Offseason Discussion: Blackhawks D-men, Forwards Getting To The Net, & Trading Core Members

All the bears seem to be following in suit to what is a terrible month of Chicago sports(minus cubs I suppose). I am optimistic for the offseason. While I continue to watch the penguins, caps and predators in the playoffs I can’t help but notice the differences in coaching. Whether it is d-men carrying pucks into the zone or not necessarily always keeping a precise gap when defending the rush. Coaching is got to be a huge concern for next year, Q has to change the system up. Guys like Daley and Kempny are people we need. Pushing the pace. The game is flying by the standstill play of our defense in my opinion. Wouldn’t mind you hitting on something like that, how they can go about changing their game and how either in-house option or a cheap offseason addition could help that?

It’s no secret that Quenneville prefers his defensemen pass the puck forward rather than skate the puck forward. It’s a conservative tactic as defensemen are the last line of protection. If one turns the puck over in the neutral zone, it could quickly become a breakaway going towards Corey Crawford. Coaches tend to play it safe. This worked well when the Blackhawks had immense forward talent. With that talent dwindling, Chicago needs to find other ways to create offense, to diversify their attack. The type of players needed are the exact same players that have seen quick exits with Q. The Nick Leddy, Trevor Daley, Erik Gustafsson, and Brian Campbell type players.

Obviously Campbell gets playing time, but he isn’t used to the best of his abilities. His possession metrics took a huge hit this season with Chicago. He put up much better numbers playing in Florida with harder minutes against top players. The Campbell-TVR pairing was still good, and they outscored opponents by a wide margin. However, Brian Campbell wasn’t used in the optimal way. He is at his best skating the puck out of the defensive zone and up to the red line, drawing opponents towards him, and then making a pass to set up the offensive zone entry.

Chicago as a team ranked near last in defensemen carrying the puck into the offensive zone. It’s a strategy that can create confusion for the opponent. Opposing defensemen may be caught in bad positioning as they are unsure who to cover, what their assignment is in this situation. A defensemen on the attack can create prime chances off the rush. It adds another dimension to the offensive attack. It’s unpredictable. It pushes the pace. It can create havoc.

The question you ask is how to change it. How to fix it?

The coaching staff can tweak their philosophy. Learn to adapt to new conditions and a less talented team by finding more ways to create offense. Maybe with the firing of assistant Mike Kitchen, who ran the defense and penalty kill, we may see a slight change in tactics.

First, I must admit Bowman also shares some of the blame, not just the coaching staff. Brian Campbell and Duncan
Keith were the only mobile, skating, puck movers on the team.

Seabrook can hit a stretch pass, but he isn’t a good skater, or the best at transitioning.

TVR is good defensively, but he shouldn’t be skating with the puck.

Hjalmarsson is a good skater, but he isn’t offensively inclined, especially when he’s playing on the right side. Playing on his off side results in Hjalmarsson having to move the puck forward with a backhand pass. A backhand pass being much weaker than a forehand pass, it’s harder for off-hand defensemen to play to the best of their abilities. This is something that both the majority of analytics and coaching community agree on.

Kempny is alright. He isn’t much of a passer. I think his best ability is his aggressiveness, especially when pinching. He puts up good possession numbers, and I believe his ability to keep the puck in the offensive zone is a prime reason. But Kempny isn’t a playmaker. When he gets the puck, he shoots. One doesn’t want Kempny skating with the puck and making passes in the neutral zone. He’s not that type of player.

That type of player, an offensive, good skating/passing defensemen was what Chicago needed. Calling up Erik Gustafsson would have been more beneficial than trading for Oduya. Hoping Gustav Forlsing was ready for NHL duty would have been more beneficial than trading for Oduya.

When analyzing the past, people greatly benefit from having hindsight. I can look back now and easily say that trading for Oduya was the wrong move. But it was obvious at the trade deadline. I said from the start that this was the wrong move. The team only has two mobile puck moving defensemen, and Oduya is the answer?

When the trade happened, I looked at the Oduya-Seabrook pairings history. When playing together in previous seasons, the opponent outshot and outscored Chicago with them on the ice. Those were also the truly great Chicago teams that dominated opponents. They were subpar on great teams.

Fast forward a couple years to this season and Oduya is 35, Seabrook now 32.

Oduya-Seabrook were a subpar pairing in 700 minutes together. How in the world at age-32 and age-35 are they going to improve on their poor performance? They aren’t. They will perform worse than they did before and that exactly what happened.

Maybe Bowman listened and gave in to Q’s demands to bring back Oduya. Either way, it was a failure by Bowman to recognize that an old, injured, slow, defensive defensemen that is no longer good at defending would be the last thing this team needed.

They needed some offensive firepower from the backend. Some creativity. Some production. Not a dull, slow, 35-year-old that produced poor results with Seabrook in his younger years.

Fortunately there are some in house options.

Erik Gustafsson for one is an NHL defensemen. In a 3rd pairing role playing against easy competition in the 2015-16 season, Gustafsson performed statically similarly to Erik Karlsson, but without the goal scoring ability. Gustafsson led all NHL defensemen in 5v5 assists per 60 minutes (minimum 500 minutes played). He was a top-10 defensemen in shot generation, goal generation, and outscoring the opponent. The players that finished with similar stats are the likes of Drew Doughty, PK Subban, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, and Seth Jones.

Erik Gustafsson was instant offense.

Now please don’t sit here and pretend like I’m saying Erik Gustafsson is Erik Karlsson. I didn’t say that and I’m not trying to infer it whatsoever. I’m saying that in a favorable role, playing easy minutes, Erik Gustafsson put up elite defensmen numbers. It’s a small sample of 41 games. He didn’t play against top competition. He obviously isn’t a top pairing elite defensemen.

But, he produced like one in a 3rd pairing role over a 41-game-span. Why not see if that continues? Why not see what you have Chicago? If the White Sox call up a player and in 41 games that player has an on base percentage of .400 and is slugging .500, do they send that player down for the whole next season?

It’s even more frustrating when that was the exact type of player they needed. An offensive defensemen that can skate and create offense. It’s only 41 games, so I don’t know what Erik Gustafsson actually is, but I know he’s an NHL player. What type of role can he handle is still unknown, but he can play.

The Blackhawks have more options. Gustav Forsling had good stats in his AHL stint that suggest he may have some nice offensive ability in his game. Q also seems to like him a lot.

Luc Snuggerud is a name to learn/remember. He lit up the NCAA this season. In his short stint in Rockford, he was the Icehog’s highest producing defensemen. All accounts I’ve read suggest this is a defensemen similar to the ilk of a Daley, Campbell, Leddy, Gustafsson.

So the in-house options appear to be Gustafsson/Forsling now and Snuggerud very soon. I don’t know if any of these players will be able to log serious minutes right now, but they are the options available.

As for offseason additions, I’ll wait until free agency arrives to start speculating about that.

Secondly, when looking at Puckbase.com stats, boy did Nashville have a lot of players with high shot totals over the course of the season. Not to mention how Ryan Johanson was low key great in almost all the metrics there (So was Brandon Saad, boy what a player). Hah I know this is a very hard thing to discuss and predict but brining in forwards who can really sell out and get to the net is something we lacked I think. Who can fill the void there?

It may partly be coaching strategy that plays a part here. The Blackhawks lead the league in time with the puck in the offensive zone. Taking more shots leads to wins more so than possessing the puck for longer periods of time. I don’t know what the actual strategy Q employs. I’m not in the locker room. I don’t know. I can only speculate. Maybe he wants to defend by keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Maybe he worries more about having the puck in the offensive zone than shooting the puck in the offensive zone. Maybe it’s the players and not the coach. I don’t know. I can’t confidently say. But yes, they do hang out around the boards a little too much.

But Chicago has plenty of players that can get to the net. To illustrate this, I looked up every NHL forward’s average shot distance at even strength this season. I only included forwards that played at least 20 games. The total came out to be 436 NHL forwards. Here are how the Blackhawks forwards ranked.

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Anisimov, Jurco, and Toews ranked really well in getting shots closer to the net. Kero, Kane, Panik, Desjardins, Tootoo, Rasmussen, and Hossa were all above league average in terms of shooting closer to the net than the NHL average forward does.

Players that shoot from farther away are Hinostroza, Schmaltz, Hartman, Panarin, Kruger, and Motte.

I don’t disagree that Chicago needs to get more movement towards the net, in front of the net, and center line drive on offensive zone entries. They do need this. But what I’ve seen from twitter are those questioning the player personnel and not the coaching.

Nashville did a great job against Chicago. The Predators gameplay and execution was top notch. This should have been a 50/50 series but Nashville had their way with Chicago.

The thing is, I find it hard to draw wild assumptions from that series. Like it’s four games. If any one general manager made brash decisions by analyzing only four games, that is going to result in a failing outcome.

Don’t get me wrong, I agreed that the team needed a little more action in the slot. But whenever a team gets swept, wild assumption start to fly around. Those four games get over analyzed with all the weight in the world put into them and not the bigger picture. Random narratives are built with extremely weak foundations. I am the narrative slayer.

For example Panarin is getting some blame as not having a game that translates to the playoffs. A guy that can’t score when the game tightens up.

Well, thankfully Hockey Reference has their play index. Let’s just see who the highest scoring playoff skaters are for Chicago in their modern dynasty.

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There’s Panarin, the fourth highest scoring Blackhawk in the playoffs according to points per game since the 2009-10 season.

But, you know, he can’t score in the playoffs. Ah, narratives.

My point is, while yes Chicago didn’t get to the net often enough in those four games, it’s not like the team needs a total overall because they aren’t “tough enough”, “big enough”, or “physical enough”. A small tweak from the coaching staff focusing less on time of possession and more on center line drive when entering the zone, attacking the net, sneaking into the soft areas of the high slot. Combine this with a small roster tweak here or there. I don’t think it’s a huge problem. It’s something Q needs to address in his coaching style. It’s something Bowman might need to address when picking up a depth player or prospect. It’s not a huge hurdle to overcome.

I’d like to discuss Panarin and his shooting distance. Panarin is known for his shooting ability. If he has time and space to get a clean shot off, it’s going to be a good shot.

Panarin plays with Kane who is adept at passing the puck and setting up teammates. (Although, Panarin had a higher 5v5 assist rate than Kane this season!)

Does one really want Panarin playing in traffic where it would be harder for him to get a shot off? Is it optimal for Panarin to play in front of the net or crash the net?

Or is it better for Panarin to drift into the soft, open areas of the ice? Is it better for him to find an opening and try to make himself available to a pass from Kane? In this scenario, Panarin isn’t as close to the net, but he’s able to get cleaner shots off.

So i’m not concerned with where Panarin shoots from. Kane possesses the puck, Panarin finds the open areas of the ice to get shots from, Anisimov cleans up the rebounds. That’s the formula. That’s what works.

So my answer on who can fill the void. It’s not a huge void. It’s a small void that requires a tweak here or there. Jurco is adept at getting to the net for the Blackhawks. Maybe playing him more next season will result in some success.

Trading Duncan Keith. Bold move cotton. I don’t mind it though either. We do need to get younger on defense. Who could fill his shoes? I realize he is getting up in age but he still does perform well. I truly believe Keith could play till he is 38 at an effective level.

Yes, that’s the problem with trading Keith is he is more the type of defensemen that can perform at a high level in his mid 30’s. He isn’t like Seabrook. Seabrook always had suspect stats, proped up by playing with Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith for all those seasons. His numbers take a dive when playing without with Keith. Seabrook was also the type of big bodied, heavy defensemen that does not age well. The Blackhawks missed the golden opportunity to trade him for major assets. Now they have a player with negative trade value.

This is the question management must ask themselves. Keep the old core together and try to win? Or, should they make the tough decision to move some great players while their value is high?

In scenario one, keep the old core together, I assume the Blackhawks still make the playoffs but remain an average team like they are now. It’s unlikely this path leads to another Cup.

The 2019-20 season has these players still on contract and their ages in that season.

Kane 31, Toews 32, Anisimov 32, Seabrook 35, Crawford 35, Keith 38, Hossa 42.

The only expiring contract after that season is Crawford.

So a likely scenario of keeping the old core is mediocre play for the next couple seasons, resulting in more players on the team similar to Brent Seabrook. Players that Chicago could one time trade for valuable assets, that are now close to un-tradeable or not valuable enough to return anything more than depth players.

The Blackhawks would then have many old players that can’t play. They can’t trade them to restock the system. They can only tank. Tank for many seasons.

The other scenario is to make the hard choice now. Move some players that one doesn’t want to move, but knows they have to move. Do I want to trade Duncan Keith? No. Do I realize that trading Duncan Keith could be a scenario that benefits Chicago more than keeping him? Yes.

I see it as Chicago can be mediocre now, and then terrible for many years.

OR

Make some hard trades, be mediocre now, but better in a year or two. A retool on the fly if you will or a slow crashing burn followed by many years lost at sea.

It would have been much better had Chicago traded Seabrook. It would have been better for players like Saad and Leddy to still be on the team. Chicago probably wouldn’t be in this mess of having to ask themselves tough questions. That’s using hindsight. That’s not fair.

But the team is where it is. They must look in the mirror and decide what they want to do. Go for it with the old guys, or retool while they can still get some good value out of their players.

I’m not saying one way is right or wrong. All I’m saying is that it’s an extremely tough choice that needs to be made. It’s the type of decision that arrives after eight years of success. Teams make long-term sacrifices to keep that success going. Eventually the success ends and the tough choices have to be made.

1 Comment

  1. Retool. Trade older d-men for younger bulkier forwards to help Kane,Panarin,Toews. Light a fire under the asses of both Toews &Crawford for increased production,they get paid enough. Q needs to encourage rather than punish for errors.(old school disciplinary Formulas don’t work). Team needs to be aggressive.

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