So, we’re still doing this, eh?
When Jacob Trouba KO’d Jujhar Khaira with a hit to the head, the Blackhawks lost a player in the their lineup that was providing a physical presence to the team. Outside of Reese Johnson, who likes to hit people, Khaira was the only other player that was there strictly to play big. Losing that kind of player makes a difference for a team like that Blackhawks, that is one of the smallest in stature in the NHL. So interim head coach Derek King took it upon himself to find a replacement.
Derek King on Kurtis Gabriel:
"He's a big presence. He's going to finish his checks… If guys are going to start taking liberties on his players, he's the type of guy I know is going to defend them."
Said he'd requested Hawks bring in an enforcer.
— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) December 11, 2021
Gabriel, a former third-round pick by the Minnesota Wild, comes into the Blackhawks roster as a 6’6″ 215-pound enforcer. While only having 49 NHL games in his eight-year professional career, Gabriel is credited with 15 fights in the NHL. He’s played most of his career in the AHL, with 332 career games and recording 54 fights, with 27 of those AHL fights coming in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 regular seasons.
He’ll drop the gloves and protect his teammates, which is never a bad thing for an NHL team. But, with just 68 AHL points (0.20 ppg) and five NHL points (0.10 ppg) in his career, that’s pretty much all he is going to do.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe on Kurtis Gabriel: "Good guy, works hard. Really commits himself to his craft. Thought he had a good camp and good preseason with us but the reality is … he’s not an established NHL player, so it was going to be a battle for him to get through."
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) December 11, 2021
There lies the problem.
The Blackhawks don’t need to fill another roster spot with someone who is going to be there just to hit and fight. This is a team that is ranking 30th in goals per game (2.12) this season, 31st in shots on goal per game (27.7), and is one of the worst offensive teams at 5v5 this season. According to Natural StatTrick, Chicago ranks 31st in Shots-For%, 31st in Goals-For%, 30th in Expected Goals-For%, and 26th in Scoring Chances-For% at 5v5 this season. They don’t need an enforcer, they need someone who can generate offense.
Even Jujhar Khaira was creating some offense this season with two goals (both at 5v5) and having a better 5v5 Chances-For% than players like Dominik Kubalík and Dylan Strome, better 5v5 Shots-For% than Kubalík and Jonathan Toews, and the fifth-best 5v5 Expected Goals-For% of Blackhawks forwards to play at least 100 minutes this season, ahead of Strome, Toews, Kubalík, Kirby Dach, and Patrick Kane, for what it’s worth.
I’m not saying a team made of 18 skill-only players is the way to go in the NHL. You need to have guys who can play tough and physical. But when you have Reese Johnson, Brandon Hagel, Ryan Carpenter, Mike Hardman, Riley Stillman, Jake McCabe, and Connor Murphy regularly in the lineup, at what point does that physical presence-to-skill ratio start to tip in the wrong direction?