With 39 games played at New Year's, the Blackhawks are two games from the halfway point of the season. And on an off day in the schedule, it's a good time to look at where the Hawks have been, where they are and where they need to go the remainder of the regular season.
With 48 points in 39 games, the Blackhawks are on pace for about 99-100 points, which was good enough last year for one of the two wildcard slots.
There's been some back and forth on my message board thread as to whether the Hawks are still a juggernaut this year or a bubble team. The evidence based on a half season is: bubble team, but in the playoffs.
Fans can say what they want, but no one making an actual living in Blackhawk hockey ops can afford to be complacent.
Some statistical comparisons between this year's club at the halfway point, and last year's for the whole season:
Overall, these are fairly encouraging numbers, although they do point to some trends and tendencies.
In a broad sense, this year's Blackhawk club is better offensively, not as good defensively—and that in spite of Corey Crawford having a career year playing more than 75% of the team's games thus far.
That would lead you to say: "hey, this team just needs another defenseman."
Not so fast. Take a deeper look at the numbers. Like when and how goals are being scored.
5-on-5 GF/GA 150/129
5-on-5 GF/GA 58/68
What these numbers tell you is the Hawks have been pretty awful 5-on-5 through 39 games, and have benefited hugely from 3-on-3 overtime.
Add to that the biggest difference from the earlier statistical comparison: the power play, where the Hawks are much better this year than they were last.
Taken together, you see another trend: the Hawks are much more effective, the less players there are on the ice, either even strength or man-advantage. This is a team that tends—at least—to thrive with open ice and struggle the more traffic there is, and more so than any Chicago team in recent memory.
Here are some more (rough) numbers from this year:
GOALS BY PATRICK KANE'S LINE 48
GOALS BY JONATHAN TOEWS' LINE 25
GOALS BY THE DEFENSE 16
There are negligible totals from the other two lines. Obviously, and it's no big secret, Kane and newcomers Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin have been ripping it up. Conversely, Jonathan Toews has had a slow start and Marian Hossa a very slow start. What's interesting is Kane and Panarin, separately and together, are great open ice players, either at even strength or on the man-advantage. Hossa and Toews are probably as good or better cycling and grinding—as well as off the rush.
So what's the problem here? Have Toews and Hossa lost it? Are they dogging it?
Well, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the loss in the offseason of two legitimate scoring left wings (Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp) who were replaced by only one legitimate scoring left wing: Panarin.
Although the former two played primarily with Toews and Hossa, the latter has played almost entirely with Kane.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have trotted out a motley crew of mostly less experienced, natural right wings to play on Hossa and Toews' left flank: Marko Dano, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen.
We can debate all day whether Saad meant that much to Toews line. But a couple of things really aren't debatable.
First, both Saad and Sharp had a proven ability to stretch opposing defenses with speed and to collect and finish transition opportunities via the stretch pass or just beating opponents with speed. Second, there is an argument that Saad, Toews and Hossa were the best offensive zone possession line in hockey the last couple of years. This was a line that could beat you with transition—and especially with insane offensive zone time, a grinding cycle game that not only led to a lot of goals—but also prevented a lot of goals.
So while some will point to the defensive personnel as the reason for the first set of numbers above, it may in fact have a lot to do with the forward personnel, especially on the left wing of the (former) first line.
And maybe this is why, although many fans and some writers keep insisting the Hawks will go out and acquire another defenseman before the trade deadline, I keep hearing (over and over from reliable sources) the focus of the front office is on acquiring a more legitimate, more natural left wing to play with Toews and Hossa.
Because if said winger is acquired, a lot of the statistical red flags above can be turned into positives:
1) more offensive zone time and better transition opportunities 5-on-5 (thus reduced scoring chances and goals for the other team, opposing teams having to sit back more and pressure less)
2) more balanced scoring 5-on-5 on the top two lines (more pressure on opposing coaches and defenses to match up)
3) more balance throughout the lineup, allowing Shaw and Teravainen to play their natural right wings on the third and fourth line, strengthening those lines and getting back to more of a four-line team
Would it hurt the Hawks to go out and get Johnny Oduya 2.0? No. But the problem there is it doesn't solve the acute problems of scoring imbalance and players being out of position up and down the forward lines.
And you can't look at the broad numbers and say "offense (i.e. forwards) isn't the problem, defense (i.e. blue liners) is," because again, Toews' line was not only a force offensively in years' past, it was a force defensively just by keeping opponents pinned in their end for protracted periods and forcing teams to account for its speed and transition—on BOTH wings.
Further, the ongoing audition at 1LW is robbing the lower lines of their better players (from last year anyway): Shaw and/or Teravainen.
I will revisit this argument, pending any moves the Hawks make or don't make, later in the season. Ottawa preview tomorrow.