The NHL Trade Deadline is a little over a month away and general managers in 30 cities are taking an analytical look at their teams. That’s because, when it comes to hoisting the Stanley Cup, a team needs several things: Solid goaltending; depth on all four lines; and, as the saying goes, “defense wins championships”.
The Chicago Blackhawks have another element most of this year’s Stanley Cup contenders are lacking: experience. Winning three of the past six Stanley Cups and reaching the Western Conference Finals in two of the past seven years, the leadership core of the Blackhawks understands how to succeed.
What makes the Blackhawks even more dangerous is that it appears they have avoided the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover that ended the L.A. Kings’ season early last season. After staying outside the playoff picture at the beginning of the season, the Blackhawks are now top of the Central Division and are quickly chasing down the current Eastern Conference leaders, the Washington Capitals.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien: “We just played the … Stanley Cup champion and I believe they look better than last year.” #Blackhawks
— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) January 18, 2016
However, there is a glaring issue on the Blackhawks roster that might derail their hopes of being the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Unlike in previous seasons, the Blackhawks in 2015-2016 do not have scoring depth.
Patrick Kane Leads the Team
Following the Blackhawks’ historic 12-game win streak on January 19, Patrick Kane led the NHL in scoring with 71 points. That’s 15 points ahead of his closet competition (Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars) and two goals ahead of consistent Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin.
While the numbers suggest that Kane will be walking away with the Art Ross and Rocket Richard Trophies at the end of the season, it is troubling to see how far he outpaces his own teammates.
On the Blackhawks’ roster, he is 26 points ahead of the next highest-scoring Blackhawk, Artemi Panarin, who has 45 points. To put it in context, only five Blackhawk players have more than 26 points, total. The fact that Panarin is an NHL rookie might mean another Calder Trophy for Chicago, but also speaks to how the Blackhawks are struggling to score outside of their dominate second line: for example, Jonathan Toews is ten points behind the Russian rookie.
In previous Stanley Cup-winning seasons, the Blackhawks were more balanced in terms of scoring. At the end of the 2015 season, Toews led the team with 66 points. In fact, the top line centered by Toews accounted for the team’s first, third and fourth highest scorers. In between these gaps in scoring was the second line at second (Kane), seventh (Brad Richards) and six or eight (depending on whether Patrick Sharp or Kris Versteeg were on the second line’s opposite wing).
In 2013, it was a similar story. The lockout-shortened season saw a balance between the first and second lines, with the top line accounting for the second, third and fifth spots on the score sheet and the second line accounted for the first, seventh, eighth and beyond, depending on who was the second-line’s center. The first year the young Hawks hoisted the Cup in 2010, the balanced scoring was also apparent, with the usual suspects, Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa and Versteeg in the top six in scoring.
Nineteen points separated the number one and two scorers in 2010. They were only seven points apart in 2013. The top three scorers in 2013 were separated by 24 points and by only five points in 2015. Compared to the 2015-2016 season, with the top three scorers separated by 36 points, the difference in scoring depth from the previous Stanley Cup winners and this season’s roster is startling.
Does Scoring Depth even matter for the Blackhawks?
Scoring depth has hurt several potential contenders once they reach the playoffs (see the Pittsburgh Penguins recent struggles in the postseason). Whether the Hawks experience the same trouble will remain to be seen.
Looking back at past championships, however, the team has shown an ability to score consistently when the games matter most. During the 2015 playoffs, the Hawks top five scorers were separated by only eight points instead of 21 points. In 2013, the 28-point gap between the first and fifth leading scorer dropped to five points.
What this might mean is that Patrick Kane, should he continue st his current pace into the post-season, might get a second Conn Smythe Trophy to go along with his Art Ross and Rocket Richard Trophies.
In the end, the core group of Blackhawks players have three Stanley Cup rings, all earned playing together. Goaltending, defense and most importantly depth are all important. But nothing trumps having that championship experience.