So, before you skewer me for the title of this article, let me be clear: there is very little chance that the Blackhawks actually make the postseason in 2022. But, even with a 1-9-2 start to the year and being eight-points out of a wildcard spot at the 1/3 mark of the season, it’s not an impossible circumstance.
There are a number of major hurdles for Chicago to get over to be in the discussion of the playoff hunt. First, that 1-9-2 start sunk them pretty, pretty, pretty deep in the league standings. Also working against them is the top-heavy competitiveness of their own Central Division. Minnesota, St. Louis, Colorado, and Nashville are in the top four spots and are separated by just four points in the standings. There’s also Winnipeg in fifth and they are also just one point out of the second Western Conference Wildcard spot.
Considering where the team came from and where they are right now, it’s improbable but not impossible that if things continue in this direction, 10-6-0 in 16 games since November 7, they could find themselves battling for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Under Jeremy Colliton, the Blackhawks were one of the worst teams in the league defensively, had some of the worst goaltending in the league, and their offense was devoid of goal-scoring outside of two players. Thus, the 1-9-2 start and eventual firing of Colliton. Under Derek King, they have become one of the top teams in the league defensively, have had some of the best goaltending in the league because of Marc-André Fleury, and their goal-scoring is starting to awaken across the lineup. It may not exactly be too little, too late at this point in the season.
Since the coaching change, the Blackhawks have earned 20 points over 16 games, or 1.25 points per game. That is a 102.5-point per game pace for an 82-game schedule which would very much put them into a postseason position. But they’re not starting fresh, their starting 12 games into the season. If they keep the current pace of 1.25 points in the standings per game, they would earn 87.5 points in the standings during the Derek King era of the season. Added to the four points they had in the standings when he took over and it’s a grand total of 91.5, so let’s call it 92.
92 points this season will not get you into the postseason.
According to Dom Luszczyszyn’s latest projection, the Blackhawks finish this season with 77 points in the standings. They finish where they currently are in the Central Division, seventh. The projected cutoff to make the postseason in the Western Conference, according to Dom, is 95 points with the Anaheim Ducks getting the second wildcard spot.
All things being equal, if the marker to get into the postseason in the Western Conference this season follows The Athletic’s current model projection of 95 points, that’s only a difference of three-to-four points in the standings from the current pace the Blackhawks are on.
There’s reason to believe this new version of the Blackhawks under Derek King is the real version of the Blackhawks as they were sold during the offseason. The defensive structure under King has greatly improved, as was evidenced by The Athletic this week.
Chicago is allowing just 1.74 goals against per 60 minutes at 5v5 since King took over. Only the Tampa Bay Lighting (1.60) are allowing fewer since November 7. They are also cutting down the high-danger chances against them since King took over, allowing just 9.13 at 5v5 per 60 minutes since November 7. Only the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators (both 8.34) are allowing fewer over that span. After being one of the worst teams at 5v5 to begin the season, the Blackhawks are also seeing a spike in their 5v5 PDO under Derek King, ranking seventh in the NHL since November 7 with a 1.014 marker at 5v5.
With the defense improving in front of Marc-André Fleury and Kevin Lankinen, their jobs have been made much easier over the past 16 games. Since November 7, Chicago ranks third in the NHL in high-danger save-percentage at .854 and 11th in the league overall with a combined .913 save-percentage, both at all strengths.
Most of the credit can be traced back to Fleury, who is 8-3-0 with two shutouts in his last 11 starts under Derek King. Among 41 goalies to play at least six games since November 7, Fleury ranks sixth in save-percentage (.935), fifth in goals saved above average (8.49), and second in high-danger save-percentage (.885), all while seeing the third-closest shots to him with an average distance of 32.18 feet.
Four of the next six games for the Blackhawks, should none of them be postponed due to COVID, are against Central Division opponents. Two games against the Stars, their next game against the Predators, and they close the 2021 calendar year in Winnipeg against the Jets. Getting eight points out of those four games would be ideal and would do wonders for the confidence of the team and their standing in the Western Conference. What would be even better than eight points out of eight would be eight points earned in regulation.
While the Blackhawks are 6-0 in overtime/shootouts under Derek King, there’s no 3v3 overtime in the postseason, nor are there shootouts. Getting all six of those extra points in the standings in those games that head to extra time is welcome and needed, but the Blackhawks need to start racking up regulation wins to not only help convince a lot of people that they are for real, but also to help keep pity points off the board for their opposition and help themselves in any kind of tiebreaker scenario.
Of their next 13 games scheduled to get to the half-way point of the season, which includes a January 2nd matchup against the Flames which will in all likelihood be postponed again, only two of their opponents (Arizona on January 6th, Montreal on January 13th) are not at least within two points of a playoff spot currently. This will be one of the toughest stretches of the season for Chicago since the change behind the bench. If, and that’s a big “if,” the current trends on defense, in net, and on the score sheet continue, we might just actually be talking about the playoff contending team we were promised.
(All stats provided by Natural StatTrick)