This will be the fifth and final installment of our analysis of the Blackhawks’ summer moves as part of a team evaluation at the end of the first quarter of the season.
On Monday morning in Part One of our Summer Trade Analysis series, we examined the statistical differences between three players: former Blackhawks Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, and current Hawks forward Viktor Stalberg. Monday afternoon, in Part Two, we looked at the differences between departed champions John Madden and Colin Fraser versus their replacements, Fernando Pisani and Jake Dowell.
Then on Tuesday morning, in Part Three, we looked how well Nick Boynton has replaced Brent Sopel on the Hawks’ blue line this year. Tuesday afternoon we looked at the prospects that were added to the Blackhawks organization in Part Four.
Now, in Part Five, we’ll try to make sense of it all, wrap it up and put the first quarter of the season to bed.
We haven’t touched on all of the departures from this summer. We’ll get to the goaltending in a moment, but we must address the departure making the most noise so far this year: Dustin Byfuglien.
Byfuglien was dealt to Atlanta in a large deal, but he was clearly the centerpiece. At just 25, he forced himself onto the hockey world by dominating the postseason and pressing for Conn Smythe consideration. Despite a mediocre regular season that saw him spending most of his time on the third or fourth line, Byfuglien lived up to the promise that former GM Dale Tallon saw when he handed him a $3M salary.
However, that salary is why Byfuglien is no longer in Chicago.
Yes, Byfuglien has five goals and 11 assists already in just 18 games. Yes, he’s pushing for All Star consideration.
No, there is absolutely no guarantee that he would have produced this way in Chicago. And yes, the Blackhawks made the right decision in trading him.
Kudos to the Atlanta Thrashers organization for having the confidence to move him back to the blue line permanently. Byfuglien is averaging 22:23 on the ice and nine of his points (three goals, six assists) have come as the point on the power play. Based on the history we’ve all witnessed, there is a slim chance the Blackhawks would play Byfuglien as a defenseman to start the season, and, if they had, he certainly wouldn’t be playing the number of minutes on a deep Chicago blue line that he is in Atlanta.
Furthermore, as we discussed over the summer, the decision was between keeping Patrick Sharp and Byfuglien. The Blackhawks have indeed struggled to find the emotion that is often associated with Byfuglien, but the Hawks wouldn’t be .500 if they had kept Byfuglien over Sharp.
Have the Blackhawks replaced Byfuglien? No. But they couldn’t afford to keep him, and he would not be given the same opportunities in Chicago that he is receiving in Atlanta. It’s an apples and oranges discussion that will never be answered.
But the loss of Byfuglien isn’t the reason the Hawks are off to a start that many consider to be mediocre.
Let’s look at some key differences between this year and last year to try to find some differences. As we do this, it will become fairly apparent where the biggest change has taken place for the Blackhawks.
- Record before Circus Trip
- Last Year: 12-5-2
- This Year: 9-9-2
I have personally allowed for the excuse of a busy early season schedule for the defending champions for a while, but at this point in the season it doesn’t hold weight any longer. Last year the Blackhawks played only one fewer game before leaving on the Circus Trip, and that was because they started the year with two games against the Florida Panthers in Europe.
- Home/Road Records before Trip
- Last Year – Home: 10-2-0
- Last Year – Road: 2-3-2
- This Year – Home: 5-7-0
- This Year – Road: 4-2-2
Last year, the Blackhawks sprinted to a strong start with home wins almost every night. For this article, despite one being a “home” game, I included the split in Europe as road games. These numbers clearly indicate that there is, at some level, a malfunction taking place at the United Center. Obviously raising a banner before opening the home schedule raises the bar as well, and the Hawks have certainly been the hottest ticket in town this fall. Is the difference completely a matter of pressure at home?
- Goalie Statistics
- Save Percentage – Last Year: .895
- Save Percentage - This Year: .906
- Goals Against Average – Last Year: 2.42
- Goals Against Average – This Year: 2.90
Hang on… so the Blackhawks totally turned over their goaltender rotation this season, and the combination of Marty Turco and Corey Crawford actually has a better save percentage at this point this year than Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi did at the same time last year? Then why is the goals against average almost a full half-goal higher than last year?
- Shots On Goal per Game
- Shots For – Last Year: 33.2
- Shots For – This Year: 32.6
- Shots Against – Last Year: 23.1
- Shots Against – This Year: 30.7
This is the biggest difference between last year and this year, without question. Before leaving on the Circus Trip last year, the Blackhawks had allowed 30 shots on net only twice, and had been out-shot in a game twice. This year, the Blackhawks are allowing over 30 shots per game on average, and have been out-shot 10 times in 20 games.
Simple answer: puck possession.
Long answer: roster turnover and injuries.
Since Brian Campbell returned, the Hawks have only been out-shot once and allowed over 30 shots only only twice in seven games. One would think that fewer shots against is an automatic indicator of stronger puck possession, and that turning around a disturbing early season trend would have improved the team’s ability to win games, but it has surprisingly done the opposite; the Hawks are only 2-4-1 in the seven games with Campbell in the lineup.
Reality is that the roster turnover has been a major issue for the Blackhawks, and its impact has been enhanced by the number of injuries the Hawks have been forced to deal with early on.
When the 2009-10 season started, the Hawks had a roster that included Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Cam Barker, Colin Fraser and Brent Sopel. Each of these players spent the 2008-09 season with the Blackhawks building chemistry in coach Joel Quenneville’s system. Many fans forget that Marian Hossa didn’t play until Thanksgiving last year; most of the skaters on the ice for the early part of last year were young kids that had skated together for at least one full season together.
Look at the number of games some of the departed Hawks played in Chicago in 2008-09:
- Versteeg: 78
- Ladd: 82
- Byfuglien: 77
- Fraser: 81
- Barker: 68
- Eager: 75
- Sopel: 23* (was on team the entire season)
There was a level of familiarity on the ice that isn’t easily duplicated with any team. But when you turn over half the roster, it’s vital that the veterans help get the new players into the mix and lead by example.
Which is why the missed games from veterans has hurt so much.
What made last year’s team so good throughout the season was that familiarity. Duncan Keith had spent two years sending outlet passes up the ice to Versteeg or Byfuglien or Sharp or Patrick Kane; he knew where they would be without looking most of the time. Similarly, Dave Bolland had spent a lot of time on the ice with Versteeg, Byfuglien and Ladd, and they had developed chemistry on the ice as a group.
This year, with Sharp splitting time between wing and center and the number of changing lines because of injuries, it has been evident that some of the veterans on the Hawks roster are second guessing themselves before releasing the puck. The passing has not been crisp, and there have been far too many turnovers. But when players like Hossa, Sharp, Kane, Bolland, Campbell, Nick Boynton, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Tomas Kopecky all miss time at some point in the early season, developing chemistry doesn’t happen.
Now, for the first time all year, the Blackhawks have their full compliment of players available to Quenneville. There will still be growing pains, and the rotation isn’t set in stone yet, but at least now the Blackhawks can start the process of knowing the tendencies of their teammates as well as they know their opponents.