It seems like just yesterday we were anxiously counting down the days until the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2019-20 opening night. Now all the sudden we’re almost through the month of November, and 24 games into the season. Thanksgiving is upon us, and Christmas is right around the corner. Where does the time go?
Past statistics indicate teams in the playoff hunt around this time of year usually make the postseason come April. So where are the Blackhawks? Their record currently stands at 10-9-5, with 25 points. The two Western Conference wildcard teams are the Colorado Avalanche and the San Jose Sharks who have 28 and 27 points, respectively.
Truth be told the Blackhawks aren’t in the thick of things, but they’re not out of it by any means. Nobody knows what the rest of the season holds, or whether the playoffs are in the future. But isn’t true fandom supposed to be about appreciation?! In this season of thankfulness and giving, I’d like to share my top five reasons to be thankful for the Blackhawks.
1. Jonathan Toews’ Faceoff Prowess
He’s not the offensive juggernaut he used to be. He isn’t getting any younger, and his prime years are likely behind him. But Toews still has a lot to offer this team. His heavy game and two-way play come to mind, as well as his leadership. But where would this team be without his ability to win a faceoff?
Toews currently has a 53.6% success rate at the dot. No other player who regularly takes faceoffs is over 50%, with the exception of David Kampf at 50.8%. Plus one must take into account the quantity of draws Toews takes. There are six other players who regularly take faceoffs: Dylan Strome, Kampf, Kirby Dach, Ryan Carpenter, Zack Smith, and Andrew Shaw. Their combined number of draws adds up to 789. Toews alone has taken 455 draws, meaning he’s accountable for 58% of all faceoffs. That’s a lot of responsibility!
I know this is very simplistic, but it’s also true. Winning the faceoff is the first step towards possession. And it’s pretty hard to score goals and win games without possession of the puck. Faceoffs DO matter, and the captain is the leader in that department.
2. The Never-ending Gift of Patrick Kane
I mentioned above that Toews isn’t getting any younger. He’s 31 years old, as is Kane. So why does it seem like Kane is ageless? A less physical style of play is one reason, and the fact that he has minimal defensive responsibility. But he also sees and thinks the game unlike many others, and can do magic with the puck.
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Sure, Kane excels with the right partners, but he really tends to perform regardless of his linemates. He adapts to his surroundings and has become one of the best and most consistent playmakers in the league. They don’t call him “Showtime” for nothing. He’s high up on the leader board in goals, assists, and points year after year, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Kane is currently on a 13-game point streak, with nine goals and 13 assists in that span. He truly is something special. When other teams play the Blackhawks their fans make an extra effort to watch Kane. We here in Chicago are lucky enough to witness his magic on a nightly basis.
3. Improved Penalty Kill
Everybody wants to see their team score goals, right? Usually the best chance of that is on the power play. Or at least for teams besides the Blackhawks. But I digress.
I’d like to give some appreciation to the guys that go to battle on the other side of the puck. These are the true warriors; the ones that stop the goals instead of score them. The Marcus Kruger’s and Michal Frolik’s of the world. Not much attention is paid to these guys, but they have a very important role.
Last season the Blackhawks ranked dead last on the penalty kill at 72.7%. During the offseason general manager Stan Bowman acquired defensemen Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. He also brought on forwards Carpenter from the Vegas Golden Knights and Smith from the Ottawa Senators. All these players were desired for their defensive abilities and penalty killing expertise.
So far it’s paid off. This season the Blackhawks boast an 81.3% success rate while shorthanded, which is good for 17th in the league. Kudos to the above players as well as their partners in crime on the penalty kill unit, including: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Connor Murphy, Toews, Brandon Saad, and Kampf. Their hard work has turned this weakness into a strength.
4. Third Round Draft Pick Kirby Dach
Let’s face it; the Blackhawks lucked into this year’s third overall pick in the NHL draft. They were supposed to pick at No. 12, but the lottery balls fell in their favor. As we all know, the Blackhawks utilized this pick to select Dach. At the time, many were surprised Dach went that high in the draft. But he’s since put all that controversy to rest.
Despite missing the preseason and the beginning of the regular season with a concussion, the Blackhawks kept the 18-year-old around while he got healthy. After a conditioning stint with the Rockford IceHogs, Dach made his NHL debut on Oct. 20 against the Washington Capitals.
And he never looked back. He scored his first goal in his second game against the Golden Knights. He recorded his first assist in his third game against the Philadelphia Flyers. After his sixth game, the Blackhawks announced he would be with the team for the season. They could have waited three more games to make that decision before the first year of his contract would count. But as I suggested in our August roundtable, Dach would stay if he could help the team win. They didn’t need nine games to figure that out.
To paraphrase from a recent article by Mark Lazerus of The Athletic, Dach’s new teammates describe him as extremely confident, never afraid, and willing to do the dirty work to win puck battles. He’s strong, defensively responsible, and has more speed and skating ability than he was originally given credit for. (from, ‘He’s not afraid: The Blackhawks break down what makes Kirby Dach so special’, The AthleticChi – 11/25/19)
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Dach currently has five goals and five assists in 18 games played. He’s all that was advertised and more. No matter what happens with the Blackhawks this season, I’m grateful to watch the evolution of this young man who will most certainly become an elite player in the league.
5. A Personality Like Robin Lehner
How did this happen? How did the Blackhawks get a guy like goaltender Robin Lehner? Sure, I know they swooped him up on a one-year deal when the New York Islanders decided to go in a different direction. He was supposed to be the insurance policy in case Corey Crawford went down. So far the two netminders have both remained healthy and become an incredible goalie tandem, pretty much sharing the net 50/50.
To say it’s working out well is an understatement. Lehner is sporting the league’s highest save percentage, and Crawford just earned his 26th career shutout.
But little did the Blackhawks know the intangibles they were getting with the Lehner signing. He’s refreshingly honest and outspoken with the media, providing a great interview. He’s taken former Sabres’ teammate Alex Nylander under his wing, providing housing and entertainment for the young forward. He tweets supportive messages to his teammates after games, and even went so far as to tongue-and-cheek ask fans for advice in the crease following a shootout loss. Here’s one of the latest examples of Lehner’s speeches.
A passionate Robin Lehner on his shootout struggles and criticism from the media.— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) November 25, 2019
He later said he would be open to switching goalies for shootout portion if coaches felt it would improve chances of winning: “I just want to win, man.” #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/PFgE9TCijB
So much passion and intensity! Not only did the Blackhawks inherit a great goalie on the ice, they gained an valuable leader in the locker room.
Oh, and I’d like to give an honorable mention to Crawford. While the flashy Lehner is getting all the attention, the stoic Crawford is carrying on like he always does. When asked about replacing Lehner in shootouts since he has the better numbers, Crawford said,
He’s a really good goalie. He doesn’t need me to do that. He’s fine, he played really well last game, they made some great shots in the shootout. There’s nothing to keep talking about.
The Blackhawks already had an incredible goalie. Now they have two.
I hope you enjoyed my top five reasons to be thankful for the Chicago Blackhawks. There certainly are others; what are your reasons? Let’s all appreciate the good things, and hope they turn into more wins!
(all stats courtesy hockey-reference.com)