Was Wednesday's Loss a Turning Point for the Blackhawks' Bottom Six?

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Was Wednesday’s Loss a Turning Point for the Blackhawks’ Bottom Six?

Chicago Blackhawks

It’s been a rough couple of months for the Blackhawks, but Wednesday night’s final game in November — a hard-fought 5-4 loss to the Oilers — may provide a silver lining.

We’re 22 games into the 2022-23 season, a little more than one-quarter of the way done. And the two months of the season couldn’t have been more different for the Blackhawks. October saw them surprising some teams and making things interesting; November saw them drop down the standings like a bowling ball in a swimming pool.

The most significant catalyst in the shift has been the lack of anything substantive coming from their bottom six forwards.

In October, the Blackhawks’ most unexpectedly interesting line was their third. The combination of Philipp Kurashev, Jason Dickinson, and Sam Lafferty played fast and hard. With the top six pretty well set, this trio skated well together and made life hell on opponents.

Those three being together also allowed the coaching staff to have Jujhar Khaira on the fourth line with a combination of MacKenzie Entwistle, Reese Johnson, and one of Colin Blackwell and Boris Katchouk (when he returned from his ankle sprain). Last year, with Khaira on the shelf late in the season after Katchouk, was acquired from Tampa, the line of Entwistle-R. Johnson-Katchouk was able to develop some chemistry together.

With Khaira back healthy and the additions of Dickinson and Blackwell in the offseason, the Blackhawks had a decent collection of bottom-six options. What they had in depth (at least on paper) certainly wasn’t going to make up for what they lacked in high-end skill, but the new-look Blackhawks were at least hard to play against.

That all changed when Tyler Johnson left the lineup with his ankle injury.

It forced Kurashev into a top-six role and made the bottom two lines a collection of pieces. When Lafferty left the lineup recently, it became worse. Now, the Blackhawks are skating two guys who were slated on their fourth line — Khaira and Blackwell — with Dickinson on the third line.

While the injuries have piled up and taken their toll, and the bottom six were effectively hard to play against, there was almost no offense to speak of coming from the group beyond the initial third line.

Entering December, Kurashev, Dickinson, and Lafferty have scored ten combined goals. The collection of Kharia, Blackwell, Entwistle, Katchouk and Reese Johnson has scored six combined goals — half of which (three) are from Khaira. Before the final game of November, that number was just four; Entwistle and Katchouk both scored their first goals of the season in the loss to Edmonton.

That isn’t good.

But Wednesday’s game — not only the goals but the entire performance from the fourth line — could be a turning point. And head coach Luke Richardson knows it’s essential for hard work to get paid off with a finished scoring opportunity eventually.

“I think [the Katchouk-Entwistle-R. Johnson line has] had a couple games that were struggles for them,” Richardson said after the loss to Edmonton. “It’s hard when you don’t play a lot of minutes and stay involved in the game. But they really battled tonight and played physical and did a great job in the offensive zone especially.

I thought even on the first goal [Katchouk’s “tip” goal] [Reese] Johnson made a great forecheck in behind the net. He was playing hard. If you go back and look, he gets right above McDavid and gives him a little bump. If he doesn’t do that, I don’t think Jack Johnson stays in on the blue line knowing that McDavid is coming out and we wouldn’t have that opportunity. There’s a lot of credit to everybody on that line doing a good job there. Reese Johnson – I don’t think he got a point on it – but on the video he gets big points.”

I know, I know… big points in the video room don’t mean squat in the standings, and another loss is nothing more than another loss. But in the bigger picture — the one in which the Blackhawks are working as much to create the right culture in the room and develop the right approach to playing the game — games like Wednesday are important. And Richardson going into that much detail about how Reese Johnson influenced the scoring play shows how much the coaches and players are looking for the right plays turning into positives.

Entwistle scored his first goal of the year in the game; he isn’t on this roster to score 25 goals, but his lack of a goal yet clearly hasn’t been sitting well with him. The exhale after getting on the board wasn’t a resolution that he finally checked that box, but rather a stepping stone to hopefully continued influence on the offensive side of the ice.

“It’s about building blocks and tonight was a big building block for us,” Entwistle said after Wednesday’s game. “I think the first 20 games, Boris was hurt for a little bit and Reese was in and out of the lineup, so us getting a couple points tonight … was a big confidence booster for us. Now it’s about putting a couple games together and doing that night in and night out. I thought as a line near the end of the year, me Reeser and Bo did that. Now it’s time to keep doing that and push forward into the next few games on the road trip.”

Selfishly, fans would love to see the Blackhawks winning more frequently and players helping their trade value. But more than that, the Blackhawks are evaluating which players can be impact players with a role beyond this season, much less the trade deadline. And they, too, want to win games.

Chicago is going to need their role players to step up in a big way if they’re going to end their losing streak during the coming three-game road trip. The Rangers, Islanders, and Devils are all exceptional teams who play a tough game. While their responsibilities will still be to play against and slow down their opponents’ top lines, any contributions they can add will be important to the outcomes of the games — and the rest of this season.

The dividends of bottom six contributions trickle up in so many ways.

If the bottom six can continue getting offense from the bottom two lines, that will also begin to take pressure off the higher profile players (trade pieces) on the roster to carry the team every night. And that opens opportunities for them to see more open ice.

And, frankly, if the Blackhawks can get good value between now and the trade deadline for any players they don’t see as part of the plan beyond this season, that only helps the accelerate the rebuild further.

Author: Tab Bamford

Tab is the Lead Blackhawks voice for BN. He is the author of two books about the Blackhawks, most recently "Chicago Blackhawks: An Illustrated Timeline" (Reedy Press, 2021). Find him on Twitter at @The1Tab