The problem with the Blackhawks? Inadequate depth at every position
Patrick Kane, the highest-paid player in the NHL at $10.5 million annually, whipped in the winning goal. Fellow moneybags Jonathan Toews assisted on Chicago’s first goal. Brent Seabrook added an insurance strike, his goal-scoring hands light and true even under the weight of three championship rings.
It was a roll of the Blackhawks’ greatest hits at United Center played to the perpetual soundtrack of “Chelsea Dagger.” Except the 3-1 Chicago result didn’t matter.
Before the season, NBC rightly claimed Bruins-Blackhawks on March 11. The network deployed its varsity team of Mike Emrick, Ed Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire to call the game because of its projected significance. The Blackhawks are rolling on a nine-year run of postseason appearances, with three of their dashes stretching into Stanley Cup-winning marathons. They are a ratings behemoth, the perpetual well the league and NBC seemingly tap as often for Winter Classics (Bruins-Blackhawks at Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 2019) as regular-season matinees.
The nine-year streak will end soon. Only the Oilers, Canucks, and Coyotes are worse than the Blackhawks in the West. It is unfortunate when Chicago fans scream the loudest for anthem singer Jim Cornelison. They are more used to cheering wins and Cups. Instead, they are left to wonder whether GM Stan Bowman can pull enough bunnies out of his bowler to complement stars who are aging.
Kane, Toews, Seabrook, and Duncan Keith would have been in better position to help extend Chicago’s playoff streak to 10 years had fellow figurehead Corey Crawford stayed healthy. Thirty-six goalies have started at least 27 games this season. None has a higher save percentage than Crawford (.929). According to Corsica Hockey, Crawford has an .859 high-danger save percentage during five-on-five play. This is Vezina-level robbery. The last time Crawford was healthy, the Blackhawks were just one point out of a playoff spot.
But Crawford has not played since Dec. 23 because of an upper-body injury. It would make no sense for Crawford, signed at $6 million annually through 2020, to play again this season. If anything, Crawford’s extended absence gives Bowman and his colleagues more data to identify their most significant deficiency: keeping pucks out of their net.
Coach Joel Quenneville has excelled at devising offensive schemes. The rest of the league may have pulled even, but the Blackhawks are still good at putting their most dangerous players in offensive situations.
Based on shot attempts, they are the league’s fourth-best possession team during five-on-five play. Even without Artemi Panarin, his skilled left wing for the two previous seasons, Kane has 25 goals and 42 assists in 71 games. Toews is grinding along to a 0.69 points-per-game pace — worse than previous seasons but not a dramatic decline. Brandon Saad’s 7.5 percent shooting percentage, the worst of his career, makes his 16-goal output something of an illusion.
The problem with the Blackhawks is how inadequate depth at every position, especially in goal, has compromised their results. Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, and Jeff Glass provide nowhere near the airtight puck stopping that Crawford delivers. Such a dropoff is somewhat expected when an elite goalie goes down.
The rest of Chicago’s lineup, however, had always been stuffed so full of good players that injuries almost didn’t matter. Consider the robustness of the Blackhawks’ 2009-10 roster: Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg as bottom-six forwards. Three years later, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, and Dave Bolland had taken over as up-front depth. In 2014-15, leading up to their third and final championship parade, Antoine Vermette and Trevor van Riemsdyk were skating productive shifts when the big boys needed breathers.
Chicago’s success, its payment for such results, and the subsequent selling of pieces has caught up to the franchise. Nick Schmaltz, their 2014 first-round pick, is 22 years old and well on his way being a good NHL player. The Blackhawks uncovered value in Alex DeBrincat, their 2016 second-rounder. They turned Ryan Hartman, the No. 30 pick in 2013, into a 2018 first-round pick as part of a package with Nashville. John Hayden, No. 74 in 2013, looks like another version of Miles Wood: a powerful and fast forward who plays with little regard for the health of others or himself. If Northeastern senior Dylan Sikura signs with the Blackhawks, the development of the talented forward will speak well to how the organization identified future pro talent in the sixth round of 2014.
But the Blackhawks have also traded first-rounders or picked low in the opening round because of prior success. Few teams have enough stores to backfill and replenish following trades (Panarin, van Riemsdyk, Shaw, Hartman, Teuvo Teravainen, Scott Darling, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Richard Panik), retirements (Brian Campbell), leaves of absence (Marian Hossa), expansion (Kruger), and free agent departures (Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards). Their imports have not caught up.
The Hartman trade leaves Bowman and his staff with two first-rounders in June. They will go a long way in greening Chicago’s roster. The Blackhawks need both youth and talent on the blue line to succeed Keith and Seabrook. Superstars on defense are not required because of the way Chicago plays. As long as the defensemen retrieve pucks quickly and get them up to their forwards in transition, the Blackhawks will be in good shape.
Things are so underwhelming in Chicago that there’s chatter around the league about Quenneville’s job security. Perhaps a coaching change would benefit Quenneville and the organization. It worked with the Bruins, who have proven that on-the-fly reboots are possible. The next one may be coming in Chicago.
Holden in a zone after man-to-man
For 55 games, Nick Holden played man-to-man defense for Alain Vigneault. The Rangers coach instructed Holden and his teammates that once an opponent gained entry to their zone, they should identify a man and stay with him for the cycle’s duration.
That Holden has adjusted well to zone defense since being traded to the Bruins expresses two things: the degree to which the defenseman processes the game, and the straightforward concepts of what his new employer is asking him to do.
Playing zone defense after going man-to-man for most of the season is like eating meals with the other hand. Just about everything is different: positioning, pivots, communication, reading the play, even exertion.
It’s been even more challenging for Holden to adapt because of the variables at play. The Bruins have asked him to play both the left and right sides. They have had limited practice windows because of their every-other-day game schedule.
But part of the ease of the Bruins’ system is how defensemen can reset when things get dicey. Under coach Bruce Cassidy and assistant Kevin Dean, who is in charge of the defense, the net-front area is the priority. Defensemen are instructed to fall back to the slot when coverage overlaps with that of their forwards. In other words, they always have a way back home.
“It’s almost as if the D’s stay a little tighter to the net in our system here. That would be the biggest thing,” Holden said. “You’re not chasing forwards all over the ice. Any forward that goes up high becomes your low forward’s man instead of yours.”
The tricky territory to negotiate is when a puck-carrying forward retreats high up the wall. In man-to-man coverage, the defenseman would stay with the puck carrier. If Holden can’t close on his opponent, the Bruins ask him to execute a handoff to one of his forwards to continue shadowing the puck carrier. This allows Holden to scurry to the net-front space.
The handoff is not as easy as it sounds. Visual and verbal communication are critical to prevent assignment duplication.
“Everybody knows what they’re doing,” Holden said. “But obviously there’s talk too as I’m coming up the wall. The winger’s yelling at me that he’s going to take it: ‘I got it! I got it!’ Or the centerman lets you know up high in the slot, the high forward, you and the centerman are talking: ‘You got him. I’m going back.’ Stuff like that.”
Some coaches prefer man-to-man because of its simplicity. Every player can grasp its concept.
One of its drawbacks is how it can leave dangerous areas unoccupied if attacking teams initiate spread formations. If two of the offensive forwards drive low, the third stays high, and the defensemen remain on the flanks, they can suck all of the defenders out of the middle of the zone. This leaves the net-front area wide open.
In the Bruins’ collapsing zone defense, bodies always protect the front of the net. It’s a sensible approach. The best scoring chances take place in the slot. The Bruins emphasize layers of security — moat, drawbridge, and flaming oil, if you will — to keep the net fortified.
“Obviously benefits to both,” Holden said. “For us here, you’re always supported everywhere you’re going on the ice.”
“Sometimes in man-to-man, a team spreads you out a little bit. Then if they have some high-end forwards that can move and break the one-on-one, they can kind of get a free pass to the net. Everybody’s out a little farther, whereas here, everyone’s collapsing a little bit more in front of the net.”
In Vegas, no signs of slowing down
Ryan Spooner has made the most of being told he was not wanted. In the nine games since he became an ex-Bruin, Spooner has two goals and 11 assists. His 1.44 points-per-game average, highest on his new team, the Rangers, is double that of second-place man Mats Zuccarello (0.69). Spooner is proof that being set adrift can be powerful motivation for an individual.
Now consider a roster full of castaways.
The magic shows no signs of ending in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights have enjoyed terrific contributions from Jonathan Marchessault, Nate Schmidt, and Marc-Andre Fleury, all informed they were no longer needed by Florida, Washington, and Pittsburgh.
The same streak runs through the corner office and behind the bench, where GM George McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant were given the boot by the Capitals and Panthers. One of the few employees not handed prior walking papers is Dave Goucher, recruited from behind the Bruins’ radio microphone to be the team’s TV play-by-play man.
Just about every player on the roster has something to prove. Collectively, such emotion is as critical as talent. The Golden Knights want to show that if they lift the Cup, they could have done so for their previous employers.
Ference back in
Andrew Ference knows little about compromise. The left-shot defenseman squeezed 1,027 regular-season and playoff games out of his 5-foot-11-inch, 182-pound body by willing himself to do things that other players could not. Ference’s résumé includes one Cup and one captaincy, the latter for his hometown Oilers. The same dynamism powered Ference off the ice, where he became best known for his environmental advocacy. In that way, it was a no-brainer for the NHL to welcome Ference back to its ranks, this time as the league’s director of social impact, growth, and fan development. Ference’s task will be to grow the game at the grassroots level. He has always excelled at engaging with people on the ground floor, whether it was through the November Project, the global fitness program, or even with followers of Ceske Budejovice, the Czech team he played for during the 2012-13 lockout. Hiring Ference was a slam dunk. It would have been a waste for Ference’s former employer not to put his talent to good use.
Shooting is a talent
The ageless Alex Ovechkin scored his 600th career goal last Monday. That night, the 32-year-old shared the same ice as Patrik Laine, Winnipeg’s 19-year-old goal-scoring prodigy. For the rest of the season, the two will continue to cross swords on their respective rinks in their pursuit of the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s most talented finisher. The argument could be made that Laine has more natural ability to put pucks in nets. Through 71 games, Laine buried 41 of his 212 shots (19.3 percent). In comparison, Ovechkin was shooting at 14 percent through 70 games. But what makes Ovechkin one of the best scorers in league history is his unwavering ability of giving himself prime scoring opportunities. He has taken advantage of a partnership with the sublimely talented Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s go-to feeder for all but two seasons. But Backstrom’s skill would be partly wasted without Ovechkin’s mastery of getting open. Opponents, especially on the penalty kill, know where Ovechkin likes to set up. But No. 8 still manages to separate himself from defenders to initiate his high-volume approach. Ovechkin has attempted 583 shots. Laine has 408 attempts.
Weber out six months
Last Tuesday, Shea Weber’s season officially ended. The Montreal strongman, limited to 26 games, underwent surgery to repair tendons in his left foot. The Canadiens project Weber’s recovery to last six months. There was no reason for Weber to resume playing this season because of Montreal’s down-and-out status. While the procedure should correct Weber’s condition to the degree where his skating is no longer limited, it will be a big ask for the 32-year-old to get back up to NHL speed by the start of 2018-19. Weber is a stay-at-home defenseman. He does not need to rush up and down the ice like Erik Karlsson to play his game. But the veteran is not at a point of his career where he can lose any degree of mobility or foot speed. The Canadiens assumed most of the risk by acquiring Weber for P.K. Subban, who is four years younger and plays a less-punishing style. The trade could get even worse.
Walsh endorses O’Ree nomination
Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, submitted a letter as part of a public submission nominating trailblazer Willie O’Ree for the Hockey Hall of Fame. “It is with great honor that I offer my support to the appointment of Willie O’Ree to the National Hockey League Hall of Fame,” Walsh wrote in a March 8 letter. “The City of Boston is home to our nation’s most historic accomplishments; it is surely fitting that Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in the NHL wearing a Boston Bruins uniform. Boston is honored to be a part of Willie O’Ree’s historic legacy. Through his career in the NHL, Willie O’Ree represented Boston as a great athlete and, more importantly, as a model citizen for our children to follow.” A group from O’Ree’s hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick, was behind the public initiative. Group member David Sansom helped to solicit the letter from Walsh.
Minnesota is somewhat comfortable as the No. 3 team in the Central Division. Locking up a playoff position will become harder without Jared Spurgeon, their best all-around right-side defenseman. The Wild fear that Spurgeon will miss at least four weeks because of a partial hamstring tear . . . By crossing the 30-goal threshold, former University of New Hampshire forward James van Riemsdyk is setting himself up for a generous payday come July 1. The conversation will start at $6.5 million annually . . . Mikko Rantanen has one year remaining on his entry-level deal. But after two seasons of NHL data, it’s already clear what Rantanen will be — a skilled, powerful, and dangerous first-line forward. The Avalanche should have no issues extending Rantanen a year early at $6 million-plus annually . . . If any team is deserving of an extended postseason run, it is Northeastern and coach Jim Madigan. It is impossible not to be pleased for the hard-working Huskies.