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How did the Blackhawks go an entire season with no defenseman scoring a PPG?

Exploring the reasons behind a statistical anomaly from last season.

NHL: OCT 09 Preseason - Wild at Blackhawks Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Among the many things that did not happen for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2021-22 NHL season was a statistical anomaly that hadn’t occurred in just over five decades.

For the first time since the ‘70-71 Buffalo Sabres expansion season, the Blackhawks went a full NHL season without a defenseman scoring a power-play goal.

It was a strange development for a Blackhawks’ power play which certainly wasn’t good but has also been worse. During the 70 games from the pandemic-shortened ‘19-20 NHL season, Chicago’s power play scored just 33 goals in 217 opportunities: a 15.21 percent conversion rate that was 28th in the league. Chicago finished this last season 21st at 19.18 percent.

So, how did this happen?

The obvious starting point is how the Blackhawks divvied up ice time while playing with the man advantage. The top power-play unit featured four forwards, so there were only two defenseman in the top 10 for Blackhawks power play ice time this season: Seth Jones (263:55, third) and Erik Gustafsson (112:58, 8th).

Of course, the Blackhawks aren’t the only team to run the four forwards approach, so that’s not it, but perhaps other numbers could be. The Blackhawks primary offensive weapons on the power play are Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane, so those two players were near the team lead for the rates at which they generated power-play shots on goal. Kane was first with a rate of 17.94 shots on goal per 60 minutes, while DeBrincat was third at 12.57 (Dominik Kubalik was second at 16.96, by the way).

Jones? He was down at 7.5 — eighth on the team. Gustafsson was fourth at 10.62. Since Jones spent over twice as much time on the power play as Gustafsson — and because he’ll actually be back in Chicago next season — let’s hone in on Jones’ mark of 7.5.

Across the entire league, Jones’ mark of 7.5 was 61st among a sample of 91 defensemen who played at least 50 minutes of power-play ice time this season. It was also below Jones’ career norms as his lowest rate of power-play shots on goal since the ‘18-19 season with the Columbus Blue Jackets — and the keys to that team’s power play belonged more to Zach Werenski than to Jones.

That number also trailed the team leader for Blackhawks defenseman in that category for each of the last five seasons, which would include the aforementioned ‘19-20 power-play unit that was down near the bottom of the league:

  • 2021: Duncan Keith, 9.08
  • ‘19-20: Gustafsson, 10.47
  • ‘18-19: Gustafsson, 8.26
  • ‘17-18: Keith, 9.58
  • ‘16-17: Keith, 10.62

Here’s one more possible statistical explanation for this strange occurrence, utilizing Corey Sznajder’s tracking data. From his data set (which is at least 10 games for every team in the league and 23 for the Hawks), the Blackhawks power play gained entry into the offensive zone and set up its attack just 32.5 percent of the time — 26th in the league.

Since the Blackhawks were that bad at consistently setting up in the offensive zone, it offers another reason why Jones had so few chances to put the puck on net: because the Blackhawks couldn’t get set up at all, which would hinder a defenseman’s ability to get shots on goal — let alone into the goal.

So, from a statistical standpoint, the conclusion could be made that Jones simply didn’t get enough shots on goal due to its general inability to establish possession in the offensive zone while on the power play along with an over-reliance on Kane and DeBrincat — and that seems to have its merits, based on the information above.

One more thing on this, though:

Related to that, dear reader, is a thought that’s been swimming around in this author’s head since a game against the Philadelphia Flyers two weeks ago.

The Blackhawks’ power play went 0-for-5 that night, which came up in the postgame media session. King was asked about it, with the wording of the question as, “You went 0-for-5 on the power play,” to which King joked about not being the one that went 0-for-5, it was Strome and the rest of the line that did.

Anyway, here’s the part of King’s quote that stood out:

From my angle, I could tell where they should go. they had good opportunities but they like their setup, they like to look for seams. As many meetings as we’ve had and say, establish a shot, they’ll throw me a bone once in a while and throw a one-timer to Seth and right away they’ll go right back to their setup. They’re good at it. when it’s working, it’s fun to watch but I think tonight, it was almost like, what is that Tin Cup? Where he keeps dropping the golf ball, I can make it, I can make it. that’s kind of their mentality, like I’m going to make this. And for the most part they do.

Right there, it seems like King said that he let Kane and DeBrincat do their thing but that they’d “throw him a bone” every once in a while and get Jones a shot attempt.

That’d be fine and dandy if the Blackhawks’ power play was ranked in the top five or 10 all season long. But considering it ended the season ranked 21st and an over-reliance on two of its participants resulted in historically subpar production from the blue line ... perhaps the message of getting others involved in the party wasn’t as well received as it should have been?