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 difference and both score and allow 3.09 goals per game.
It’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.
No one thought the Blackhawks would be mediocre, much less league average. And right now the league average is winning games.
Defensively, I think it’s safe to say the Blackhawks have been a massive surprise. They have allowed just 22 5-on-5 goals in 11 games, which is amazing. Offensively, they have still been challenged, but there is a lot we can take from watching where they shoot the puck from.
Chicago is averaging just 25.1 shots on goal per game, which is 31st in the NHL – ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes. They have only scored 17 goals at 5-on-5 in 11 games, which is not good. But somehow the Blackhawks win despite these limitations.
Last year Blackhawks – with Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Roof 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 means something. And they make their shots count by doing the little things necessary to get the puck in the net.
I wanted to dig a little into where the Blackhawks have made shots from this season. So let’s go back and start with the Blackhawks’ first win of the season against San Jose. I’m specifically going to 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 so far.
In San Jose (5-2 win):
Against Detroit (4-3 OT win):
Against Seattle (5-4 win):
Against Florida (4-2 win):
Against Edmonton (6-5 loss):
At Buffalo (4-3 OT loss):
Against Minnesota (4-3 SO loss):
Against the 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?
This is the game heatmap 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 begin to identify some trends.
I wanted to use these visual representations of the plays in 5v5 play because it makes the conversation a little easier. It should also be predictable to a degree, 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 Sørensen echoed these statements. And if you’ve noticed, the players the front office has identified to add to the rosters in Chicago and Rockford are doing many of the same things.
“[He] plays with tempo. Playing in the middle of the ice, inside the dotsso far so good.”
That’s what Sorensen said about Cole Guttman 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 try 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 more difficult.
When the Blackhawks rolled through the Western Conference it was because they created traffic in front of the net. They made life hell for opposing goalies.
That’s where the Chicago Blackhawks have been working early this season. A return to structured systems that were lost with Jeremy Colliton as coach has opened the door for surprising performances across the roster. Players are already playing at a career level, and that’s thanks in large part to going to the dirty areas and working hard.
Any realist will tell you, based on individual stories, that many of the Blackhawks should return to their career numbers at some point. But the optimist will also question whether the players’ pasts aren’t indicative of potential performance if their skills are better utilized in the Blackhawks’ current system. What if the Blackhawks just put their players in positions to succeed?
If Richardson can continue to get the work ethic we’ve seen early this season and players continue to go to the areas where they’ve produced, there should be a balance of optimism and realism around this Blackhawks roster.
And, most importantly for fans, they should continue to be an easy team to root for because of that work ethic.