Although there’s been a lot of focus on the Chicago Blackhawks forward group so far, general manager Kyle Davidson has decisions to make on the blue line as well. There are three defensemen — Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, and Jake McCabe — who are likely not going anywhere, barring some magic trade offer. But there are several question marks to filling out the other spots on defense.
The two biggest question marks are part of the same overall question: should the Blackhawks have one or both of Caleb Jones and Riley Stillman on the roster next season?
According to reports — like this one from Scott Powers of The Athletic — it seems likely that the Blackhawks will re-sign Caleb Jones, who’s a restricted free agent. That’s not particularly surprising, but is it really the best move for the Blackhawks?
After missing the first six weeks with a wrist injury sustained during training camp, Jones had a rollercoaster of a season. Generally, he showed sparks in several key areas — like in transition and blue-line defense — but it also seemed like whenever he made a mistake, it was a big one.
At a high level, Jones was respectable defensively, especially as he began facing lower quality of competition towards the end of the season.
One of his best skill sets was defending the blue line, although that seemed like a low priority for the Blackhawks’ system overall last season. Chicago had the second highest carry-in against percentage (61.53) in the league, but Jones was a major outlier here in that he not only defended the blue line, he did so very well. The carry-in percentage against Jones was just 52.6 percent, in the 84th percentile in the league, which was in line with players like Charlie McAvoy at 51.9 percent and Devon Toews at 51.5 percent. Those numbers increase 2-4 percent when facing top-line opponents versus fourth-liners, and Jones’ lower quality of competition should be noted here. But this is definitively a skill that Jones could expand on to be even better.
Here are some other strong numbers from Jones when it comes to preventing opponents from entering the zone: only 2.46 chances against per 60 (96th percentile) and 2.28 targeted entry denials per 60 (91st percentile). This also likely helped him finished third in shots against per 60 (30.69) and expected goals against per 60 (2.39) among Blackhawks defensemen. Some areas where Jones could stand to be better were at puck battles and retrievals, both of which declined over the course of the season — he was below average at retrievals that led to zone exits (7.63 per 60). Considering zone-entry defense was not a strong suit for the Blackhawks, the fact that Jones has potential to be good there is a positive sign and, hopefully, a skill set that will be fostered if he stays with the team.
Jones’ best other attribute was his transition ability — specifically entering the offensive zone. Entries were at 64th percentile (4.54), pass entries were even better at 75th percentile (3.21), and entries resulting in a chance also 64th percentile (1.37). It was easy to see that Jones knew how to use his skating ability to traverse the neutral zone.
While he was good at entering the offensive zone, though, Jones’ offensive numbers in the zone were pretty inept. His 3.9 shots per game was in the bottom three percent of the league and 2.53 scoring chances per 60 was in the bottom 18th percentile. His best chance-generation rates were off the rush (0.33 per 60), thanks to his strong skating, but it was still below league average of generating changes after a zone off the rush. However, Jones was especially inept at generating offense off the forecheck, just 6.02 chances per 60, which was in the bottom six percent of the league.
C. Jones’ passing was also lackluster: his primary shot assist rate (4.92 per 60), chance assist rate (1.94) and setups rate (0.82) are all below the 40th percentile in the league. This is why, despite a good rate of goals per 60 (0.31), he only factored into 34.48 percent of the goals scored when he was on the ice.
The issues with Jones is that, when he made a mistake, it always seemed to be a big one. One of the most noticeable poor habits Jones had this season was his giveaways while exiting the zone. He often appeared to just fling the puck away without much thought behind the pass. This is why his pass exit numbers are so poor, in the lower 23rd percentile in the league. Zone entry clears were also well below average at just 2.18 per 60 with a success rate of just 32 percent. However, when Jones tried skating the puck out of the zone, he was among the most successful in the entire league — the 92nd percentile — but he was only in the 50th percentile — aka league-average — in terms of how often he attempted to do that.
The other problematic behavior that was most noticeable with Jones was his seemingly slower processing of situations, which often led to miscues with the puck of blown coverage assignments. This data is less quantified, but there were enough instances of him being just behind a play or making the wrong reaction to a play in a way that was often costly for the Blackhawks.
So while Jones obviously has the physical skills to be an NHL defensemen — especially when it comes to his skating — his decision-making remains questionable. But hopefully, if the Blackhawks do re-sign him, that is something which can be improved with more experience.
Unlike Jones, Stillman is currently signed to a low-cap hit deal for another two seasons, but the question is still the same: should the Blackhawks really bring Stillman back for next season?
Regrettably for Stillman, there’s not as much positive to discuss as he generally had an underwhelming season. Last season, Stillman was seen as a cheaper, defense-first and physical defensive option to the departed Nikita Zadorov. But that description wasn’t apt based on Stillman’s most recent performance.
While it should be mentioned that Stillman did suffer a knee injury last November that likely impacted his negative performance, we can only look at and evaluate the data we have, which just isn’t particularly good.
In terms of offensive results, Stillman finished with a respectable 0.85 points per 60 rate at 5-on-5, third among Blackhawks defensemen, mostly thanks to having the best primary assist rate on the blue line with 0.51 per 60. The issue with those results, however, is that they’re not necessarily sustainable without major improvement in his underlying numbers — they seemed to be more of a byproduct of Stillman’s on-ice partners than a skill he’ll be able to reproduce in the future. For example, Stillman’s primary assist rate is in the 91st percentile, but his primary shot assist rate (3.16 per 60) was in the 42nd. He did better at generating his own chances — 0.97 per 60 scoring chances was good for 61st percentile in the league — but failed wildly at contributing to others — his 0.63 per 60 chance assist rate was in bottom 20th percent of the league.
Much of Stillman’s productions rates — especially his assist rate, which was well above league average — was a result of being on the ice with Alex DeBrincat for about 200 minutes while facing the lowest quality of competition when together. In that span, Stillman and DeBrincat had a PDO of 106.5, hinting that their production wouldn’t be sustainable over a larger sample. This is not to say that Stillman cannot help offensively in the future, but it’s an area that was somewhat inflated due to the situation when the offense was produced.
Otherwise, transitioning wasn’t particularly strong for Stillman — again, not surprising given the knee injury. The only other areas in which Stillman pinged positively was his ability to carry the puck out of the zone — good for the 55th percentile in the league — but that’s where the good news ends. His zone exit rate (8.53 per 60) was just below league average in the 47th percentile, but he exited the zone with possession less than 40 percent of the time when he attempted it, which was in the bottom fourth of the league. Part of the issue is that Stillman had poor retrieval numbers, including the most botched retrievals on the Blackhawks with 8.21 per 60, which made it difficult for him to be the one to lead a strong exit. He had better success with clearing the puck out of the zone — actually the best on the team at a rate of 3.47 per 60 minutes — but that didn’t really improve his overall exit numbers.
Stillman’s entry numbers weren’t any better: he was roughly at league average in offensive zone entry possession (49th percentile) with poor rates of entering the zone via passes (29th percentile), carrying the puck in himself (36th percentile), or aiding a zone entry with assisted passes in the neutral zone (12th percentile). And Stillman was in the zero percentile (aka league-worst) in terms of zone entries that resulted in scoring chances.
Like mentioned above, defending the blue line did not seem like a priority for the Blackhawks in general, but credit to Stillman for at least trying: he was in the 89th percentile for attempts. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t very successful: he allowed zone entries that resulted in a scoring chance against at a rate of 4.41 per 60 and opponents were successful 61.7% of the time when carrying the puck in against Stillman. That’s why his entry denial and carry prevention ranks are in the 12th and 35th percentile for the league, respectively.
Ultimately, Stillman had a rough season in practically every defensive aspect of the game, though he had some solid offensive results. If he’s not traded in the offseason, the Blackhawks are going to have to figure out how to recapture the potential Stillman flashed last season — or be patient as his knee recovers.
While neither Jones nor Stillman had good enough seasons that they should be guaranteed roster spots next season, each dealt with injuries that likely affected their performance and new coach Luke Richardson could tap into their potential in ways that his predecessors could not. It’s fine to keep them around, in general, especially when there are such low expectations for the Blackhawks next season.
However, the other thing the Blackhawks have to weigh is if one or both are blocking a defensive prospect that may be NHL ready and more in line with the Blackhawks rebuild timeline. Jones just turned 25 and Stillman turned 24 in March, so both could still fit within the Blackhawks rebuild window. But there are a handful of even younger players — Ian Mitchell, Jakub Galvas, Alec Regula, and Alex Vlasic to name a few — that are on the cusp of making the transition to the NHL and should be the focus so their development isn’t stagnated with even more time in the AHL.
Their probably isn’t room for both Jones and Stillman on next season’s roster. While Jones has definitely shown more promise, Stillman is a year younger and already under contract.
It’ll be interesting to see exactly how the defense shakes out for next season.