Analysis

Blackhawks Have Options to Explore as they Search for a Pulse

The Chicago Blackhawks’ 2017-2018 campaign continues to be one of unparalleled inconsistency and frustration compared to seasons prior over much of the last decade. Just when we thought that Joel Quenneville and the Blackhawks had figured it out a couple of weeks ago after the won five of seven contests, they have strung together four consecutive losses, and five losses in their last seven contests. 

Entering play today, the Blackhawks currently sit at 12-10-5 with 29 points, good for 5th in the Central Division. The offense, is ranked in the middle of the pack to this point with 82 goals scored, checking in at 14th in the league. If we took away the two games that the offense erupted for crooked numbers on October 5 against the Penguins and November 27 against Anaheim in which they totaled 17 goals, the Blackhawks would have 65 goals through 27 games. That would give the Blackhawks an average of 2.40 goals per game, and have them sitting in the bottom third in scoring in the NHL.

Those numbers are just not good enough for a team with a defense that is struggling to perform well on a consistent basis, and that’s being generous in description. The Blackhawks rank 5th in goals allowed this season with 73, but we all know that Corey Crawford‘s Vezina Trophy caliber campaign is playing a major role in that department.

Crawford has stopped 614 of 640 shots on goal, good for a pristine .930 save percentage and a 2.29 goals allowed per contest average. Through 21 games, Crawford has 12 quality starts (Games in which he averaged a save percentage higher than his season save percentage, or higher than 88.5 percent in the event that the opposing team registered less than 20 shots on goal), meaning that Crawford has saved roughly greater than 90 percent of shots on goal in more than half of his starts. Unfortunately for the Hawks, Crawford recently hit injured reserve and is expected to miss a couple of weeks.

Photo: Rockford IceHogs, AHL

With Anton Forsberg on the ice the majority of the nights that Crawford is out, the Blackhawks will need to outscore their poor defensive performances this season on most nights. Forsberg is 1-3-3 in eight games, allowing a tick over three goals per game, leaving the Blackhawks offense with the likely task of playing three-goal hockey on a nightly basis for the immediate future.

With the recent slide ramping up the pressure on Joel Quenneville to find a solution once again, the line-shuffling has commenced this past week in practice. Only one skater, Patrick Kane, has over 20 points through the first 27 games; and 13 of the 23 skaters on the NHL roster have fewer than 10 points to this point, so line-shuffling is only a temporary fix at best.

The major issue with Quenneville’s management of the offense this season, and most season’s is his reluctance to trust rookies and young skaters with increased roles. This season, Alex DeBrincat has forced Quenneville’s hand in giving him appropriate ice time, thanks to his second-best point total of 19. But with the team in need of more speed and scoring options, for some reason Quenneville still refuses to bring Vinnie Hinostroza back into the mix.

Through 23 games in Rockford, Hinostroza has tallied nine goals (second on the team), 13 assists (first on the team) and 22 points (first on the team). Hinostroza is converting on 12.2 percent of his shots on goal to this point, a number that only four Blackhawks can claim this season, one being DeBrincat who sits at 22 percent on the campaign.

Both Richard Panik and Patrick Sharp are prime candidates to lose ice time to Hinostroza at this point. Sharp, 36, has a grand total of seven points on the season (3G, 4A), and after going 16 consecutive games without a single point, has recorded just three points in his last 21 games. Sharp is noticeably slower, unable to get to where he needs to be on the ice and is providing no spark or scoring edge to the offense to this point.

Panik started the season in a nice groove, but has amassed just 14 points through 27 games thanks to his current stretch of 18 games without a goal. The last time Panik lit the lamp for the Hawks was on October 21 against Arizona, and an assist on November 27 against the Ducks accounts for his lone point in his last eight games. And it’s not a case of tough luck either, Panik isn’t even getting shots on goal, registering just six of them since November 22.

Sharp and Panik are Quenneville’s guys, but both of them need to take a seat at this moment in time, both of them are occupying 13-15 minutes of ice time each game that should be going to the likes of Hinostroza or others in the system. Matthew Highmore is leading the Ice Hogs in goals with 10 through 23 games. Highmore also has seven assists and a 16.7 shooting percentage to boast.

Highmore, 21, is an undrafted left-winger whom the Blackhawks inked to a three-year deal this past March. Before coming to the Blackhawks organization, Highmore spent four seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL. Last season Highmore averaged 1.39 points per game, and is translating that scoring ability to the American game with his quick scoring success in Rockford. Highmore, like Alex DeBrincat is slightly undersized at five-foot-eleven and 181 pounds, but has been described as an elite and effortless skater who possesses the ability to make his teammates look very good on the ice, rarely looking for the spotlight according to Tony Carr of Dobber Prospects.

Even Tomas Jurco is playing well this season for Rockford, totaling seven goals and eight assists through 23 games with the IceHogs. Jurco was acquired last season in a trade, and never saw much consistency in his playing time before being sent down to the AHL to start the season. The Blackhawks are looking for a pulse, and they have some options to explore, they need to do it soon.

Defensively, the depth at the AHL level is less prevalent than that of their scoring options, still there are some intriguing options that could provide some speed and athleticism to a defense in need of it. Erik Gustaffson and Ville Pokka would be the first two candidates to make the jump this season, both Gustaffson and Pokka have 11 points through 23 games (3G, 8A each).

At this point, juggling talent on the defensive end of the ice seems like a significant risk with Corey Crawford on the shelf, but when Crawford returns Quenneville could have more opportunity to try something different defensively.

It’s more than likely that the core talent on this Blackhawks roster is good enough to sneak into the playoffs this season at minimum, especially once Crawford returns to action in a couple of weeks, but in the interim and looking into the Spring, if the Blackhawks hope to make an extended playoff run; Joel Quenneville needs to be more willing to give auditions to deserving skaters in the system and sit his struggling veterans when necessary.

In the coming years, with bad contracts, an aging core and a thin farm system; the Blackhawks will be facing some hard truths about the window of their dynasty closing. If Joel Quenneville can’t become more adaptive in his personnel and tactical decisions, those painful truths might become real a lot quicker than we would like. Hopefully Quenneville will consider some personnel changes beyond shuffling the lines, before it’s too late.

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