3 positives and 3 negatives from the Blackhawks’ first 6 games
Okay, so where are we?
The Chicago Blackhawks are off to a largely good start to the 2017-18 season. They’re second in the league in goals for and sixth in goals against. They lead the Central Division and are pitted right alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins in The Athletic’s most recent standings projections.
These are all very good things on the surface. By all accounts, the Hawks have done what’s necessary to build some interest around Chicago early in the season. Drubbing the defending champs, 10-1, in the season opener helps with that. But with the Cubs still in the playoffs and Mitch Trubisky doing his darnedest to make the Bears watchable, there’s a lot of competition in this town for attention right now. (The Bulls also make their season debut this week, but let’s just say we’re not as excited for that.)
The Blackhawks will be back at it Wednesday night against the Blues, and there’s a good chance Nick Schmaltz will be in the lineup. That’s the best news considering how much the team has missed him at times this season. But nine points in six games is still pretty good, and puts Chicago on pace for another good seasons.
Here’s a look at three good things and three bad things from the Hawks’ 4-1-1 start.
The Brandon Saad re-acquisition is a home run
There are moments watching Saad over the past couple weeks where I’ve thought to myself, “He wasn’t this good before, right?” Maybe that’s just my memory falling apart but he’s been a beast so far with six goals (including a league-high four game-winners) and two assists in six games.
It looks like the Blackhawks finally have a proper No. 1 line again. Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik each have six points, and Saad is tied for the team lead with eight. In roughly 67 minutes of 5-on-5 action together, they’ve outscored opponents, 7-1, per Natural Stat Trick.
Not everything has been perfect, including some underwhelming possession numbers, but they’re off to a strong start while facing tough competition. It’s a good sign that Joel Quenneville will actually have two, maybe even three, scoring lines to lean on when everyone is healthy.
Jan Rutta might be their best right-handed defenseman
You could also view this as a bad thing given what it says about Brent Seabrook, who has a lot of expensive years left on his contract, but the emergence of Rutta has been a big surprise so far. He was a total wild card as a 27-year-old out of the Czech Republic, and it turns out he can really play.
Through six games, Rutta has recorded two goals and two assists. He’s been the clear No. 3 defenseman behind Seabrook and Duncan Keith, including playing time on both the penalty kill and power play. Even Quenneville’s praise has been high, which is reflected in the defenseman’s usage.
“He’s been really good,” Quenneville said, via the Chicago Sun-Times. “I don’t know if we were expecting that level of play. It’s been fun watching him play. His gap is tremendous, and his thinking process out there complements the gap. Puck movement, reliability, dependability — he’s been excellent.”
Now the Hawks have a bit of a conundrum: they have four NHL-caliber right-handed defensemen in Seabrook, Rutta, Cody Franson, and Connor Murphy, but none is a clear top-pairing guy and somebody has to sit out no matter what. Hey, it’s better than being stuck playing Michal Rozsival on his last legs.
Is Connor Murphy getting the Trevor Daley treatment from Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville?
Corey Crawford is extremely elite
I don’t know how anyone other than Crawford could be the team’s MVP at this pace. He leads the NHL in save percentage (.960) and goals allowed average (1.39) through five starts.
He’s also first in Corsica Hockey’s Goals Saved Above Average, which uses shot location, danger, and volume to better evaluate goalie performance. The Hawks netminder has already saved the team nearly seven goals over what you’d expect from an average goaltender.
That’s not going to last, and it could be a rude awakening for the Blackhawks whenever that happens. But Crawford deserves credit for being the best goalie in the NHL so far this season.
Corsi! Corsi! Corsi!
Let’s just hit it right off the bat: The Blackhawks’ Corsi sucks so far. The team that used to dominate the puck during its best years of this era has slowly trended down to an ugly 27th at 5-on-5 (45.7 percent) so far this season. Yes, it’s slightly better when adjusted for venue and score, up to 20th at 48 percent, but this is not a team that’s been winning the possession battle for the most part this season.
This is a reason for concern, to a degree. One piece of good news is that Nick Schmaltz will immediately make this team stronger up the middle again. This team simply wasn’t the same when its No. 2/3 centers were Artem Anisimov and Tanner Kero. His presence should make the Hawks stronger from top to bottom.
But that won’t solve a defense that’s giving up the blue line too easily, and forcing Crawford to play out of his mind to win games. Corsica has the Hawks with the third-best 5-on-5 xGF (expected goals for) rate in the league so far. The team is also 29th in xGA (expected goals allowed), so it’s overall xG differential is 20th in the league.
That’s the deal with this team so far: they’ve generated a ton of offense ... otherwise it’s been up to Crawford. That’s not a great formula in the long run, so figuring things out defensively will likely make or break whether this team can make a run in the spring.
The lineup is fragile
We saw what a fully armed and operational Blackhawks lineup can do in the season opener. But we also quickly were shown how one injury can derail that and make for a much different team.
Schmaltz is a clear part of the top six at this point, and there was nobody to replace him when he went down. Anisimov has two goals in six games this season. Kero wasn’t even skating on the top four lines in practice Tuesday after an underwhelming start to the season. Kane deserves better linemates than that.
The Blackhawks have some really good players, namely Toews, Kane, Schmaltz, Hartman, Keith, Saad, and Crawford. (Yes, let’s put the kids in there for now.) But if any of those guys goes down, this team won’t look nearly as threatening.
The power play needs work
The Blackhawks went from having one of the league’s best power plays in 2015-16 to mediocrity in 2016-17. Now with a much different look after trading Artemi Panarin, not a whole lot has changed yet in the production category.
The Hawks are 21st in power play efficiency at 14.8 percent. They’re also 22nd in shot attempts per 60 minutes (87.6) and 27th in shots on goal per 60 minutes (41.8), per Natural Stat Trick. Now, shot attempts aren’t the end all, be all, as you’ll see from the top 10 teams in power play goals for per 60 minutes, with their SOG per 60 ranking alongside:
- Predators — 19th
- Flyers — 8th
- Sharks — 28th
- Wild — 18th
- Capitals — 9th
- Stars — 1st
- Maple Leafs — 3rd
- Lightning — 7th
- Devils — 22nd
- Blues — 13th
The Hawks, who rank 19th in GF/60, haven’t really excelled in any category. They scored a PPG in three straight games, but haven’t had a game with more than one yet. One of them came in garbage time in a blowout loss to the Wild.
Quenneville shook up the power play units Tuesday hoping to get something going. You can see why there’s some urgency because a lineup with this much offensive talent shouldn’t have a below-average power play.