August 14 2012 12:42PM
The 2012 Chicago Blackhawks finished the regular season 10th in points and 5th in Fenwick Close, but their season ended with a thud in the first round against the Phoenix Coyotes as Mike Smith shut the door repeatedly on the Hawks scorers. The abrupt ending to the season overshadows the fact that the Hawks were a really good team in 2012 despite several flaws.
The flaws the Blackhawks were working with seem like they should have made more of an impact than they did. Both of Chicago's special teams units were poor. The goaltending was poor. The defense was sketchy after the top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and, after they dumped out of the failed Patrick Kane to center experiment in December, they didn't have an established second line center. Despite these holes the biggest acquisition of the Hawks' offseason thus far has been Sheldon Brookbank.
As serious as those problems are the Blackhawks were still one of the most dominant teams in the league. The lack of moves to this point in the offseason means they are going to need to improve internally to get back to the top of the league.
The Oduya Effect
Behind Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith Chicago struggled to fit Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Steve Montador, Sean O'Donnell, Dylan Olsen, and Sami Lepisto into successful defensive units. Leddy and Hjalmarsson skated as the second defensive unit. The top pairing squared off with the top opposition leaving the second pairing relatively easy minutes. Leddy had a breakout offensive season (37 points in 82 games), but defensively he struggled like most young defensemen will do. Hjalmarsson, skating as Leddy's defensive security blanket, was merely ok.
Enter Johnny Oduya. The Blackhawks inserted Oduya onto the second pairing with Leddy, and the Fenwick %'s of the Blackhawks defensemen went up noticably as a group. On the table below Pre Oduya is each player's Fenwick % prior to the Oduya trade, and Post Oduya is each player's Fenwick % after the trade.
The player to focus on is Leddy. He was a significantly more productive player after they added Oduya. The trial run with Oduya was only 17 games so it does remain to be seen if these results are sustainable. There will be plenty of time to find out as Oduya has committed the next three years of his career to Chicago at a similar cap hit to Hjalmarsson which fueled rampant speculation that Hjalmarsson would be moved this offseason. It wouldn't be surprising to see him moved after the CBA is settled. Defensemen making 3.5 million on the third pair are generally going to be available.
Second Line Center And Patrick Kane
The Blackhawks shrewdly solidified their blueline with the Oduya acquisition, but they have yet to address the glaring hole on their second line. They are very deep up front and have a solid collection of centers (Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland, Marcus Kruger, Jamal Mayers). Toews is a bonafide top line center, and Bolland is an ideal checking line center who takes the tough minutes every night (32% offensive zone starts, highest Corsi Relative Quality of Competition among the Blackhawks forwards).
Bolland's lack of offensive upside made Chicago look for alternative solutions for the second line. The out-of-the-box solution they tried first was moving Patrick Kane to center. Yet, by December 2nd the experiment was dead. Kane's faceoff percentage sat at a terrible 42.2%, and Chicago moved him back to wing. To fill the new second line center hole they turned to Marcus Kruger. In 71 games in his first full season in North America Kruger was a positive Corsi player in somewhat difficult minutes while contributing 26 points. If he can continue to develop the Hawks may have a long term answer, but it's a risky gamble to count on Kruger as a major contributor in 2013 .
The health status of Marian Hossa adds to the challenge of counting on Kruger to be the second line center. Kruger had been centering Sharp and Hossa. Hossa, as you may remember, was knocked out by Raffi Torres with an elbow that earned him a 25 game suspension. Hossa is expected to be ok, but you can never be sure when it comes to concussions. If he isn't ready to go Chicago could be in serious trouble.
Futile Special Teams
Chicago's special teams have taken a steady dive since the 2010 season. The graphic below shows the success rate of both special teams units with their league ranking in parenthesis:
The powerplay drop from 2011 to 2012 is tough to explain. The Blackhawks are too talented to be that poor. The trade of Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers undoubtedly hurt, but not nearly enough to explain the fall. For whatever reason the Hawks don't get enough shots when up an extra man. Since the 2010 season their shots/60 on the powerplay have dropped from 52.1 to 50.8 to 45.8 last year when the league average was ~49. The top unit hasn't changed much in three years, but perhaps it's time to try something new.
The penalty killing units have seen consistent change though. Over the past three years Hjalmarsson's minutes have risen from 2.06 to 2.30 shorthanded minutes/60. The Blackhawks also cut Keith's average minutes from 2.88 in 2009 to 2.29 last year. The shift in defensive usage, when combined with the lack of depth in the bottom six forwards and mediocre goaltending, has led to the consistently declining success rate of the penalty killing units.
Blackhawks goaltending has had a target on it's back since the departure of Antti Niemi after the 2010 run fo the Cup. Corey Crawford is taking the main thrust of the abuse these days. He was poor in 2012 after a good half of a season to close out 2011. Crawford had a .915 even strength save percentage in 2012 which was 29th among goalies with at least 34 games played. In 2011 Crawford settled in at .924 which was tied for 16th.
What happened? One explanation is that goalie performance has crazy variance. Another potential answer comes from Second City Hockey's post season review of the Blackhawks goalie situation:
The Bad: Everything in between October and March. What was really disconcerting was watching Crow struggle with whatever technique he wanted to use. After having a very successful rookie year being pretty conservative as far as challenging shooters....someone decided he had to be more aggressive. While that led to a great first month, the book got out in a hurry that Crow just doesn't move all that well when so far out of his crease.
It's obviously a small sample size, but Crawford had a .921 save percentage in March and April. His playoff performance dampened some of that enthusiasm. In the six game series with the Coyotes Crawford allowed 17 goals. He stopped 89% of the shots he faced, and that isn't going to cut it for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
In the wake of his playoff performance the Blackhawks were expected to pursue an upgrade in net. They've been linked to Martin Brodeur in free agency and Roberto Luongo via trade. Brodeur was never a long term fit given his age, and Luongo's contract is very prohibitive. If Crawford rebounds to his 2010 level he probably isn't much worse than Luongo as is (2012 Luongo ES SV% of.929 vs 2011Crawford ES SV% of .924). The cost to upgrade via trade probably isn't worth it for the Blackhawks right now. Crawford has shown flashes that suggest he can be a viable NHL goalie. Chicago is hoping he can put more of those flashes together in 2013.
The reality of the situation is that the Blackhawks were a very good team despite their flaws. They should have at least made the second round of the playoffs if not victimized by poor netminding. Chicago can reasonably expect to see some improvement from Corey Crawford in net, an improved defense with a year of Johnny Oduya, and improved special teams with some tactical adjustments. They're a definite playoff team with a healthy Marian Hossa. Given the instability of the division (Nashville losing Suter, Detroit losing Lidstrom) the Blackhawks should once again be fighting the Red Wings and Blues for the Central Division crown.