Since Jeremy Colliton took over the Chicago Blackhawks, the team has not been able to break out of one fundamental problem: poor 5v5 play.
It’s no secret that good NHL teams with consistent playoff success have a base layer of good (or at least league-average) 5v5 play. The 2021 Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention for a while, before falling out in the last two months. You can do some extrapolating there.
Mostly, the reasons they were even contending in the first place was (1) goalie Kevin Lankinen, who played at a high-caliber level (arguably outside of what we can expect on average moving forward), and (2) a powerplay that was at the top of the league. Both of those factors fell-off at the beginning of March and their even-strength play at 5v5 couldn’t carry them further than sixth in the Central Division.
Blackhawks NHL 5v5 Ranks 2021 –
• Chances-For%: 45.85 (30th)
• Shots-For%: 45.60 (31st)
• Goals-For%: 44.44 (27th)
• Expected Goals-For%: 43.96 (31st)
• Scoring Chances-For%: 44.47 (30th)
• High-Danger Chances-For%:42.60 (31st)
• High-Danger Save%: .816 (18th)
• Save%: .9167 (15th)
• Shooting%: 7.95 (18th)
• PDO: 0.996 (15th)
A quick synopsis of what you’re looking at above here: they were the most out-shot and out-chanced team in the league consistently, kept afloat by their goaltending and their finishing ability.
For the second season in-a-row, Chicago led the league in shots allowed per game, having also finished second in the league in 2018-19. You have to go back to the 2013-14 season to find a season in recent years where the Blackhawks did not finish in the top-ten of the NHL in shots allowed per game. That’s not to say the Blackhawks have been defensive stalwarts up until Jeremy Colliton’s defensive system came into practice, but the personnel on the team that could go the other way and out-score teams has been long gone prior to him taking over the team from Joel Quenneville.
A lot of Blackhawks Twitter seems to really hate Jeremy Colliton's defensive system.
So I asked him today if he's considered changing it, and why he thinks it works. Here's his answer: pic.twitter.com/edQBf7Qpct
— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) May 12, 2021
As for “The System,” it hasn’t taken to the team in the way one would hope. The man-to-man or hybrid man-plus system isn’t uncommon in the NHL, but was a drastic change-over from Qunneveille’s zone defensive strategy, one that many of the team veterans had been playing for years when Colliton took over.
There needed to be an adjustment period, but in Colliton’s tenure, the Blackhawks have been the same team that we saw defensively this season, last season, and the season before that.
Blackhawks NHL 5v5 Ranks 2018-2021 –
• Chances-For%: 48.15 (25th)
• Shots-For%: 47.26 (29th)
• Goals-For%: 48.53 (20th)
• Expected Goals-For%: 45.72 (30th)
• Scoring Chances-For%: 46.64 (29th)
• High-Danger Chances-For%: 43.75 (31st)
• High-Danger Save%: .841 (5th)
• Save%: .9204 (12th)
• Shooting%: 8.37 (9th)
• PDO: 1.004 (11th)
Again, Chicago has been one of the worst team’s in the NHL being out-shot and out-chanced almost every night. Their saving graces have been top-rate goaltending and finishing their chances. But that is not a sustainable or successful way to play in the NHL. As you can tell, the Blackhawks would have missed the postseason in the last four years in-a-row, were it not for the play-in tournament last summer due to COVID.
From what Colliton said in his recent interview with The Athelitc’s Mark Lazerus, there needs to be patience with the Blackhawks’ “rebuild” and finding success with those young players. Which is fine and yes, he has yet to have a normal NHL season as a head coach, but at some point you have to look at the fact that he’s coached the Blackhawks for 193 regular season games and nine postseason games and yet, there are still players out of position and leading to too many chances (sometimes easy chances) when even Corey Crawford at his best couldn’t help the team.
If the Blackhawks are going to get back to the top of the NHL and be an elite team again, like Colliton assures in his interview with Lazerus, they are going to have to figure out a way to spot relying on super-human goaltending from non-super-human goalies and powerplay numbers that you only find in NHL21. At some point, they will have to be able to create offense while at 5v5 and be defensively competent, not even great, just competent, to get back to that level of success in the league.