Rock bottom arrived for the Chicago Blackhawks after their 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers Thursday night. The closeness of the score did not reveal the complete game picture. The Blackhawks started off on fire and completely dominated the Rangers early in the first period. They went up 1-0 then eased up their level of play and ended up down 2-1 at the end of the first. A goal with two seconds left made the score more bearable only on paper.
As the dust settled on another loss local social media lit up with the realization that the Blackhawks were going to be dead last in the Western Conference followed soon by being dead last in the NHL. This is where we insert the “nowhere to go but up” motto or the Dumb & Dumber “so you’re saying I still got a chance” meme. Fortunately, this team does have nowhere to go but up and just maybe the ability to get there. First, we’ll discuss what led to this rock bottom moment and then look at some silver linings.
Rock Bottom Arrives
The Blackhawks hitting rock bottom at mid-season should not be a surprise. They have struggled all year dealing with a defence corps that is suspect and also uncertainty in goal. The Blackhawks brass also chose to fire longtime coach Joel Quenneville early on this season. They replaced him with Jeremy Colliton who was their coach in Rockford. Quenneville had lost the long-running power struggle with “The Bowmans” and had to go.
To add another layer of intrigue longtime Scotty Bowman lackey Barry Smith was installed as assistant coach. That move was also met with scorn on social media with hashtags #BowmansRat and #BowmansMole trending for a while. Smith had no business being back coaching in the NHL yet there he was prowling the bench. What Smith did provide was a conduit to the team for “The Bowmans” who were not able to control Quenneville as they liked. Even with the recent promotion of Sheldon Brookbank to assistant coach Smith is still one of four coaches on the bench. Finally, Smith needs to fade into the sunset instead of morphing into the next coming of Bob “Mumbles” Pulford. This team should not have a dinosaur in their room acting as ears for “The Bowmans” every practice and game.
Rock Bottom Roster
There is absolutely no doubt that the problems with the Blackhawks roster fall squarely on the shoulders of general manager Stan Bowman. After his father had former general manager Dale Tallon muscled out, Bowman took the keys to a roster on the cusp of a Stanley Cup in 2009. Bowman proceeded to guide the franchise to three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013, and 2015. He deserves credit for those Cups for sure with a nod of course to Tallon for his efforts too.
The most noteworthy topic is now what Bowman didn’t do since taking over for Tallon. Any long-term successful franchise builds and rebuilds through drafting. Bowman’s inability to judge talent as he drafted is what’s led to a Blackhawks roster in decline. The much-maligned defence corps currently has two players Bowman drafted. Carl Dahlstrom (2013) and rookie Henri Jokiharju (2017) are the only two defencemen Bowman can hang his hat on. Every other defenceman he drafted is either still in the system, gone, or on the list of “Bowmans Busts” that grows each season.
Man on Man Scheme
Jeremy Colliton‘s arrival brought a new defensive scheme to the Blackhawks. The Colliton man-on-man coverage has been a huge struggle for this defence corps. It has also been taxing on the goalies who have to deal with the continuous errors being committed in front of them. Often times a defenceman will chase a man out to the point. This is fine if your forwards stay on their man. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, the forwards have missed a lot of assignments in their own end.
Another problem with the man-on-man coverage is when both defencemen end up behind the net or in the same corner leaving the crease uncovered. This also happens far too often and leaves the goalies at the mercy of the shooters. You watch any solid defensive team and they mostly use the “protect the house at any cost” approach to defence. You will see all five players near the net defending the slot vigorously. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks slot often looks like a vacant lot except for an opponent or two waiting to tap one in on a defenceless goalie.
Man On Man = Done
Coach Colliton needs to call it quits on his man-on-man coverage scheme. This roster has proven that they are unable to play that it successfully and their goalies could use more help than the continuous “sorry I was in the corner” apologies. If the Blackhawks go back to the basic coverage scheme they should reduce the number of shots they’re giving up. They are currently second worst in the NHL giving up almost 35 shots a game. If they can play tighter in their own end the shot totals will be lower thereby making the goalie’s job easier.
Rock Bottom Silver Linings
Despite fading out of the Western Conference wild-card playoff picture again the Blackhawks have some positive things to build off of as a group. Wingers Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat are on fire this season. Kane with 28 goals and 65 points has crept into the NHL top ten scorers list. He has had several multi-point games in January leading his struggling team. The red-hot sniper needs to continue his scoring streak for his team to rebound. DeBrincat is as hot as Kane lately scoring 24 goals and currently third on the team with 39 points. These two have the ability to take a game over which is something this team needs more of.
The Blackhawks have been scoring on the power play a lot lately. Their power play was dead last in the NHL a month ago and has now climbed up to the top half in the NHL. This is due to a more determined power play unit that is now willing to get dirty in the tough areas of the ice. They have pressured the slot and had a great net-front presence the last month which has generated better chances for their snipers.
If only the success on the power play could transfer to their penalty-killing unit. That unit still sits dead last in the NHL at 73.4%. Dropping the man-on-man scheme as detailed above should also help their penalty killers improve and make the goalies a lot saner too. If they can raise the penalty killing into the middle of the pack like the power play this will lead to more wins.
Goaltending is another silver lining lately with Collin Delia grabbing control of the net from Cam Ward. Delia has delivered on the expectations from seeing him lead the Rockford Ice Hogs to the Conference Finals in the AHL last season. The “California Kid” has been lights-out in net since being called up. His record is a pedestrian 3-2-3 but what stands out is his goals against average of 2.75 and a scintillating save percentage of .929%. For him to produce that kind of numbers the way his team had played in front of him says a lot about his potential.
There was a Corey Crawford sighting today on the ice for the Blackhawks. He only spent 20 minutes or so with his teammates but it’s a good sign. Up until today, he had not been on the ice since getting another concussion on December 16th. His recovery and ability to play again this season will affect what happens in goal for the Blackhawks the rest of the way. If Crawford can return, Delia will be heading back to Rockford.
Cam Ward has a no-movement clause in his one year $3 million free agent contract. The only way Delia stays is if Ward agrees to be moved to another team before the February 25th trade deadline. Which is a shame because with his 3.99 goals-against average and .884 save percentage Ward may be a bit hard to move to say the least. Delia deserves to be Crawford’s backup if he returns but he may have to wait until next season for that role.
Nowhere To Go But Up
The Blackhawks being at rock bottom gives them a great opportunity ahead. Shelving the ineffective man-on-man scheme will lead to better defence. Better defence will lead to fewer shots and goals against and also a stronger penalty kill. The goalies will be happier and the team can regain that brief swagger they had only a month ago when they were winning. So yes we are saying “they still got a chance” provided they make the necessary changes. Only time will tell if they can do it. If not there should be an original six franchise looking for a new general manager very soon.