Predicting the Blackhawks’ power play look for next season

Can Chicago's power play improve without Artemi Panarin?

When the Chicago Blackhawks traded Artemi Panarin and Tyler Motte to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Brandon Saad and Anton Forsberg, they weren't just losing any ol' 30-goal scoring winger. They were trading away one of Patrick Kane's most formidable linemates of his career and a power play specialist.

While Chicago’s special teams as a whole need work from last season to this season, the power play ranked 19th in the NHL and performed better than its penalty kill. But one of the Blackhawks’ biggest gripes with the power play unit is that they have so much talent, but couldn’t seem to get it to work at full steam on the man advantage.

Over the last five full seasons, the Blackhawks have failed to reach the 20 percent power play plateau all but once. In the 2015-16 season, the power play finished at 22.6 percent and ranked second in the league, but other than that, middle of the pack. Most teams would be completely fine with that, but the Blackhawks are not most teams. Most teams haven’t had players at the level of Kane, Saad, Panarin, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, or Brent Seabrook over that span.

With Panarin gone, Hossa going to LTIR and may be done for his career, and Sharp only returning as a fraction of his former self, the Blackhawks’ power play has a good amount to recover from if they want to finish higher than 20th.

First unit needs to be star-heavy

The Blackhawks have long had a lot of star power, but they haven’t always used it the same way with the man advantage. Entering next season, it should be a priority to build an elite top PP unit, even if that means leaving lesser options to fill time on the second unit.

One key question the Blackhawks wlll have to address is whether to use four forwards and one defenseman, or three forwards and two defensemen. The team was ahead of the curve in using the 4F1D strategy, but it hasn’t had great success with it lately despite immense talent.

Tyler Dellow of The Athletic came out with an interesting article on this earlier this summer, focusing on the intricacies of the statistical data on the power play the Blackhawks have generated using both the 3F2D and 4F1D structures under Joel Quenneville.

As Dellow points out in the piece, the Blackhawks have had more success than the NHL average in the 3F2D ratio, but historically that’s still not as effective as a good 4F1D power play. Over the past two seasons with Chicago playing a 4F1D ratio, it has primarily been with Kane, Toews, Panarin, Keith, and a rotation of Panik and Anisimov.

On paper, it would be a no-brainer that this grouping would be highly successful, but as Dellow points out, this grouping under-performed compared to the NHL average. The problem that arose with this grouping was that Panarin focused on getting his shots higher up near the circle rather than low in the slot, presumably because the team was constantly looking for one-timers. Those shots were difficult to execute, and ultimately it made the power play less effective than it probably should’ve been.

Panarin, in his two seasons working on Chicago’s top power play unit, produced 17 power play goals. That’s good enough for a tie for 22nd in the NHL over those two seasons for power play goal-scoring, along with Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry, Anders Lee, and Sam Reinhart. So the Hawks leaned on him heavily, but it’s possible there could be benefits to having a new left-handed shot on the top unit.

Looking at the 2014-15 season and the Blackhawks using a 4F1D ratio, the Blackhawks were ahead of the league at that time in generating on the power play, as Dellow points out. Well, who was on that 2014-15 first unit? Kane, Toews, Sharp, Saad, and Keith with Hossa rotating in as well. While Sharp isn’t his 2014-15 self and Hossa is a non-factor for the 2017-18 season, the reunion of this grouping would give Chicago the same setup on the 4F1D ratio and could hope to come close to replicating their success that season.

Defensively on the first unit, there is no question that Duncan Keith is Chicago’s anchor. If he wasn’t in his mid-30s, the Blackhawks could entertain the idea of double-shifting him on the power play with the defensive depth they will have this season. But alas, it’s not feasible to play him 30 minutes a night, every night. Keith is the quarterback of the power play’s first unit, no doubt, but his defensive partner on the power play could go in multiple directions. Chicago could place Brent Seabrook out there with Keith and have a traditional 3F1D ratio on the first unit power play. While Seabrook has been on the decline in the last two seasons, he still has a powerful shot that can be utilized on the power play.

Another forward option to play in the 4F1D would be Richard Panik. Comparisons of Panik as a poor-man’s version of Hossa might be a stretch, but he’s not a bad alternate if there’s an injury.

Keith and Sharp should get the first look on the first unit and keeping a power play defenseman like Seabrook for the second unit may make the most sense with the lack of offensive depth on the blue line. So, for the Blackhawks’ first power play unit, they’ll likely ice a 4F1D unit of Saad-Toews-Kane-Sharp with Keith on the defensive end.

Second unit will have a lot to prove

While the Blackhawks will undoubtedly have plenty of fire-power on the first power play unit, it will have to be a balanced attack from the first and second units to make sure that Chicago is fully effective on the man-advantage. Much like the first two forward lines, teams have to have a balance in scoring and production. Something Chicago has lacked the past two seasons. It will be up to the second power play unit to provide that balance and effectiveness.

While it may end up being a tall task to ask of those players that will comprise the Blackhawks’ second unit, they won’t be short on players with the skill to rise to the occasion.

Without question the second-unit center will be Artem Anisimov as players like Schmaltz and Tanner Kero are not up to playing that kind of role. Anisimov isn’t the most prolific scorer, but his steadiness in the middle and ability to create for his wingers makes him the right fit for the second unit. On the wings, Panik can slot in on the right side, hopefully proving that his career-high 22-goal season last year was not a fluke and actually a sign of things to come. If that ends up being the case, the second unit has a couple strong power forwards to build around.

Another option, but less-likely, would be Ryan Hartman on the right side. Although his game is not necessarily geared for the power play, Hartman is coming off a 19-goal season. He knows how to put the puck in the net and could be a energy-spark on the second unit, but without a pure goal-scorer on the second unit, Hartman’s use may be limited.

Then it comes to the left wing on the power play. This is a position on the second unit and on the even strength second line that has a lot of questions around it. Head coach Joel Quenneville has already stated that Schmaltz will get the first crack at the position, but with Sharp in the fold as a second/third-line option and the potential to use super-prospect Alex DeBrincat as a second-line wing throws a small wrench into the plans.

Ultimately the Blackhawks want Schmaltz to develop into a full-time center, but his small sample size at the position isn’t promising. Given that Sharp will likely be playing power play minutes on the first unit as the fourth forward, it would make sense to put Schmaltz on the left for the power play. However, don’t be surprised if that position becomes a rotation of sorts.

As for the defensive spots on the second power play unit, Seabrook slots in as an obvious point man. As stated before, he has been on the decline but still provides enough offensively for Chicago that he should be used on the man advantage. Plus, it’s not like the Hawks have any better options.

As for who would be Seabrook’s partner on the power play, the Blackhawks will have another tough spot to fill. With the loss of Brian Campbell and Trevor van Riemsdyk this off-season, the Blackhawks lost two of their top-five average power play ice-time defensemen. While Connor Murphy played on the Arizona Coyote’s power play at times, he was not one of their full-time options. He’ll be considered for Chicago but may be a spot player if/when the Blackhawks decide to use the 3F2D ratio on both power play units. Michal Kempny led the team with a 56.3 CF% at even-strength last season (50+ games played) and while his use will increase this season, his power play use might just be in spots like Murphy. The real second unit defensive pair with Seabrook will more than likely become Gustav Forsling.

Last season, Forsling averaged just under a minute of power play time per game. With the losses of Campbell and van Riemsdyk, Forsling will be forced into the power play role, but nonetheless a role his game is built for. It most likely is earlier than the Blackhawks would have planned for, but Forsling was brought in with the intent to develop him into an offensive presence on the blue line for Chicago. The nature of the defense next season just happens to force the hand in favor of Forsling.

So for the second power play unit, the Blackhawks will most likely ice Schmaltz-Anisimov-Panik, with Seabrook and Forsling on defense.

While the power play doesn’t have the same cache of 2013, 2014, or 2015 with Sharp being at the top of his game, it still will provide plenty of challenges for opposing penalty-killers. Anytime Chicago can ice Toews, Kane, and Keith at the same time, there is going to be trouble for the defense. The units will more than likely change throughout the season because Quenneville loves his line-blender like Bob McKenzie in July, but Chicago will need to avoid a carousel of combinations. Find what works and stick to it.