The Chicago Blackhawks powerplay was a mess last season and so far this season nothing has changed. More troubling than their lack of execution is the fact that they don’t seem to have learned from the mistakes they made last year. After finishing 28th in powerplay success rate at 16 %, the Hawks are off to an 0 for 10 start – only Vegas is worse at 0 for 11. A lack of zone time and an inability to get pucks to the middle – and even hit the net in general are just a few of the problems that continue to plague this team.
The top unit made up of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Nick Schmaltz, Alex Debrincat and Brent Seabrook has failed to create sustained pressure or quality chances and unless the coaching staff completely overhauls the plan of attack, Chicago may well finish among the league’s worst 5 teams in powerplay success rate once again. The Hawks have made some adjustments ahead of tonight’s game against Minnesota with Henri Jokiharju on the top unit in place of Seabrook and Schmaltz and Debrincat swapping places in the offensive zone. However, personnel isn’t as big an issue as the fundamental flaws in team strategy we saw last season and have seen this season to this point.
Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong and what needs to change.
Step 1: Gaining the Offensive Zone
The Blackhawks struggled to gain the offensive blueline with possession and make plays last season finishing with a zone entry success rate of 64 percent (17th). So far this season, that number is down to 57 percent (20th). The neutral zone drop pass drives me nuts, in general but if the defenseman is going to do it, Kane has to find a way to come with more speed than he has thus far. The lack of speed up ice results in clumsy entries making it easy for penalty killers to disrupt plays.
Step 2: Offensive Zone Possession
The lack of execution on Chicago’s entries, has predictably led to a lack of puck possession in the offensive zone. Per 60 minutes, the Hawks are averaging 14:41 Ozone puck possession (27th) down from 18:55 last season. It’s mighty hard to score goals when you don’t have the puck in the attacking end. In fact, the puck has only been in the offensive zone 52 percent of the time the Hawks have been on the powerplay this season, 3rd worst in the NHL.
Step 3: Shot Generation
Chicago seems content to tee its defensemen up for one-timers from the point – a low percentage play to begin with and one that is only effective if the team can screen the goalie or win puck battles for rebounds. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks aren’t good in either area. Obviously, a vast majority of their long distance shots have not gone in over the last two seasons and their ability to recover rebounds continues to make one wonder why they stick to this plan of attack. Last season, the Hawks recovered just over half of all available rebound (51%) which ranked last in the NHL – that number is down to 33 percent this year. With an extra man on the ice, there’s no excuse for not getting to more loose pucks.
As one might guess, all of this long distance shooting makes it more difficult to get pucks on net. Chicago failed to hit the net on more than half its attempts last season, 47 percent, which ranked 2nd last in the league – their shooting accuracy sits at a paltry 29 percent this season.
A lack of shots from the middle of the ice, below the top of the circles will continue to hinder Chicago’s powerplay success. Last season, only 42 percent of Chicago’s powerplay shot attempts came from the slot, 2nd lowest in the NHL. This season, they are under 50 percent, once again (47%).
Getting shots on net from the slot is a proven way to score goals on the powerplay as the teams who generated the most last year, Toronto, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh finished 2nd, 6th and 1st in powerplay success rate. This logic appears to be lost on the Hawks. Last season, Chicago averaged just over 23 slot shots per 60 minutes of powerplay time which ranked dead last in the league. And just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, so far this season, they have managed only 11 slot shots per 60, less than half of last season’s NHL low rate.
On the rare occasions when the Hawks have hit the line with speed, they’ve been able to generate decent chances in transition and if they can do this at a higher rate, they’ll have a better chance of pulling penalty killers out of position. However, too many entries have been both predictable and slow to develop. Getting Nick Schmaltz more involved on entries will help the Hawks gain the zone more effectively as multiple options creates unpredictability. Schmaltz is one of the most elusive forwards in the league and would be a great compliment to Kane on the Hawks entries. In fact, only two players have made opponents miss more than Schmaltz on open ice dekes this season.
The game plan in the attacking zone, which failed repeatedly last season is failing again this year. While it’s still early, so far it appears Chicago hasn’t found a way to correct the problems that plagued its powerplay last season. It’s one thing to lack the talent, and/or ability to execute, however, failing to understand that the plan of attack is inherently flawed is an even greater concern.
More speed and variety on entries, less time hanging onto the puck on the wall in the attacking end / teeing up point shots and more of a commitment to getting pucks to the middle of the ice. This is what’s needed to improve Chicago’s powerplay.
Until the Chicago Blackhawks learn from their mistakes, they are unfortunately destined to repeat them.
(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)