No reason to sound the alarm. No need for nails and coffins. The Chicago Blackhawks are fine. Are there concerns? Sure. The Hawks have lost three of their last four and four of their last six. Their stars are struggling to score and they are being outshot regularly. However, they are currently second in the Western Conference Central Division with a record of 5-3-2 in this young season with 72 games yet to play. The Chicago Blackhawks are struggling, but they have a pedigree to right the ship quickly and a surprising new strength. So, what’s right and what’s wrong?
1. Surprisingly-The penalty kill: Last year, the Blackhawks were 24th in the league with a penalty kill (PK) percentage of 77.7 %. This year, the Blackhawks are seventh in the league with a kill percentage of 85.4 %. Thank goodness. With the lack of scoring, the PK is keeping the Hawks in games. It is only a matter of time until the goals start coming. Add increased goal scoring to Corey Crawford and an aggressive Penalty Kill under the tutelage of Ulf Samuelson and we will have a successful Chicago Blackhawks team.
4. Young defenseman: Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling have taken their place as a solid second line behind Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Both are playing better than Seabrook (more on that later), but breaking them up to have one play with Keith is a mistake. These two are growing better together and provide a strong backbone to defensive zone faceoffs. Both Rutta and Forsling have 60% of their starts in the defensive zone, yet both have added points to help the offense. Rutta has five points, while Forsling has four points. They have as many points as Seabrook with fewer giveaways, less power play time and far less starts in the offensive zone.
1. The top six….or top nine: The top six must score for a team to be successful. In the past four games, of which the Hawks have lost three, three of the top six have added two points cumulatively. If you add the third line, only one more point is added by those three on an assist from Alex DeBrincat. Artem Anisimov, Patrick Sharp and Nick Schmaltz have added no points in the past four games. Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman have only added one. Captain Jonathan Toews has added only two points, but has added pressure with 13 shots on goal. The top lines must start scoring if the Blackhawks are going to make the playoffs.
3. Brent Seabrook: While scoring five points in this early season, Brent Seabrook has struggled. Seabrook starts in the offensive zone 64% of the time, yet has no more points that Jan Rutta who consistently starts in the defensive zone. Seabrook also has one takeaway while giving it away 11 times. He is clearly slowing down and has shown bad judgment in his errant passing. Most alarming is the ridiculous contract given to an aging defenseman. Seabrook is already slowing down, but has six more years on his contract with a cap hit of $6.875 million per year. He has been passed up by youngsters Rutta and Forsling, and it will only get worse for Seabrook. Maybe it’s time to hide Seabrook on the third line and put Connor Murphy on line one with Keith. He isn’t quite ready, but he does have good upside.
Good news from practice- Coach Q has mixed up the lines. Alex DeBrincat will join Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad on line one, while Richard Panik will join Schmaltz and Kane on line two. John Hayden will join Patrick Sharp and Artem Anisimov on line three. Ryan Hartman will join the grinders on line four after some physical play in Vegas. The key to these moves is DeBrincat on line one with Toews and Saad. DeBrincat is a scorer, but he is not a great two-way player, and he’s not confident enough to carry the puck for long. Putting him with Toews and Saad, who are both excellent two way players, will allow DeBrincat to find the open spots and snipe shots after his line-mates win tough board battles. This will pay off for the Hawks.
The Blackhawks play the Nashville Predators Friday night. We will see if these changes make a difference. It’s only a matter of time. Silence those alarms for now and put down the tool belt. These Hawks will rally the troops.
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