fallen on the power play, but it isn’t for lack of trying. Kubalik’s expected goals on the power play went from 1.66 per 60 in his rookie season to 1.84 this past year, as his high danger chances rose from 3.6 per 60 to 6.12.

Part of the problem is that Kubalik is just not converting on the quality chances and high-danger opportunities he is generating, especially of late.

As seen by the above chart, when Kubalik is scoring (in red) it’s coming largely from outside, whereas there’s a dearth of conversion from the home plate area and from closer in, which wasn’t happening as much in the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

Why Kubalik lost the ability to convert on the high percentage chances is anybody’s guess, but it looks at times like Kubalik has lost some confidence in his shot since his rookie season, leading to the drop-off in shots from last year to this season.

While Kubalik remains good on the power play, he’s not getting as much opportunity there, perhaps because of his struggles at 5-on-5 (and also due to the top power-play unit taking up so much ice time during each power play).

But is Kubalik actually struggling? Of the eight forwards Kubalik played at least 100 minutes with at 5-on-5 this season, four were better with Kubalik than without, at least in terms of expected goal share. That includes Alex DeBrincat, whom Kubalik played 110:13 with in the 2021-22 season. The duo had a 51.25 xGF%, which falls to 48.75% for DeBrincat without Kubalik.

Is it a good idea for the Chicago Blackhawks to have two shooters on one line, especially when the Strome and Kane line works so well with DeBrincat? Maybe not, but when it’s a center who needs to get going offensively like Kirby Dach — who was also much better with Kubalik this season than he was away from Kubalik (47.89 xGF% together in 238:45; 42.92 xGF% for Dach without Kubalik) — maybe that could work.

In fact, linemate consistency seems to be another thing hampering Kubalik. In his rookie season he played with just five forwards for more than 100 minutes, while in 2021-22 there were eight. Every forward (with the exception of Drake Caggiula) was better with Kubalik than without in 2019-20 including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, David Kampf and Brandon Saad.

This season, the Toews-Kubalik duo didn’t work out as well, as the duo had 44.87 xGF% together in 358:09 — the most Kubalik played with one linemate — while Toews had a 50.72 xGF% mark without him. Kubalik also spent more time away from Toews (485:03) than he did with the captain, something that didn’t happen in 2019-20 (461:52 versus 350:22).

If that 110:13 of ice time that DeBrincat and Kubalik spent together isn’t good enough to warrant a further look under a different head coach in the upcoming season, perhaps Kubalik’s 208:10 with Kurashev is, the third-most common linemate for Kubalik this season after Toews and Dach. Both were better together than they were apart, with a 49.15 xGF% versus a 46.48 xGF% mark for Kubalik alone and 45.86 xGF% for Kurashev alone.

A second or third line of Kubalik, Kurashev and Dach could be good for all three members of that line, depending on Kubalik returning and Kurashev getting actual minutes.

The trio spent 103:58 together at 5-on-5 and 60% shot share and 57.07 xGF%, which on an underwater possession team — one of the worst in the league, actually — is quite good.

The one problem for that line, though, was that pesky shooting percentage problem Kubalik rearing its ugly head again, resulting in a mark of 3.92% for that Kubalik, Kurashev and Dach trio. A bit of puck luck changing here and there and that line could have been very effective.

The Blackhawks need more out of Kubalik, for sure. But there is more the Blackhawks can do to help Kubalik, including playing him more on the power play. He was one of the best power-play forwards for the team in the 2021 season for a good chunk of the year and remains proficient as a power-play specialist. Putting him on an actually good line for more than 100 minutes may also help.

Kubalik continues to generate a good number of expected goals and, although his shots have fallen off, which led to an accompanying drop off in high-danger chances at 5-on-5, Kubalik is taking fewer penalties and making fewer mistakes, with his giveaways per 60 at 5-on-5 down from 1.7 in his rookie season to 1.42 and takeaways up from 0.71 in 2021 to 1.11 in 2021-22.

So what’s causing Kubalik to struggle? Most likely inconsistency and a probable over correction from his rookie season in terms of puck luck. Should he be shooting 19.33% at even strength? Probably not. But should he be shooting 8.33%? Also probably not. A middle ground of 12 to 13% makes Kubalik a much more effective forward and could return his confidence.

If it’s cheap, Kubalik should remain an option for the Blackhawks in 2022-23. Otherwise, the Blackhawks could waste an asset that comes back to bite them if Kubalik returns to form for some other team who sees the middle-six worthy underlying numbers.