It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but if you’re a Chicago Chicago Blackhawks fan, it probably feels like you’ve been getting coal in your stocking all season long. Through 38 games, the Blackhawks are 15-17-6, with their latest loss being a 7-1 clubbing at the hands of the struggling New Jersey Devils that erased all of the warm, fuzzy feelings that back-to-back road wins against the Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche created.
Not only are they dead last in the Central Division by five points, the Blackhawks are also flirting with being dead last in the Western Conference. Despite that, they’re still only seven points out of the final wild-card spot.
While there are certainly some highlights to focus on, like Patrick Kane’s innate ability to consistently rack up points, Robin Lehner’s resilience in goal along with his refreshing candor in post-game media scrums, and the continued development of 2019 first-round draft pick Kirby Dach, there are still a lot of problems that are holding them back.
The Blackhawks had a nice little Christmas break to regroup and recover, but still have a lot of issues that they need to figure out heading into 2020. We’re on the brink of a new year, which means it’s the perfect time for the Blackhawks to make a few New Year’s resolutions to carry them through the rest of the season.
Play Consistent Defense
Despite an offseason in which the Blackhawks addressed some of their defensive deficiencies, the defense has been a real weak spot for the team. Not only do they lead the league in shots allowed with 1,371, 105 more than the second-worst Calgary Flames, they’re also the owners of the seventh-highest goals against with 121, or 3.18 per game. It could be much worse, but the goaltending duo of Lehner and Corey Crawford have helped bear the brunt of the shots with the .912 save percentage, the eighth-highest in the league.
Whether it’s because of injuries, lack of production, or a little bit of both, head coach Jeremy Colliton hasn’t had much luck finding the right defensive combos to help the team succeed, and the lack of chemistry and productivity shows with how easily teams are getting to the net. Losing Calvin de Haan just as he was starting to get comfortable was a big blow, and outside of Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith, the defense has been a giant inconsistent question mark. Ideally, the entire unit can turn the page in 2020 and play as a more cohesive unit regardless of who is back there.
As mentioned above, the injury bug has bitten the Blackhawks one too many times this season, especially more recently, which has led to a lot of problems for Chicago. On defense alone, Keith missed nine games with a groin injury, Olli Maatta missed four games due to an illness within the same time period as Keith, de Haan re-injured his surgically-repaired right shoulder, knocking him out for the rest of the season, and Brent Seabrook was just placed on the long-term injured reserve with shoulder and hip injuries, effectively ending his season as well.
On the offensive side, Drake Caggiula and Andrew Shaw have been on the injured reserve with concussions since Nov. 23 and Dec. 2, respectively, and Brandon Saad will be out for at least three more weeks with an ankle injury he sustained the same game Keith returned. To add some salt to the festering injury bug bites, rookie defenseman Adam Boqvist is currently day-to-day with a shoulder injury he sustained just six minutes into the Devils game.
While you can’t really predict injuries, it is imperative that the Blackhawks stay healthy if they want to continue to try and compete, something they’ve struggled to do even when healthy. There are some decent depth pieces in the system, but losing their strongest defensive players and one of their most effective offensive pieces for a long period of time has definitely caused them to take several unproductive steps backward.
Play All 60 Minutes
Chicago has struggled mightily in two areas – trailing after 40 minutes and protecting a lead. On the season, they’re now 1-15-0 in games when trailing after two periods, and were the last team in the league to tally a point when trailing after two periods. The lone win came in their latest victory over the Avalanche, a team on the other end of the spectrum that was handed their first regulation loss after leading through 40 minutes. This tweet from Blackhawks insider Charlie Roumeliotis while Chicago was trailing 3-0 after the second period was essentially a statistical white flag, and then they completed the unlikely comeback.
On the flip side, it hasn’t been pretty when Chicago has played with a lead either. Their inability to close out games has been an ongoing problem that was punctuated with the 4-3 loss against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 14 that saw the Blues erase a 3-0 deficit with four straight goals in a 13-minute span. Chicago’s lack of fight when they’re down and their inability to maintain momentum with a lead have been two major hurdles they’ll need to address and overcome if they want to avoid falling further from respectability.
Play Better vs. Central Division
The Blackhawks are 5-6-2 against Central Division opponents this season with 2.77 goals for and 3.15 goals against. Those numbers look a lot better thanks to their last two wins, 4-1 against the Jets and 5-3 against the Avalanche, but they will need to play a lot tougher and more consistent against their divisional foes if they want to make any kind of move up the standings.
Chicago is also 5-5-3 against the Pacific Division, so their 10-11-5 Western Conference record leaves a lot to be desired in a season that began with playoff aspirations. 13 of the Blackhawks’ remaining 44 games are to be played against Central Division opponents, so the new year will provide an opportunity to flip the script and make the next 13 better than the first 13.
The debate rages on as to whether it’s already a lost season and the Blackhawks should focus on the future, or if they should use their new-found cap space from the de Haan and Seabrook injuries to try and make a few moves and sneak into the playoffs. Ideally, general manager Stan Bowman doesn’t trade any future assets to try and salvage what already looks like a lost season, but with every embarrassing loss, his and Colliton’s seats get hotter and hotter.
There’s plenty of season left, so, whether Chicago is playing for pride, or aiming for the playoffs, they will be a lot more fun to watch in 2020 if they can focus on maintaining their resolutions.