Solutions to Chicago Blackhawks' Biggest Problems Early in 2013-14
The Chicago Blackhawks are an outstanding 8-2-3 and are well on their way to defending their Stanley Cup title. Jonathan Toews has awoken from an early-season slumber, Patrick Kane is finding his A-game and you couldn't ask Corey Crawford to perform much better on a nightly basis.
Chicago hasn't been perfect, though. Even when it was busy putting together a string of 24 consecutive games without a regulation loss, the team had things to work on.
This 8-2-3 'Hawks team is no different.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.
Issue No. 1
Nikolai Khabibulin hasn't been a very good backup.
Last season, the Blackhawks were a bit spoiled by the stellar play of Ray Emery, who left the backup position in Chicago to be a backup in Philadelphia (oops). He was able to land a more lucrative contract than the 'Hawks could offer because of a sparkling 17-1 record.
With Emery playing so well in net, it gave Chicago a chance to rest Corey Crawford down the stretch. There probably wasn't a fresher goalie during the 2013 postseason, and it showed.
In going to Khabibulin, the Blackhawks clearly felt they were securing a known commodity since the goaltender had spent four seasons as the backstop in Chicago. Except that Khabibulin had played four more seasons since his last as a member of the 'Hawks, making him a bit...old.
Which wouldn't be a big deal if he was playing well, but he's not. The former Bulin Wall hasn't posted a save percentage above .900 in a game this season and is sporting a goals-against average that is close to five. As in five goals allowed per game.
Simply not good enough.
Believe it or not, Chicago has a potential solution in the AHL. Antti Raanta has been outstanding for the Rockford IceHogs this season, posting a 5-1 record along with a 2.40 GAA and a .926 save percentage.
It seems like the 24-year-old goaltender could give Crawford a few actual whole nights off while giving the 'Hawks enough support that they don't have to break out of their system entirely to score six goals to win a 6-5 game.
Issue No. 2
Dave Bolland was traded during the offseason and is now plying his two-way talents with the Toronto Maple leafs. That left a hole down the middle of the ice for the 'Hawks, as there was no clear-cut option to fill in behind Jonathan Toews.
During preseason, the team tried Brandon Saad in the No. 2 hole. That lasted all of two games before he was shifted back to wing and Michal Handzus was given a chance to lock up a role in the top six.
With Handzus sidelined for the time being with an injury, Chicago is finally giving one of their young players a chance at the spot.
Brandon Pirri. The solution has been Brandon Pirri all along, by the way.
Chicago has tried to give the youngster a little more playing time down in the minors before leaning on him for such big minutes, but the lack up depth at center has forced them to play the Pirri card.
He might just turn out to be the trump they've been looking for anyway.
The 22-year-old forward has been working on his two-way game in Rockford and has impressed the coaching staff in the AHL with his development there.
He's still not perfect in all three zones, but putting him on a line with Marian Hossa and Saad will insulate him a bit. While he's a work in progress in the middle of the ice, the kid can score with the best of them. He led the A in points last season and already has five points in eight games in Chicago this year.
Issue No. 3
We took a more in-depth look at Chicago's issues holding onto third-period leads last week, and while they've cleaned up their act a bit over the last few days, the trend is still there. It'll take more than one come-from-behind win or secured lead to right this ship.
This is the kind of mental block that can take weeks or months to iron out.
Touching on something we addressed in the aforementioned column, the 'Hawks just seem to doze off for a few minutes in the middle of the third period. This speaks volumes about where the team is at mentally.
No core group of players around the NHL has played more hockey over the last four seasons than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. They look tired and check out occasionally. It doesn't take long for a top-end squad to recognize that and attack.
An old and played-out hockey adage applies here: Chicago needs to play and compete for the entirety of games. Not just two-and-a-half periods' worth.
The scary part is that the 'Hawks have the offensive firepower to lean on when stuff hits the fan. See the Ottawa Senators contest from October 29 for your proof. They can shed the defensive skin when the need arises and win shootouts.
Yet that lack of discipline isn't a positive moving forward.
That kind of game will fly during the regular season, but that isn't playoff hockey. It certainly isn't Cup-caliber hockey, either.
Joel Quenneville has the remedy for this issue somewhere in his doctor's bag. It'll just take him some time to figure out exactly what to feed the 'Hawks as a cure.
Issue No. 4
The most disturbing trend of this young season is the penalty kill. Or the total lack thereof. No one in the NHL has been worse at killing penalties than Chicago this season, which is almost exactly the opposite form how it was last year.
The 'Hawks were the third-best PK unit during the regular season and went into complete shutdown mode during the postseason. En route to the Stanley Cup, they killed off 90 percent of all power plays. Which is insane, for the record.
That number seems like an eternity away for this version of the 'Hawks, though, who are currently clipping along with a 72.5 percent kill rate. It's on the PK that players like Bolland and Michael Frolik are badly missed. The turnover this summer wasn't awful, but it clearly did some damage to Chicago's ability to kill off power plays.
There's no easy workaround here. CSN Chicago might be on the scent, though. They went back and watched every power-play goal that has been scored against the 'Hawks this season and noticed a trend:
We reviewed the goals the Blackhawks kill has allowed this season. If we’re counting correctly, the Blackhawks have allowed two within five seconds of their kill’s start. Three others came 23, 31 and 36 seconds into the job.
The deduction here is simple: The 'Hawks need to do a better job at winning the initial faceoff in their zone at the beginning of the kill.
Keep in mind that Frolik didn't arrive in Chicago as a vaunted penalty-killer, but he left as one. He was taught to perform that task well, and coach Quenneville will need to have a similar impact on another player on the roster if he hopes to correct this glaring problem any time soon.