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Season Review: Wingers

September 11, 2020, 11:11 AM ET [313 Comments]
Theo Fox
Chicago Blackhawks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Wingers are up next in this blog series presenting 2019-20 season reviews by position. Here is the remaining roll-out schedule:

* Today, 9/11: Wingers
* Monday, 9/14: Goalies
* Wednesday, 9/16: Coaches

ICYMI:
* Click here to view the season review of defensemen.
* Click here to view the season review of centers.

Again, while individual evaluations and grades aren’t being handed out, this series of blogs will provide a more holistic review. Each blog will conclude with a look ahead to the future.

This blog will be formatted a bit differently than the ones reviewing the defensemen and centers as there is a glut of things that the wingers need to improve upon. So instead of three longer sections, there will be more shorter sections.

We have a big omelet to make requiring lots of eggs so let’s get cracking.

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SUPPORTING THE D

One of the most glaring issues of the Blackhawks is the inconsistent effort by forwards -- especially the wingers -- to support on defense. Defensive support comes in two ways.

One way is actual defensive play on their own to prevent scoring chances by the other team.

The other way is being in position to receive the puck from a teammate and do something productive with it after said teammate wins a battle or needs help in one.

If a winger is already thinking up ice before the puck clears the zone, then that leads to unforced turnovers as a trusted pass or area play did not get to the intended target.

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STAYING DISCIPLINED

Another issue the wingers had was lack of commitment to structure. As a result, they got pulled out of position which created passing and shooting lanes for the opponent.

There is the question, though, of whether the players are able to not only implement Jeremy Colliton’s systems but also do so consistently. Who is responsible then: the coach or the players?

Both parties are responsible. The coach needs to institute systems that the players can realistically put into action given their varied hockey sense, athleticism, and skillsets.

However, when systems inevitably break down from time to time, the players are still responsible for playing fundamental hockey. At that point, the wingers need to just make smart simple plays.

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CONTESTING EVERY PUCK

On the balance, the wingers collectively fail to fight for the puck all over the ice from the opening horn to the final one. Sometimes you see efforts in fits and starts but no consistency to majorly impact the flavor of the game.

Another way to put it is attacking in waves in all three zones. This is what the Cup-winning Blackhawks teams did well in the first half of the decade and what Vegas does so well ever since their inaugural season.

Playing this way is suffocating and tiresome to the opponent. The wingers need to set the tone as they’re more often than not the first ones in the offensive zone and can defuse rushes by the opponent as early as the center line.

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SPACING OUT

The wingers have a spacing problem. Many times in a game I will see a winger skate within a stick’s length away from -- and at the same pace as -- a teammate with the puck. Why?

Unless they’re trying to start the Flying V, there’s no advantage to skating so close together and at the same speed. The puck carrier has no option to pass it to the adjacent teammate as the defender is right there to easily break up the play.

Spreading out as well as varying speeds and directions keep the other team on their heels as they have to constantly guess at who is going where making it tough to square up to whoever they’re guarding.

The Hockey News had a recent article about Barry Trotz’s defensive system and one of its tenets is squaring up to the puck carrier rather than skating backwards. This is one of many little things that can make a difference.

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FINDING SOFT SPOTS

The winger who is hands down the best at finding soft spots is Dominik Kubalik. He knows how to get behind the defense and sneak to the prime shooting lanes.

Even though he’s a goal scorer, Alex DeBrincat could stand to take a page out of Kubalik’s book in this area of generating offense.

The other wingers should, too, especially the perimeter players.

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CREATING IN TRAFFIC

Kubalik is also supreme at getting shots off any which way even in traffic with many deterrents that should -- but somehow don’t -- impede the puck getting from his blade to the net.

The frustrating thing with the Blackhawks is they often look for the fancy play rather than the simple one. Fancy hates traffic but other teams’ defensive systems are built to create this havoc making it hard to feather clean passes or fire clean shots.

If the wingers can learn to play up the middle and not be shy to make a play in the densely populated areas, then the team can start hammering away at defenses that pack it in.

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MOVING, EDZO STYLE

A common refrain that Eddie Olczyk makes during telecasts to teach lessons to all you young hockey players out there is to “move the puck, move yourself.”

Once you make a pass to a teammate, your job isn’t done. Move immediately to another area of the ice to get the opponent’s head on a swivel and either create mayhem so you can pounce on a rebound or start a give-and-go drive to the net.

While Edzo has this catchphrase, the reality is the Blackhawks are wildly inconsistent with implementing his simple lesson. But if the wingers can add this to their arsenal, it’s another way to attack in waves.

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LOOKING AHEAD

Saad - Toews - Kubalik
Nylander - Dach - Kane
DeBrincat - Strome - Caggiula
Highmore - Kampf - Carpenter
Smith, Shaw

Using the above forward lineup as a starting point, we can make projections on who the wingers could be for 2020-21.

Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Matthew Highmore, and Ryan Carpenter are locks, IMO.

Brandon Saad should be a lock but seems to be coming up in trade rumors. The team needs more players like him -- not less -- so the return on any trade would have to be overwhelmingly favorable.

Unlike Kirby Dach but much like Dylan Strome, Alex Nylander did not move the needle in the postseason to demonstrate that he grew and developed more during the shutdown. Despite that, Nylander likely stays although I would actively shop him.

Along with Strome, Kubalik and Drake Caggiula are RFAs whose fates are not only tied to each other -- as far as how much money there is to spend on contract renewals -- but also to Corey Crawford’s fate. Crow is the first domino that must fall.

After Crawford, Kubalik should be the next priority, then Strome. Funds could run out before they get to Caggiula. Slater Koekkoek and Malcolm Subban are also RFAs so they figure into the calculus.

Zack Smith is as good as gone, likely via buyout.

Andrew Shaw is virtually untradeable as a player who spent most of the season on LTIR but exclaims he will be ready to play again next season. Unless he retires, he’s either a starter or on LTIR again.

Pius Suter is a leading candidate to make the team as a newbie. His pro experience in the Swiss League on top of his high compete level and three-zone play contribute to giving him a leg up.

Dylan Sikura and Brandon Hagel are next in line for wing spots if there are any openings due to offseason transactions or injuries during the season. One of them could make Carpenter expendable and a TDL trade candidate.

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NEWS & UPDATES

Crawford has been offered a one-year contract at $3.5M. Although there is no news yet on whether he made a decision, we at least know what the ballpark is for a new deal. Two possible scenarios is he accepts the annual salary but wants more term or wants a higher salary if one year only.

Colliton is also rumored to have a contract extension in the works. Best guess is that neither the salary nor the term is high. His current salary is $450K on a three-year deal. A comparable could be Canucks head coach Travis Green who earns $1M.

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See you on the boards!

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More from Theo Fox
» Offseason Primer
» Season Review: Coaches
» Season Review: Goalies
» Season Review: Centers
» Season Review: Defensemen