Laughable as it may sound to those struggling fan bases who haven’t seen their team climb to the NHL’s mountaintop in decades, if ever, the Chicago Blackhawks are no strangers to adversity. On their way to three Stanley Cups, the Blackhawks have had losing streaks, sizeable playoff series deficits and, of course, the seemingly annual cap crunch-turned-roster purge. But for all the adversity the Blackhawks have faced in recent years, there hasn’t been another season quite like this.
On Wednesday night, Chicago, in the midst of a four-game losing skid, skated into Washington with an eye toward downing the Capitals and getting back on track in what has, to this point, been an up-and-down campaign. Instead of snapping the streak, though, Chicago found themselves down early and buried late, downed by a 6-2 final score and extending their losing streak to five games.
Now, the losing streak itself is bad enough, a rarity for a team that has had so much success over the past several seasons, but it’s not exactly uncharted territory. In 2011-12, Chicago lost nine in a row, but recovered to rip off three-, four- and five-game winning streaks en route to a 101-point finish. However, the Blackhawks are in uncharted territory when it comes to what the loss means for the overall standings, because failing to pick up a point Wednesday means Chicago is officially off to the worst start of the Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane era.
That’s right: to find another season in the post-lockout era in which the Blackhawks have fared so poorly through the first 28 games of their campaign, one would have to go all the way back to 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, where Chicago had 27 and 26 points, respectively, through the first third of the season. Those were wholly unremarkable Blackhawks teams led by the likes of Kyle Calder, Mark Bell and Martin Havlat, clubs that finished well below .500 and entered the season with little hope of qualifying for the playoffs. Yet, here we are, three seasons removed from a Chicago Stanley Cup victory, and this is the first Blackhawks team since those post-lockout years to fail to hit the 30-point plateau 28 games into the campaign.
One of the most prominent issues facing the Blackhawks right now is their dreadful power play. Matter of fact, to call it dreadful might be an understatement. Since Nov. 28, the beginning of Chicago’s ongoing five-game slide, no team has had more opportunities with the man advantage than the Blackhawks, who’ve earned themselves 21 power plays. And while other clubs, including three within the tough Central Division, have managed four or more power play goals over the past week-plus, Chicago has managed just a single goal, giving the Blackhawks a power play success rate of 4.8 percent. No team with 15 or more opportunities over the same span has a lower percentage.
It would be easy to suggest the power play struggles are a matter of goaltenders robbing Chicago blind, and there is some truth to that given the Blackhawks are shooting about four percent while up at least one man, but there are far bigger issues than opposing netminders stymying the offense. Chief among those problems is that Chicago really hasn’t been all that great at generating any opportunities.
Since Nov. 28, the start of the streak, the Blackhawks have generated what would work out to 37.4 shots per 60 minutes of power play time. That’s the fifth-worst mark in the league over that span. Meanwhile, Chicago has the seventh-worst rate of scoring chances and third-worst rate of high-danger attempts per 60 minutes with the man advantage. This stretch is a microcosm of the season, too. Across the entire campaign, the Blackhawks rank third-worst, fourth-worst and second-worst in shots, scoring chances and high-danger attempts per 60 power play minutes. Hard to fathom given the amount of talent Chicago can roll out on its top unit.
The Blackhawks’ inability to connect on the power play aside, though, there’s also a few defensive issues that have arisen at this point in the campaign. Primarily, Chicago’s difficulty in limiting chances against. While a quick statistical look indicates the Blackhawks have been getting the run of play — adjusted for score and venue, they have a Corsi For percentage of 51.9 at 5-on-5, the 10th-best mark in the league — it’s worth noting from where those attempts are coming and the frequency with which they’re coming against.
First of all, when it comes to scoring chances, Chicago boasts a 51.6 percent mark at 5-on-5, but only seven teams allow a greater rate of chances than the Blackhawks’ 29.3 against per 60 minutes. And when you think about the prime scoring areas, the slot and net-front, only five teams give up more high-danger attempts than Chicago, which has allowed 12.1 against per 60 minutes. So, even though the Blackhawks are out-attempting their opponents, they’re often putting their goaltender under greater pressure to make more big stops.
Generally, that’s not too big an issue for Chicago, mind you, as Corey Crawford is again proving himself to be one of the league’s elite netminders. Problem is Crawford has been on the shelf for the past three games and the Blackhawks have won only once when Anton Forsberg has gotten the call this year. In past seasons, Chicago has had a reliable backup capable of stealing games. The jury is still out on Forsberg, but through his first 10 games in a Blackhawks uniform, Scott Darling he is not.
Quite possibly the greatest difficulty facing Chicago, however, isn’t the awful power play, sometimes porous defense or that Crawford is sidelined. Rather, it’s that there’s almost no way for the Blackhawks to address these issues in season. According to CapFriendly, the Blackhawks presently have zero dollars to work with under the salary cap, which is to say that making a move to shake things up in Chicago is much, much, much easier said than done. Any swap would have to be an almost literal dollar in-dollar out transaction, and doing so is even further out of the realm of possibility when considering what the Blackhawks could potentially be seeking to add.
To boost the man advantage, Chicago would need either a top-six forward or power play specialist, neither of which would come cheap. There’s no way to add either for cheap, and moving out a player such as, say, Richard Panik to do so would likely be a lateral move or slightly better, at best. Likewise, finding a top-four caliber defenseman to help correct some of the defensive issues is a near impossibility. Every team is after defensemen of that ilk and Chicago, with little in salary cap room or high-quality tradable assets, is going to have a hard time bringing such a player to town. The backup goaltending situation, truth be told, isn’t going to get much better, either. Crawford will be back soon enough and the options to give him more support are few and far between.
The reality of the situation, then, is that the Blackhawks will have to try and come up with a solution internally. Be it shuffling money in order to bring up an AHL standout such as Vinnie Hinostroza, setting the line blender to high speed or giving a greater opportunity to young talent such as Alex DeBrincat, John Hayden and Gustav Forsling, Chicago will have to find a way to dig out of this hole if they want to keep their nine-season playoff streak alive. No one is doubting their ability to do so, but the rest of the Western Conference, and more importantly the Central Division, won’t be waiting for the Blackhawks to get things on track.
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