At 9–5–4, the surprising, young (and not so young) Chicago Blackhawks are giving fans an enjoyable season and a glimpse of a brighter future ahead. Most fans seem to be assessing the state of the team as follows: “They probably are not making the playoffs and definitely not contending for a Stanley Cup this year, but it is fun to watch and exciting for the future.” And we generally do not disagree.
But, as usual, there are those ready to say “Da Hawks are back, baby,” “Anything can happen,” etc.
(Insert heavy sigh and eye roll here)
Let’s be clear: As a Hawks fan, and definitely as a member of the Blackhawks organization, your ultimate goal for the team should be regular contention for the Cup, i.e. being in the top 6–8 teams in the league every year.
One thing that probably needs to be agreed upon, at minimum, is that the current team is at least a couple of years away from that level, and could be more like 3–5 years away from it. So what needs to happen? What are the necessary next steps the team needs to take to reach that level?
There is a very simple, yet not widely understood issue that General Manager Stan Bowman and his staff desperately need to address going forward, and that is improving 5-on-5 play. More specifically, this means acquiring more of a certain type of prospects and players—that the organization currently does not have—who can make this happen.
Chicago is “succeeding” right now entirely due to goaltending, power play and 3-on-3 overtime
Again, it is fun to watch.
The problem is, aside from the improved power play, the Hawks have iced bad overall teams—with mostly very good goaltending and 3-on-3 overtime play—since 2018.
Since 2017–18, the Hawks are -29 at 5-on-5, and much of that was with very good 5-on-5 players like Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.
This year, so far, the Hawks are -9 at 5-on-5—by far the worst out of the eight teams comprising their current division. So, one might ask, why are they in “first place” then?
Well, first off, they are really not in “first.” At 18 games, the Hawks have played four more games than Florida (also with 22 points), Tampa Bay (21 points) and tonight’s opponent, Carolina (21), and six more than Dallas (14 points).
And it should be noted, all those teams, who are better at 5-on-5 play than the Hawks, were playoff teams last year, as was Columbus, who, also at 18 games played, is just two points behind Chicago.
Why does 5-on-5 matter so much? The Hawks are winning, right?
Most hockey is played at 5-on-5—which is especially true in the playoffs, where less penalties are called and overtime is played at 5-on-5 for as long as necessary to determine a winner. Hence, why a great 3-on-3, but bad 5-on-5 team can make the playoffs, like the Hawks did last year (sort of), and then get crushed (ditto).
And as pointed out above, good 5-on-5 play is a typical hallmark, if not a necessity, of a playoff team, let alone a successful one.
The best 5-on-5 teams are able to score and defend when there are 10 skaters on the ice—makes sense, right—as opposed to when there are nine (5-on-4), eight (4-on-4), seven (4-on-3) or six (3-on-3) skaters total.
The more players there are on the ice—at even strength—the harder it is to get the puck into scoring position and get shots off. There are more bodies, and thus more traffic and more contact. Also, more loose pucks, stacked blue lines and blocked shots. Alternately, there is less wide-open ice and pretty plays. There are also far more loose or “50-50” pucks. In this setting, more physical players tend to become more valuable.
And, I am not talking about “fighting.”
I am not talking really even talking about hitting (although that factors in some here).
I am talking about winning loose pucks, occupying your opponent’s crease and defending your own, winning battles around the nets and winning the blue lines at both ends of the ice.
And why are the Hawks not a good 5-on-5 team?
Before you say: “Here you go again, JJ. The game has changed, move on,” let me say this: The rules of the NHL, in fact, have not really changed. And facts are facts.
Four of the Hawks’ 22 points at present have come in 3-on-3 overtime (most in the league). They are third in the league in power play percentage at 32.7%. And yes, they are getting crazy good goaltending from rookie Kevin Lankinen. At present, Lankinen’s 2.29 goals against average and .931 save percentage rank fifth and third respectively among goalies with 10 games or more played.
These are the reasons why they are 9–5–4 (which is, by the way, essentially 9–9) at 18 games. That, and maybe more than a little luck. Let’s break that down.
And we will even assume that Chicago’s league lead in 3-on-3 goals will carry through the rest of the season. After all, they have been a good to very good 3-on-3 team for the last few seasons.
The Hawks’ power play improvement is legitimate, without question. There is more player movement, resulting in more and better opportunities versus years’ past. But, the question is how much difference it will make going forward this year, and, more importantly, in future seasons.
For example, even if Chicago ends up leading the league in power play percentage this year, they would still fall likely to around 25–27% (a typical league-leading power play percentage) by season’s end.
So, even in a best-case scenario going forward, the amount of power play goals per game they will be able to rely on is going to go down, and by somewhere between 20 and 25% from their current level—best case. So, they have had some meaningful improvement—and measurable luck so far on the power play.
Can Lankinen continue on his torrid pace for the rest of his season and throughout his career in Chicago? Eh, maybe?
But, that would also make him arguably one of the greatest rookie netminders of all time, and a surefire Hall of Famer (even with some rebound control issues, at minimum).
No, Lankinen may emerge from this season as a top 10–15 netminder for Chicago for the next decade—which would be great—but he is also very likely going to regress and settle in somewhere among mortal goalies at some point this year and going forward.
Point being, the Hawks have been lucky in net so far this year, too, probably very lucky. And like their 3-on-3 performance, good goaltending has been something the team has been able to rely on year after year, regardless.
The big point here is, these three factors are, for now, masking a big problem the Blackhawks have had for going on four seasons: Bad 5-on-5 play. And, if they are going to return to being a playoff team, much less a consistent Cup contender, that will have to change.
But what about Dach, Boqvist, Suter, Kurashev, Kubalik, Mitchell, Beaudin and The Cat?
Let me answer that this way: What about Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner, for example?
Right, the Hawks have a lot to be encouraged by as far as their future—but let me caveat that. They seem to have, with the exception of Dach, a raft of talented young players who weigh in well below 200 pounds, and are best described—and more importantly projected—as skilled, more perimeter-style players.
This is not an “either/or” issue. It is not whether smaller skilled players are better or worse than bigger players, so please do not go there.
But, here is another important statistic: Presently, the average weight of players on the Hawks’ roster is 6–10 pounds less than every team in their division.
Most or all of those young players—that everyone (myself included) is enjoying the bloody hell out of watching this year—may end up being “plus” players for the Blackhawks for years. But, that would probably still leave a problem when it comes to “big boy” hockey, or more specifically, 5-on-5 play.
Because, for all the reasons already discussed, there is a logical, demonstrable correlation between physicality, willingness to go into and win in the dirty areas and style of play—if not sheer size—and 5-on-5 play.
Here is some recent evidence: Late in the broadcast of a third period of a recent 3–2 overtime win against Columbus, Eddie Olczyk touched on something I was noticing as well (because I also watch Columbus play a lot).
Leading 2–1 with the clock ticking down in the third, Columbus—mostly Foligno and Jenner—were winning every 50-50 puck, and thereby keeping the biscuit away from the less-physical Hawks. The game was slipping away.
But, with under two minutes left, Carl Soderberg, not coincidentally one of the Hawks’ biggest and more physical players, found himself with the puck on his blade in the slot, and used a Columbus defenseman as a screen, putting a puck past Joonas Korpisalo (who had been excellent most of the night)—forcing the game to overtime, where Chicago promptly picked up one of their four overtime wins.
Five-on-five play matters, and this is just one case where the Hawks suffered and then later benefited—or maybe just got a bit lucky. By forcing the game to overtime, when it easily could have ended in a 2–1 loss, what might have been a weekend that gave Columbus four points and the Hawks none, ended up 3–2 for Columbus instead.
Hockey is still a contact sport. And the “unsexy” things that do not make the scoresheet but contribute hugely to winning hockey games, like 50-50 pucks, blocking shots, winning special teams face offs and just being a pain to play against, matter as much as ever, over the course of a season and especially in the playoffs.
The difference between 2009–15 and now—and maybe the future
A lot of fans mistakenly assume the Hawks won three Cups from 2010–15 due simply to an obscenely high talent, speed and skill level. But, those teams also delivered the lumber and excelled at 5-on-5 play, especially at the top 6–9 forward positions.
2010: Brouwer, Byfuglien, Hossa, Ladd, Toews
2013: Bickell, Frolik, Handzus, Hossa, Saad, Toews
2015: Bickell, Hossa, Saad, Toews
And, those 5-on-5 numbers were supported by smaller players who nonetheless over-indexed on willingness, like Dave Bolland and Marcus Kruger.
What about Dach and Toews?
Without giving any credence to rumors, the fact is, Toews’ lingering, mysterious health issue, at minimum, raises a question on when—or if—he will be back on the ice, in what condition and for how long.
And what about the “heir apparent?” Again, a lot of people seem to be getting way out over their skis with the “Dach is the next Toews” stuff.
We really do not know yet—even though some have made a massive leap to this conclusion—if Dach is going end up as a “power player” or even a full-time center in his NHL career.
Just because he was drafted by the same team Toews was—even though the Hawks will need a No. 1 center as well as more all-terrain forwards at minimum—does not mean that is the player Dach will be.
A couple of the knocks on Dach in his draft scouting (just 18 months ago) were that he was pretty unphysical for his size, and might be better at wing than center in the NHL.
The point is, he may end up being a different style of player than Toews was—more along the lines a “better” Jason Spezza (for example)—than “the next Toews.” But, maybe he will become another Toews. Hard to say right now.
But, either outcome is at least “good,” and Dach should become more a part of the 5-on-5 solution than the problem, regardless.
More broadly, the problem is this: The Hawks’ NHL roster, and even their pipeline, is overall fairly bereft of those all-terrain forwards who come up bigger (no pun intended) in 5-on-5 play. And again, let me be clear, the kinds of players we are talking about here can also score some goals and make plays, like Toews, Hossa, Saad, Mark Scheifele, Alex Tuch, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, Anze Kopitar, Jamie Benn, Nathan MacKinnon and there are many more.
Dach, if he continues to work and mature, is a start. But after him?
Yet, with the lone recent exception of Tampa Bay, typically, Stanley Cup winners and most contenders have at least 3–4 of these players in top-nine roles. And let’s not forget how, before winning the Cup—in a shortened season—last year, Tampa Bay failed spectacularly more than once in the playoffs, despite annual lofty expectations, including getting swept in round one two years ago by exceedingly unsexy, but nasty as you-know-what Columbus.
“So is this it? Are you just trying to poop everyone’s party again, JJ?”
The intent of this article is to place the Hawks’ “unlikely” success so far this year in a real-world context, and also help readers maintain the right perspective and expectations going forward.
The last couple of off-seasons, Bowman seemed to finally get the memo. He had drafted “small, yet skilled” for almost a decade, and needed an upgrade on size in the pipeline (hence the picks of Dach and Alex Vlasic in 2019). But, a couple of draft picks is not nearly enough when you have almost literally ignored the need for a certain profile or style of player for so long.
Big, physical and skilled players do not grow on trees. You can always get a Ryan Carpenter or Zack Smith in free agency, or trade for a banged-up retread in Andrew Shaw—but the need is not fourth-line, 12-minute-a-night bangers.
What’s going on with the Hawks over this season’s first 18 games is traceable to a certain extent to luck and 3-on-3 overtime points—hiding (for now) some bad tendencies that are continuing from the last few seasons: Poor team defense and, more broadly, really weak 5-on-5 play.
Bowman still has a lot of work cut out for him. Although this year has been fun so far, fans are going to need to be patient in waiting for the next parade or more long runs of playoff hockey in Chicago.