It looks like there are a few imposing barriers working against the Blackhawks’ hopes to repeat as Cup champions in 2013-14.
We all know about the brutal PK.
We should be concerned about the team defense as well. For those unsure of what I’m referring to, “team defense” is what it sounds like: the overall awareness, effort, and effectiveness of Blackhawks forwards and defensemen in their own zone; i.e., the defensive play of the team as a whole.
Measuring Chicago’s ’13-14 Team Defense Via Comparison
Chicago has the second-worst goals against average and second-highest 5-on-5 GA total among teams currently in a playoff position. This – when combined with the fact that Chicago sits at the top of the Western Conference and league in the standings – yields a rather bizarre juxtaposition. The track record for offensive-oriented, one-dimensional teams in the post-2004 lockout era is not promising; you probably remember these guys pretty well, for example, for flaming out rather pathetically in the first round of the playoffs to a far less talented Montreal team.
The Blackhawks were dominant last season because of their incontrovertibly elite defensive play. Remember those awards they won at the end of the season? Yeah, this one was pretty nice. A lot of Blackhawk fans weren’t too upset about this one, either. The penalty kill was ridiculously proficient and was running on automatic come playoff time. Chicago could always score – that was and is never going to be a problem on a team Patrick Kane plays for – but the success stemmed from their defense.
So What Exactly Is Wrong With the Team Defense This Year?
A lot of things, but for the sake of my own sanity, I’ll keep things general. The team defense is markedly worse this season compared to last because of a repeated and almost pathetically conspicuous string of mental errors.
What type of errors do I mean? Let’s answer that question by looking at a few goals the Leafs scored in the massive dumpster fire that was the recent Toronto/Chicago matchup.
Looks pretty innocuous at first glance, right? You might be tempted to say this goal was simply due to a mix of bad luck (puck took an unfortunate bounce off of Keith) and bad goaltending (rebound control). But both claims would be missing the point.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Our first mental mistake shows up when Hossa decides to try a weak, lazy, fly-by sweep check with his stick, which Jay McClement easily avoids like any half-decent NHLer would (that excludes this guy, though). Sorry, I get carried away with my vendettas sometimes.
Moving on, the second mistake on this play is also made by Hossa. He doesn’t make an effort to backcheck after his ill-conceived fly-by fails. This is a matter of effort more than anything, which is why I was really surprised to see it. Hossa may very well be the hardest-working winger in the league as far as backchecking is concerned. But laziness is laziness, laziness is a mistake, and Hossa’s clearly guilty here.
The third mental error is probably the most egregious of the lot. Seabrook gives Kulemin all the time and space in the world (#41 in blue, takes the first shot), allowing him to coast unopposed all the way to the edge of the faceoff circle to Raanta’s right. Kulemin’s in prime scoring land at this point – it’s pretty unreasonable to blame Raanta for giving up a rebound. Seabrook’s mistake of being incredibly passive and unaggressive is the biggest issue on this play, far ahead of whatever goaltending complaints some may have. In what was effectively a 3-on-3 rush, Seabrook should have challenged the puck-carrier (his man). He didn’t, Kulemin had a ton of room to work with, and the result was a goal against.
As for the fourth and final Blackhawk blunder on the play, this one’s on the Norris hopeful Duncan Keith. After Kulemin gains control of the puck near the blue line, Keith basically takes himself out of the rest of the play by coasting and staring at the puck – “passively watching,” as coaches often call it. Keith’s tunnel vision causes him to completely miss his assignment – the eventual goal-scorer, Jerry D’Amigo – and D’Amigo is free to skate to the front of the net all alone. As with Seabrook’s error, the goal doesn’t happen if Keith does what he’s supposed to here.
Now it’s time to look at another goal against. Yay.
The first – and worst – miscue is Leddy’s turnover. He had full control of the puck and no Leaf player in position to genuinely pressure him. Instead, he went full Bollig and fumbled the puck away for no apparent reason. Unforced errors have been plaguing the Blackawks all season long. As far as team defense is concerned, turnovers are public enemy #1… and as far as I’m concerned, you never, ever, ever go full Bollig.
Second, Toews overpursues D’Amigo almost all the way to the boards, who’s #29 in blue. With Toews out of position, D’Amigo makes an easy pass to McClement who then sets up Kulemin for the goal. Let D’Amigo stay on the periphery if he wants to! He’s not going to score from there. Toews is better than that.
Third, Michael Kostka (Blackhawks defenseman, #6) is in the right position… but he doesn’t actually do anything. McClement gets the puck at the goal line, and Kostka halfheartedly puts his stick out in a depressingly weak “attempt” to block the eventual pass to Kulemin. Kostka needs to be an active member of the play, not essentially playing goalie like he is here. Pressuring McClement would have been a fine decision. Giving him the shot from the goal line and completely committing to preventing the pass would have been okay too. Instead, Kostka goes in between, and consequently contributes zilch. He (and many other Blackhawks players who constantly have made the same mistake this season) has to be more decisive.
Chicago’s Team Defense: A Few Notes
Before I dip into the woeful penalty kill, I want to make a few things clear.
1. Mistakes are going to be made. They’re inevitable. The problem isn’t so much that the Blackhawks are committing defensive mental errors; rather, it’s that they’re making so many of them. The two videos above were simply intended to display how mistakes can “breed off of one another,” so to speak, and ultimately lead to goals against. Chicago’s real issue is the sheer volume of these mistakes, and that’s the biggest difference between this and last season.
2. Take heart, Blackhawks fans: These issues are very correctable. Last year was hardly a once-in-a-lifetime Chicago defensive miracle that can’t ever be matched again. I’d contend that the players were simply more focused on playing solid defensive hockey in ’12-13 than they have been this year. It happens – the infamous “Cup hangover” may not always present itself directly in the standings, but there’s always some residual effect.
3. Chicago’s goaltending hasn’t been very good either, I know. But better netminding will come with better defense – it doesn’t often work the other way around.
The Penalty Kill Is Terrifyingly Awful
Funny how things have switched, isn’t it? Last year the story was Chicago’s fantastic PK and anemic PP; this year, the two have been swapped. Can’t ever seem to just have the best of both.
Time for one last “highlight.” Ugh. This was a miserable game.
I’m sorry. Why.
Why is Brandon Bollig on the penalty kill?
He has been for a few games.
It’s been equally idiotic for each of them.
Sorry. Manning up now.
Okay, first: Chicago’s PK is what I call a “wide” box – that is, the typical four-man PK setup with the stipulation that the two forwards and two defensemen are free (when appropriate) to extend their coverage to match the movement and positioning of the opposing team’s powerplay.
In this case, the biggest mistake is made by – you guessed it – the Best Player in the Known Universe (BPIKU – Brandon Bollig). BPIKU is being way too passive here, sitting almost all the way down at the hashmarks and leaving his man (Jake Gardiner, #51) wide open at the point with plenty of space. BPIKU accomplishes absolutely nothing by being so low in the zone; the Leaf player in front of the net is covered at the moment. Like Kostka from earlier, he’s quite literally functionless here. He’s not serving any sort of purpose. The Hawks are effectively playing 3-on-5. Ergo, Gardiner is free to fire a hard, accurate shot-pass towards the front of the net with no concern of it getting blocked.
The second blunder is Keith’s. I understand what he’s trying to do (give Raanta a clear view of the “shot” from the point), but in doing so he leaves Joffrey Lupul completely alone in front of the net for an uncontested tip. Keith tying up Lupul’s stick is the ideal here – but even being close enough to distract him a little would have served at least some purpose. Instead, Lupul had enough time to catch Gardiner’s pass and even make a move if he wanted to. He chose to just tip it instead. Yep, this wasn’t Keith’s best game.
The Hawks’ PK is paradoxical. They are aggressive in that they permit (and encourage) forwards and defensemen to stretch their coverage area (think of the 2-3 zone in basketball). But the PK strategy is also passive in that it doesn’t emphasize direct pressure on opposing players who have the puck. It’s complicated.
Ultimately, the issue with Chicago’s penalty kill has been a mix of shoddy goaltending and ineffective execution.
WHY IS BRANDON BOLLIG ON THE PENALTY KILL?
I managed to stave off saying it (again) for a few paragraphs. That was really hard for me, you have to understand.
Oh, I did promise you one more thing when I wrote this…
The Official PROPHET KENT SIMPSON Update
PROPHET KENT SIMPSON’s first-ever NHL action was thoroughly depressing. You had to feel for the guy, getting thrown into a game that his team just wasn’t interested in playing (the first two periods against Toronto consisted of some of the least inspired hockey the Blackhawks have put forth this year). I imagine he was pretty jittery, and it didn’t help to be faced with a quality scoring chance 28 seconds into his NHL career… and have it slip by to boot.
But it’s okay! PROPHET KENT SIMPSON has my full trust, and he should have yours too.
I’m up for starting the official fan club if I get enough support. Let me know.
Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu
Sean covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers and Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @seansarcu.