We’re now a quarter of the way through the 2009-10 season, and the Blackhawks are establishing themselves as the best defensive team in the entire NHL. It might be a historically football-based cliche, but if “defense wins championships” then this could be another special year on Chicago’s west side.
Even with Brent Seabrook missing four games with a concussion, and Cristobal Huet struggling for the first few weeks of the season, the Blackhawks defense has helped compensate for their offensive issues. While the team’s power play has disappeared, their power play killing unit has remained at an elite level. The rest of the team’s defensive statistics bear witness to the Hawks supremacy in the league.
The Hawks tandem of Huet and Antti Niemi ranks seventh in the NHL in goals against average at 2.40 goals allowed per game. The save percentage for the two hasn’t been exceptional, but they haven’t been asked to be too busy between the pipes.
The Blackhawks are allowing only 22.7 shots on goal per game, the fewest in the NHL by more than three shots per game. When you take into consideration how well the Hawks defenders accelerate the puck into the offensive end, the Hawks are getting plenty of offensive opportunities. The team’s shot differential is ridiculous (10.5) and almost double that of the Pittsburgh Penguins (5.4), who rank second.
Duncan Keith leads the team in blocked shots with 33, which is tied for 20th in the NHL. Keith also ranks fourth in the NHL in average time on the ice (26:52). He has been superb in Seabrook’s absence and should be considered a contender for the Norris Trophy this year.
Through 15 games, the Blackhawks are also a consistent hitting team. Three Hawks have been credited with more than 30 hits already, with Troy Brouwer leading the way. Brouwer has been a stellar two-way forward so far this season, quietly accumulating 43 hits already. Dustin Byfuglien has 38, and Seabrook has 33 in only 13 games.
The Blackhawks also have a group of defensemenblocking a lot of shots. WithKeith leading the way, five Hawks have blocked more than 20 shots already. Seabrook has been credited with 29, Niklas Hjalmarsson 24, Brent Sopel 23 and Brian Campbell 20 so far. From just those five defensemen, the Blackhawks are blocking an average of nine goals per game.
Now place all of these numbers into the context of scoring. The only Hawks defenseman who is not statistically strong in traditionally blue line stats (hits, blocked shots) is Cam Barker, who spends a lot of his time as a trigger man on offensive power plays. And yet Barker and Sopel are the only two regular defensemen for the Hawks who have a negative plus/minus.
Sopel is primarily a PK specialist, so being -4 on the season isn’t a glaring indictment of his total game. Barker spending as much time as he does on the struggling offensive power play has played a big role in his plus/minus sliding to -3 already this season.
Seabrook is tied with captain Jonathan Toews at +7, followed by Hjalmarsson at +5, Keith is +3 and Campbell is +1. When you think about the number of minutes Hjalmarsson has been asked to play short handed this year, especially stepping up in Seabrook’s absence, his plus/minus rating is superb.
Hjalmarsson has really developed into an outstanding young defenseman. At only 22 years old, Blackhawks’ brass (Scotty Bowman) has used the name Niklas Lindstom in the same sentence with Hjalmsson, arguably the highest praise a defenseman can receive from the former Detroit coach.
The Blackhawks have a strong defensive group of forwards as well. Kris Versteeg has 14 takeaways already, and John Madden has 12. Both rank in the top-20 in the NHL, and aren’t alone in their puck pilfering. Andrew Ladd has nine thefts already, while Dave Bolland and Patrick Kane both have seven.
Management made a strong effort on the free agent market this past summer to address their overall team defense by specifically adding players that were quality two-way players. Marian Hossa is among the best defensive forwards in the game, while Tomas Kopecky led the Red Wings in hits last year.
Madden, of course, is known as one of the best defensive forwards in the game over the last decade. He won the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 2001 and was runner-up three times (2003, ‘04 and ‘08).
This group of forwards and defensemen have led the Blackhawks be one of the top PK teams in the NHL to start the year, currently ranking third in the league at 85.7 percent. The Hawks have two short handed goals, while only allowing eight power play goals.
Overall, the Blackhawks defense has been the best in the NHL so far this young season, and they have a growing track record that indicates they should continue playing exceptional defense. Once they get their power play back on track, this team should instill fear in opponents heading in to April and May.