MacKenzie Entwistle could be useful — in the right role

Determining if Entwistle stands out among the Blackhawks abundance of bottom-six players.

If it’s one thing the Blackhawks have in abundance, it’s players that can play in the bottom-six — specifically in the fourth-line role.

Those players are important when it comes to creating a deep team in which four lines can be rolled with specific responsibilities, but the Blackhawks just aren’t that type of team yet and haven’t been for a few seasons now. At some point, the front office is going to need to start assessing which of these lower-line players are worth keeping.

One such player is MacKenzie Entwistle, a player the Blackhawks have invested decent development time into over the last few years. The former 2017 second-rounder has been with the Blackhawks organization since he was acquired in 2018 from the Arizona Coyotes in the massive trade that included Marian Hossa’s contract. Entwistle spent the next season with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and then two seasons playing in a top-six role with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. After improving his skating in those developmental leagues, the 2021-22 season was the perfect time for Entwistle to make his full-time NHL debut.

Entwistle’s first NHL season mimicked his first AHL one. While he does have skills that can make him translate into a useful NHL player, his performance was inconsistent.

Let’s take a look at his micro stats to explore what he did well and what areas he needs to improve:

Obviously, the amount of red in Entwistle in the card above doesn’t instill much confidence. Put that into the context of how truly terrible the Blackhawks were this season, though, and it’s more understandable. Still, Entwistle showed promise in some key areas that would are important to a prototypical defensive specialist NHLer.

One of the main reasons for Entwistle’s even-strength defensive WAR above — which was just in the 28th percentile for the league — were his poor shot metrics, which ranked in the bottom eight among Blackhawks forwards. However, it seems like the quality of teammates — and lack of consistency with them — was to Entwistle’s detriment. His most common linemates were Boris Katchouk and Reese Johnson, but that was for only 65:55 of Entwistle’s total ice time of 516:36, which illustrates how inconsistent the bottom-six really was this last season. That trio was also had some of the worst possession numbers, with a 39.8% shot attempt share an 33.98% expected goals share.

Without Johnson, though, Entwistle and Katchouk’s shot shares move up near — an in some case, above — 50 percent shares, albeit in limited minutes. Additionally, Entwistle’s presence on the ice often had a more positive impact on his linemates’ shot-suppression numbers, such as Ryan Carpenter (plus-5 percent shot share) and Henrik Borgstrom (plus-4 percent shot share). It’s not that Entwistle is shooting more with these other players, it’s that they’re able to suppress shots against better together. Low-event hockey is more than fine for a defense-first player.

This positive impact on shot shares by Entwistle, despite not being a shooter himself, is the result of his strong ability to recover the puck in the defensive zone and exit with possession. Entwistle was in the 83rd percentile for puck recoveries (7.08) and 52nd percentile in successful retrievals that resulted in an exit (3.91). Additionally, Entwistle was one of the Blackhawks better players at entering the offensive zone and was solid from a league-wide perspective (71st percentile). These abilities suggest that, if nothing else, Entwistle could be a Marcus Kruger-type of player whose job is to get the puck out of the defensive and onto the sticks of better offensive players.

However, it should be noted that, unlike Kruger, Entwistle faced a low quality of opposition, so his numbers should be viewed with the caveat that he was facing other bottom-six players. It shouldn’t be held against him too much, though, because this was also true among most of the Blackhawks’ bottom-six forwards, as Derek King did not deploy a traditional checking or shutdown line last season.

So defensively, Entwistle showed some promise, but offense is another story.

As shown in the shot heat maps above, it was a black hole of offense when Entwistle was on the ice versus without him. Getting heavy defensive zone starts affects this, obviously, but again the low QoC negates that somewhat, especially since his line was left out in the offensive zone too long for a traditional checking line.

At 5-on-5, Entwistle not only had the lowest shots per 60 rate (3.37) and second worst expected goals per 60 rate (0.43) – behind R. Johnson – among Blackhawks, he was at the very bottom of the league. Yep, you read that right – he was in the 0 and 1 percentile, respectively, in terms of shot and chance generation. His finishing wasn’t as bad, but his shooting percentage (14.71) was inflated by the low shot volume. It was also just generally too high for a player with his hands. Entwistle had the fourth highest highest shooting percentage on the team, just below Alex DeBrincat’s 15.19. The chances of Entwistle repeating that shooting percentage are small.

In terms of playmaking, Entwistle shows slightly more promise. He assisted more on chances, especially high-danger ones, but was still well below league-average. One positive is that Entwistle was more successful with in-zone passing plays, something the Blackhawks have lacked as a team. It didn’t result in a lot of assists (just 0.75 per 60), but it is another another trait that could be used in a checking line role: keeping the puck active in the offensive zone long enough for a replacement to come on to the ice. Again, that was something else Kruger excelled at when he was with the Blackhawks.

What’s next for Entwistle?

The Blackhawks still have an abundance of bottom-six players they’ll need to weed out, but Entwistle is both young enough — he turns 23 on July 14 — and has shown that he could be useful in the right role, so it’d be good to keep him as an option. That’ll be one of the primary objectives for reported new coach Luke Richardson: focusing on what roles will best fit his players. For Entwistle, that role appears to be on a shutdown, defensive-oriented line.