The start to this pandemic-shortened 2021 season has been unexpected(ly pleasant) for the Chicago Blackhawks. Through 17 games, the team has gone 8-5-4, gaining at least a point in 12 of their last 14 contests. Perhaps they’re not (seriously) contending for a Stanley Cup just yet, but they absolutely are contending for a playoff spot in the new, one-time only Central Division. And that’s been an absolute blast to follow.
Indeed, based both on points (20) and points percentage (.588), the Blackhawks sit fourth in the division, which would put them into the postseason picture if the season ended today — specifically, that would mean a first-round matchup against the Florida Panthers.
And even if the “right” move for the future of this franchise was/is to finish outside of the postseason and with high odds in the NHL Draft Lottery, you have to be impressed with this performance. The Blackhawks are young and they’ve bought-in to all the little things it takes to win. And until they give you a reason not to enjoy the ride, you should. This is some seriously fun, rookie-led hockey. That’s why we’re here.
But how good are these Blackhawks really? And how do they stack up against the teams that have been to the top of the mountain over the past five seasons? We’re through roughly 30% of the schedule, so it feels more than fair to assess.
Below, I took a look at powerplay and penalty kill ranks, faceoff percentage, as well as scoring-chances for, high-danger chances for, high-danger save percentage, and PDO all at even 5-on-5 strength (i.e. the stats that make a big difference for team-based success).
So let’s see how the last ten Stanley Cup finalists fared in those categories, and how the 2021 Blackhawks stack up.
’15-16 Sharks: 22.6 | 80.5 | 50.7 | 54.59 | 57.88 | .843 | 1.000
’15-16 Penguins: 18.4 | 84.4 | 50.2 | 54.87 | 55.13 | .838 | 1.006
’16-17 Predators: 18.9 | 80.9 | 51.4 | 51.01 | 51.34 | .802 | 1.005
’16-17 Penguins: 23.1 | 79.8 | 47.6 | 52.55 | 53.61 | .854 | 1.012
’17-18 Golden Knights: 21.0 | 81.4 | 48.9 | 51.73 | 48.83 | .820 | 1.005
’17-18 Capitals: 22.5 | 80.3 | 50.4 | 48.40 | 45.08 | .825 | 1.017
’18-19 Bruins: 25.9 | 79.9 | 50.7 | 52.23 | 51.73 | .860 | 1.005
’18-19 Blues: 21.1 | 81.5 | 51.4 | 52.18 | 55.09 | .818 | 1.002
’19-20 Stars: 21.1 | 79.7 | 51.8 | 51.88 | 53.56 | .849 | 0.999
’19-20 Lightning: 23.1 | 81.4 | 50.5 | 54.14 | 54.29 | .845 | 1.022
2021 Blackhawks: 32.7 | 81.1 | 48.0 | 45.62 | 43.70 | .844 | 0.989
Lot of numbers, eh?
So what do they mean and where do the Blackhawks currently stand next to these past ten teams?
• First, of all the categories in the last five years, only two teams ranked either the league-best or league-worst in one of them. The 2015-16 Sharks had the league’s best high-danger chances for (57.88), and the 2017-18 Capitals had the league’s worst high-danger chances for (45.08). The Blackhawks currently do not lead the NHL in any of these categories, nor are they dead last in any.
• Only one team has reached the Stanley Cup Final with a 5-on-5 PDO less than 1.000, the 2019-20 Stars were 18th in the NHL at 0.999. The Blackhawks rank 22nd in the NHL this season at 0.989. Strike one.
• Only one team has reached the Stanley Cup Final without having a top-16 powerplay, the 2015-16 Penguins had the 18th ranked powerplay at 18.4%. The Blackhawks currently have the fourth-best powerplay unit in the league at 32.7%. While that number will come down as the season progresses, it’s a good sign they’ll land in the top-half of the league.
• Only two teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final with a faceoff percentage below 50%. The 2016-17 Penguins ranked 27th in the NHL at 47.6% and the 2017-18 Golden Knights ranked 22nd in the league at 48.9%. The Blackhawks sit in 25th in the league this season with a 48.0% mark at the faceoff dot. This is without Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews, so for now I can’t call it a full strike against. But it’s not good. Strike one and a half.
• Three teams have made the Stanley Cup Final with a penalty-kill below 80.0%, but only the 2016-17 Penguins have won the Cup with a penalty-kill under 80.0% (79.8%). The Blackhawks penalty-kill ranks 11th in the league this season with an 81.1% kill-rate. That’s good.
• No team has won the Stanley Cup in the last five seasons without either a top-ten powerplay or top-ten penalty-kill unit.
• Only one team has reached the Stanley Cup Final with a 5-on-5 Scoring Chances For percentage below 50.00%. The 2017-18 Capitals ranked 23rd in the NHL that season with a 48.40%. Chicago currently ranks 29th in the NHL this season with a 45.62%. That’s not going to get it done without super-human goaltending. Strike two and a half.
• Super-human goaltending will take you far in the NHL and especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Only three teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final with a 5-on-5 High-Danger Save Percentage in the bottom-third of the NHL and only the 2018-19 Blues have won the Cup out of those three teams with an .818 save percentage, which ranked 21st that season. The Blackhawks are in great shape, ranking seventh in the NHL this season with a .844 save percentage in this category.
• Only two teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final with 5-on-5 High-Danger Chances For that ranked outside of the top-third of the NHL. Both came in the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Final with the Golden Knights ranking 20th (48.83%) and the Capitals ranking 31st (45.08%) that season, so one of them had to win. But unlike the Capitals that season, the Blackhawks don’t have the proven elite goaltending and plethora of scoring weapons to overcome that kind of number. This season, the Blackhawks rank 29th in the NHL with a 43.70% for 5-on-5 High Danger Scoring Chances For, which is worse than the 2017-18 league-worst Capitals. Strike Three…and a half.
Another factor to consider for this Blackhawks team is that they are one of the smallest, lightest, and least experienced teams in the NHL this season, which all never bode well when the Stanley Cup Playoffs come around.
Chicago is a fun team, a young team, a resilient team. But they are not Stanley Cup contenders. Not yet. In fact, they are barely Stanley Cup Playoff contenders, and this is from running numbers on a 30% sample size.
But that should HARDLY be your takeaway here.
The rebuilding plan already looks like it is going to take less time than originally thought, given the progress and development we’ve already seen from the Chicago rookies and young players this year. It won’t be fixed by this season’s end. Not by a long-shot. But it’s not far off. And that’s very good news.