As we patiently await the return of our regularly scheduled hockey programming, what we don’t yet know is what the NHL’s plans are upon resumption. Speaking earlier this week, commissioner Gary Bettman noted that the league is keeping all their options open.
A late-summer continuation of the regular season that would also allow for an entire playoff of seven-game series has been discussed. Shortening the post-season to feature abridged battles between post-season competitors, maybe five games or three games, is an option. And, hey, maybe the NHL decides to take the same the tack as Canadian major junior circuits, determining playoff standings by points percentage, win percentage or points accumulated as of a certain date.
Again, it’s all on the table. But ultimately, what format the league adopts is unknown. One thing that is, however, is that barring the NHL expanded the post-season to includes 24 teams – and some models have even suggested a full 31-team playoff – the Chicago Blackhawks won’t be involved in the chase for the Stanley Cup.
At the time the NHL rightly pressed pause on its season, the Blackhawks were making what some could consider a push for a wild-card spot. Chicago posted a 6-4-0 record in their past 10 games, which included a four-game winning streak that saw the Blackhawks down the Tampa Bay Lightning and Edmonton Oilers. But that same run offered a glimpse of the incredibly enigmatic nature of these Blackhawks. As they sought their fifth-straight win, the streak was cut short by the league-worst Detroit Red Wings. And, sure, while there’s a reason you play the games, downing the Lightning, Oilers and wild-card contending Florida Panthers yet managing to lose a dreadful Detroit outfit in a span of nine days is a head-scratcher.
It’s that mystifying lack of consistency that’s the reason for the assertion the Blackhawks won’t be involved in much meaningful hockey should this season start up again, too. Despite their recent run, Chicago found itself six points back of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference when the NHL suspended its season. By SportsClubStats’ measure, the Blackhawks entered the season suspension with a 2.6 percent chance of earning a post-season berth. Put another way, Chicago had the worst odds of any team that wasn’t either ruled out or at zero-percent on SportsClubStats’ scale at the time the coronavirus outbreak forced the NHL to go on hiatus.
And that’s what makes Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz’s support of coach Jeremy Colliton and GM Stan Bowman so puzzling. Speaking with The Athletic’s Scott Powers, Wirtz said both will be back next season. It’s a confounding decision given that Chicago is primed to finish in the bottom two of the Central Division – and most certainly outside of a 16-team post-season picture – for the third time in three seasons.
In the case of Colliton, keeping the relative newcomer around for a third season seems somewhat misguided given the results, simply put, haven’t been there. Through his two seasons as an NHL bench boss, he has a .515 points percentage, but far more important are the processes that should be leading to the results. While underlying numbers are not the be-all and end-all – if they were, the Los Angeles Kings’ stellar statistics should see them with in far better standing than second-worst in the Western Conference – the Blackhawks’ under-the-hood performance is downright ugly since Colliton took over.
To wit, Chicago boasted the 10th-worst Corsi percentage (48.5), third-worst shots percentage (47.1), fifth-worst scoring chance percentage (47.5) and third-worst high-danger chance percentage (45.8) at 5-on-5 of any club in the NHL prior to the pause. The result? The fifth-lowest expected goals percentage (46.9) in the league. That the actual 5-on-5 rate is a dead-even 50 percent is largely thanks to excellent goaltending performances and the offensive superpower possessed by Patrick Kane, whose 84 points are nearly 40 points clear of any other Blackhawk not named Jonathan Toews.
This isn’t a one-off, either. Though the argument can be made about arriving and attempting to install a system, the Blackhawks’ underlying numbers were equally atrocious last season, particularly in the expected goals category. This is a pattern, and one that hasn’t shown any signs of being broken. And what makes the Blackhawks’ apparent wedding of themselves to Colliton despite a lack of results doubly surprising is it comes at a time when there’s legitimate top-end coaching talent available, highlighted by Peter Laviolette and Gerard Gallant. Admittedly, both are retreads, but their success in the modern game is proven, especially the latter’s with a ragtag expansion group.
Without question, of course, there is something of a chicken-and-egg aspect to Colliton’s lack of success, underlying or otherwise. Attempts by Bowman and Co. to keep the team competitive when the writing was on the wall with regard to the impending decline did little to mitigate the cap crunch and Chicago has come out on the losing side of deals far too often in recent years. The returns for Artemi Panarin and Niklas Hjalmarsson, not to mention the deadline-dealings for the likes of Andrew Ladd and Dale Weise in years gone by, have ultimately stripped the Blackhawks or left them bereft of valuable talent and assets top-heavy rosters so often need for sustained success. Colliton doesn’t wear those decisions, and that the result of ineffective dealings has resulted in Chicago’s dearth of depth up front or on the blueline is not the fault of Colliton or his coaching staff.
And while true, too, that change for the sake of change is never the answer, the Blackhawks’ current situation paired with the reality that Kane and Toews, not to mention Duncan Keith and free agent-to-be Corey Crawford, aren’t getting any younger should be all the reason Chicago needs to take steps to make this team competitive in the now. What we’ve seen from Colliton thus far gives little reason to believe he has the ability to compel his charges to be more than the sum of their parts, and that the sum of those parts doesn’t add up to post-season contention is on Bowman.
If the Blackhawks are content with mediocrity, then perhaps no changes are necessary. But if it’s more that Chicago wants, continuing on as they have for the past two seasons, with the same message from up top and behind the bench, will do little to alter their fortunes.
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