Analyzing sports can be tricky sometimes, because a history of winning isn’t necessarily indicative of future results. Leaning too heavily on the past and hoping that positive events will continue in the forthcoming seasons can sometimes lead to bad decision making.
After all, the NHL is cyclical, with teams rising and falling on a yearly basis. Perhaps nothing brings hockey writers together more quickly than a once-strong team that appears to be on a downward trend. Folks will always rush to be the first to predict the downfall of outstanding organizations out on the ice.
Chicago Blackhawks fans have dealt with their fair share of those kinds of predictions over the last few months. A series of offseason moves saw the team give up talent in the name of contract stability, and many pundits wondered whether or not the salary cap crunch had finally caught up to the Blackhawks.
Then Chicago won its first game of the 2017-18 season via a 10-1 final. That victory didn’t come against a bottom-feeding team, but instead against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. After that, the Blackhawks welcomed the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets to the confines of the United Center and promptly kicked their butts, winning 5-1.
A 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs still gave Chicago a point in the standings, before the Blackhawks went to Montreal and beat the Canadiens 3-1. It’s early, but they have the best goal differential in the NHL with a plus-14. Only one other team — the New Jersey Devils — have cracked double digits going either direction, to give you an idea of how well Chicago has played to this point.
A 10-goal outing obviously inflates that goal differential number, but a 10-goal outburst against the defending champions can’t simply be swept under the rug either. Is it an outlier? Sure, but outlying wins count just as much as the normal 3-2 victories do. So the Blackhawks have won three of their first four contests, secured points in every outing and have made it to the top of various power rankings following Week 1.
Which leads to a simple question: Did we write the Chicago Blackhawks off too soon? The answer, as with most things, isn’t really all that black and white.
The Blackhawks’ red-hot start in the offensive zone can mostly be tied to the success of the top line of Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad and Richard Panik. The trio has combined for 18 points and has generated 10 goals total. Those numbers are impressive in the short-term and highly unsustainable across more than another handful of games.
That’s because the trio’s goal scoring has been driven by insanely high shooting percentages. Which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, since we’re only four games in, but even with that in mind, the numbers are insanely high.
Saad has scored on nearly 30 percent of his shots, while Panik is converting on 27.3 percent of his. Toews has the lowest total of the three, and he’s sitting at 25 percent. All of those shooting percentages will come back down to Earth, and when they do, Chicago’s biggest weakness — a leaky blue line — won’t be obfuscated quite as well.
Heading into games played on October 12, only seven teams have given up more shots on average than the Blackhawks (36.8). Like the shooting percentages, that number will adjust as more games are played, but just how much correction can we expect in Chicago?
Last season, the Blackhawks finished with the ninth-highest shots allowed per game total (31.4), and remember, this is a group that traded away Niklas Hjalmarsson during the summer. The defense isn’t in better shape than it was in 2016-17. If anything, the unit has taken clear steps backward.
This is a team that is using a depleted Brent Seabrook on the top pairing, while the likes of Michal Kempny and Connor Murphy have rounded out the top four. Aside from Duncan Keith — who can’t play every single shift — no one inside of the top-four screams trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Getting out to a quick start in the standings isn’t pointless, but there are still question marks left in Chicago. While we may have written them off too quickly this summer, we need to be careful to not overcorrect in the other direction and assume they’re going to charge to the Stanley Cup because of four games played in early October.
- Hawks need to remain patient with Alex DeBrincat
- Hawks need success from Brandon Saad more than ever