After Thursday night’s overtime win against the San Jose Sharks, the Blackhawks find themselves in the middle of the pack, offensively and defensively. They have a break-even goal differential and are both scoring and allowing 3.09 goals per game.
That’s a surprise because (a) we were told this team would be historically bad offensively, and (b) there were significant questions about the two veteran goaltenders on the NHL roster and the collection of defensemen on the roster.
Nobody thought the Blackhawks would be even mediocre, much less league average. And, right now, league average is winning games.
Defensively, I think it’s safe to say the Blackhawks have been a massive surprise. They’ve allowed only 22 5-on-5 goals in 11 games, which is terrific. Offensively, they have still been challenged but there’s a lot we can take away from looking at where they’re shooting the puck from.
Chicago is averaging only 25.1 shots on goal per game, which ranks 31st in the NHL — ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes. They have scored only 17 goals at 5-on-5 in 11 games, which is not good. But, somehow, the Blackhawks are winning in spite of these limitations.
Last year the Blackhawks — with Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach and Dominik Kubalik — averaged three more shots per game (28.8) but scored fewer (2.60 per game). Does that make any sense at all?
The Blackhawks have been an opportunistic offense, which matters. And they’re making their shots matter by doing the little things necessary to get the puck in the net.
I wanted to dig in a little on where the Blackhawks have been generating shots from this season. So let’s go back starting with the Blackhawks first win of the season against San Jose. I’m going to specifically exclude the first game against Colorado (it was a gong show) and the 1-0 loss in Vegas because the Blackhawks were shut out for the only time this season thus far.
At San Jose (5-2 win):
Versus Detroit (4-3 OT win):
Versus Seattle (5-4 win):
Versus Florida (4-2 win):
Versus Edmonton (6-5 loss):
At Buffalo (4-3 OT loss):
Versus Minnesota (4-3 SO loss):
Versus New York Islanders (3-1 loss):
Versus LA Kings (2-1 OT win):
Okay, that’s a lot of color. So what are we looking at?
These are the game heatmaps from Natural Stat Trick, showing unblocked shots in each of the games. This is a large enough sample (nine games in which the Blackhawks are 5-2-2) that we can start to identify some trends.
I wanted to use these visual representations of the game performances at 5-on-5 play because it makes the conversation a bit easier. It should also be predictable to an extent, because if there’s one thing “the new Blackhawks” have consistently done it’s tell us what they’re going to try to do.
During the preseason, one of the things I noticed when head coach Luke Richardson was asked about a specific player’s performance — veteran or prospect — was how he talked about where the player plays. Rockford head coach Anders Sorensen echoed those statements. And, if you’ve paid attention, the players the front office has identified to add to the rosters in Chicago and Rockford do many of the same things.
“[He] plays with pace. Plays in the middle of the ice, inside the dots, so far so good.”
That’s what Sorensen said about Cole Guttman back in September. It’s an example of what everyone in a coaching or front office capacity from the top of the organization down has said about where they’re trying to drive the offensive attack to: between the circles; inside the dots. They want to get bodies in front of the net to create traffic and clean up the trash.
The Blackhawks are trying to work smarter and harder.
When the Blackhawks were rolling through the Western Conference it was because they created traffic in front of the net. They made life hell for opposing goaltenders.
That’s where the Chicago Blackhawks have been doing work early this season. A return to structured systems that were lost with Jeremy Colliton as the coach has opened the door for surprising performances all over the roster. Players are playing at career-year levels already, and that’s thanks in large part to going to the dirty areas and working hard.
Any realist will tell you, based on individual histories, that many of the Blackhawks should regress to their career numbers at some point. But the optimist will also ask if players’ pasts aren’t indicative of potential performance if their skillsets are being utilized better in the Blackhawks’ current system. What if the Blackhawks are simply putting their players in positions to succeed?
If Richardson can continue getting the work ethic we’ve seen early this season and players continue doing going to the areas where they’ve been producing, there should be a balance of optimism as realism about this Blackhawks roster.
And, most importantly for fans, they should continue to be a team that’s easy to root for because of that work ethic.