Entering the 2017-18 NHL season, many observers predicted the Blackhawks would have defensive issues – but after Chicago lost its third straight game, the blueline might be a bigger concern than ever before.
On opening night in Chicago, the Blackhawks were looking to make a statement and a statement they made.
After an embarrassing playoff exit, swept at the hands of the Nashville Predators, Chicago blew the roof off the United Center in a showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blackhawks scored early and scored often, skating away with a 10-1 victory. It wasn’t just that the Blackhawks put up a 10-spot on the defending Stanley Cup champions. It was the way they did it. Chicago put together a dominant performance from start to finish, one in which the Blackhawks carried the play to the tune of a 60 percent of the game’s total shot attempts.
It wasn’t quite a sign of things to come, though.
On Saturday, Chicago’s October schedule came to a close with a 6-3 loss at the hands of the Avalanche, a contest that began with Colorado scoring five unanswered goals before Nick Schmaltz finally found pay dirt for the Blackhawks. And that loss to the Avalanche came on the heels of a 2-1 Friday loss at the hands of the Predators, which itself came three nights after Chicago was dropped 4-2 by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. In fact, the Blackhawks likely couldn’t get October over fast enough, having dropped five of six — and six of eight if you want to go back to mid-October — to close out the opening month of the campaign. And while even the best teams can have bad months, one has to ask whether there are really signs the Blackhawks can be included in the “best” category.
The concerns in Chicago squad begin, as one would expect, on the blueline. In the off-season, cap constraints necessitated the exit of defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and made an already thin defense corps that much thinner. The woes on defense have been clear through the early season, too.
While Duncan Keith remains as reliable as always, the rest of the back end has left much to be desired. And yes, that includes Brent Seabrook, who despite a heavy slant of offensive zone starts has the third-worst relative Corsi For percentage among Blackhawks defensemen. Meanwhile, Connor Murphy, acquired in exchange for Hjalmarsson, has had a tough time gaining the trust of coach Joel Quenneville and a likewise impossible time filling the shoes of Chicago’s former top-pairing rearguard. The foursome of Jan Rutta, Michal Kempny, Gustav Forsling and Cody Franson have picked up the remaining minutes, but there hasn’t been a standout in the bunch. The closest thing to would be Rutta, who has exceeded early expectations.
To spell it out is one thing, though. To show it is another. And the Blackhawks’ underlying numbers is clear-cut evidence of how poor Chicago’s defensive coverage has been. Per Natural Stat Trick, at 5-on-5, Chicago ranks 20th in Corsi for percentage (48.9 percent), 28th in shots for percentage (46.7 percent), 24th in scoring chances for percentage (48.3 percent), 27th in high-danger Corsi for percentage (45.1 percent) and the Blackhawks’ per 60 minute rates are atrocious. Per 60 minutes at five-a-side, no team in the league has surrendered more shot attempts (66.4) or more shots on goal (37.7). In addition, the Blackhawks have the fourth-worst scoring chances against per 60 (31.7) and the only team giving up more high-danger attempts per 60 than Chicago (12.9) is the Washington Capitals (13.4).
Suffice to say that the Blackhawks, at least through the early season, have been propelled to victory largely by the play their goaltending, which should come as no surprise. Corey Crawford has proven himself to be one of the league’s top netminders over the past few seasons and he’s managed to do much the same this season. Of netminders to play at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5, Crawford boasts the eighth-best save percentage (.936) and he’s done so while facing more shots than all but four goaltenders and more high-danger attempts than all but five.
Chicago has needed Crawford and backup Anton Forsberg to stand tall, too, because the offense hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders. After hitting double digits on opening night, the Blackhawks have since scored 28 goals in 11 games. Remove the 10-goal game from the equation and Chicago is averaging 2.55 goals per game, which would put the Blackhawks squarely in the league’s bottom third.
Patrick Kane has been, well, Patrick Kane. However, Jonathan Toews, after a second straight sub-60-point season, is on pace for 55 points and the only Blackhawk other than Kane with a double-digit point total is Ryan Hartman. It’s worth noting that he only has five points since opening night. That’s concerning, to be sure, and even more so when considering the Blackhawks rank seventh in the league in 5-on-5 shooting percentage. If they were operating at a league average clip, they could be among the league’s lowest-scoring teams right now, particularly when taking into consideration a dreadful power play that’s operating at 12.7 percent. Chicago has only connected on one of their past 21 attempts with the man advantage.
With the play of Crawford and the offense in mind, though, one has to wonder what happens if — or, more likely, when — one or both begin to struggle. As it presently stands, the Blackhawks’ combined shooting and save percentage at 5-on-5, also known as PDO, is 103.2, the fifth-highest in the NHL. There’s reason to suggest that will dip at some point when the shooters begin to fire blanks and Crawford and/or Forsberg start to struggle for a brief time. And if the defensive woes persist at that point, the Blackhawks could be in for a slide that goes well beyond the three-game losing streak they’re currently mired in.
No one is about to suggest the Blackhawks, who have been as associated with winning as Chicago itself is with wind, will be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in when the season comes to a close. It’s far too early to make such a bold proclamation about a team that has made a habit of stepping their game up as the season progresses. But if the Blackhawks can’t sort out their issues — and there are a few of them, make no mistake — the road back to the post-season could be rockier than anything Chicago has experienced for the better part of a decade.
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