Robin Lehner

Chicago Blackhawks: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Putrid power play spoils special teams

Yes, the Blackhawks aren’t the dynastic team they once were. Their defense, in particular, just can’t keep up like it used to.

But there’s still some serious scoring skill on this roster, and it’s not just the obvious in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks clearly nabbed a steal in Alex DeBrincat, while Dylan Strome, Brandon Saad, Dominik Kubalik and others give Chicago strong four-forward options on the PP.

Yet, for whatever reason, the Blackhawks’ power play simply didn’t click in 2019-20.

The Blackhawks received 217 power-play opportunities, the eighth-highest total in the NHL. Chicago squandered far too many of those chances, managing 33 PPG (tied for 23rd in NHL) and 15.2 success rate (28th). The Blackhawks also gave up eight shorthanded goals, tied for seventh-most in the league.

Chicago sits at a -6 goal differential this season, and can chalk that up to its punchless power play, as their PK was pretty effective. (It just wasn’t good enough to make up for a poor power play.)

Blackhawks goaltending was both a pleasant surprise and an indirect disappointment

Ever since the Blackhawks collapsed from contention, the modified strategy turned to “outscoring their problems.”

Failing on the power play was disappointing in that regard, and it also feels like it contributed to the Blackhawks squandering strong goaltending in 2019-20.

After his surprising free agent departure from the Islanders, Robin Lehner barely missed a beat for Chicago. He managed a .918 save percentage in 33 games before being shipped to the Golden Knights. Considering Chicago’s defense, a .918 mark with the Blackhawks is almost as impressive as his .930 in Barry Trotz’s nurturing defensive system.

Interestingly, Corey Crawford nearly matched Lehner.

Such strong play slipped under the radar, and it’s easy to understand why. Since Jan. 1, Crawford managed merely a 10-9-1 record in 20 games … while generating a fantastic .928 save percentage. Overall, Crawford sits at .917 for 2019-20, just a stride behind Lehner.

The Blackhawks receiving such strong goaltending from one of Lehner or Crawford wouldn’t have been surprising, but both? Yeah, that should count among the surprises for the Blackhawks. At the same time, failing to take advantage of that goaltending edge ranks among their biggest disappointments.

(Deciding to trade Robin Lehner opens up a whole other discussion.)

Kubalik among positive surprises, DeBrincat among disappointments for Blackhawks

Predictably enough, Kane (84 points) and Toews (60) topped Chicago’s scorers in 2019-20. I’m not sure even Dominik Kubalik expected to rank third for the Blackhawks, though.

With 30 goals and 46 points in 68 games, the 24-year-old made a stunning jump from the Swiss league. While Kubalik did not go undrafted, he only barely avoided such a fate .(Los Angeles chose Kubalik 191st overall in 2013.)

Yes, expect Kubalik to cool off next season. Puck luck certainly aided Kubalik on his way to 30 goals, as his shooting percentage was at 19.1.

All of those caveats aside, Kubalik managed strong production out of nowhere, especially considering limited ice time overall. (Kubalik averaged 14:22 per game, although Chicago wisely bumped his deployment up as 2019-20 progressed).

DeBrincat’s regression (45 points, fourth on team) ranks as one of the Blackhawks’ biggest disappointments, however. Blackhawks fans should still look at his extension as a likely bargain, but this was a tough year. At minimum, expect DeBrincat to enjoy more luck, as his shooting percentage was at a meager 8.7 this season.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Looking at the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chicago Blackhawks

Record: 32-30-8 (70 games), seventh in the Central Division, Out of Playoffs
Leading scorer: Patrick Kane 84 points (33 goals and 51 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

• Traded Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights for Malcolm Subban, Slava Demin, 2020 second-round pick.
• Acquired T.J. Brennan from the Philadelphia Flyers for Nathan Noel.
• Shipped Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames for a 2020 third-round pick.
• Traded Graham Knott to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Joseph Cramarossa.
• Acquired Alec Regula from the Detroit Red Wings for Brendan Perlini.
• Sent Aleksi Saarela to the Florida Panthers for Ian McCoshen.

Season Overview:

The Blackhawks didn’t get off to the greatest of starts in 2019-20. They began their campaign with a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Czech Republic and then came home to play seven consecutive games at the United Center. How did those games go? Well, they only managed to win two of the seven. When October was all said and done, the ‘Hawks had a 3-6-3 record.

They managed to rattle off a four-game winning streak in November, but quickly followed that up by losing five of their last six games to close out the month.

Get the picture?

There was no semblance of consistency with this edition of the Blackhawks. Sure, they still have an elite talent in Patrick Kane and, yes, Jonathan Toews is still a really good player. They also have Dominik Kubalik, who scored 30 goals in his first year, and Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Brandon Saad. Those are all talented players, but the entire roster just doesn’t stack up with the elite teams in the Western Conference anymore.

Their defense still features Duncan Keith, but the unit got old in a hurry. Keith has played a lot of hockey, Seabrook was struggling badly before being shut down with an injury and the acquisition of Calvin de Haan and Olli Maata helped, but not enough.

Management has to decide what the next step is for this group. It’s always tempting to “go for it” when you have Kane, but the supporting cast just isn’t strong enough. Can they make it work by tweaking the roster, or is this a team that needs a major overhaul?

Whenever the off-season starts, they’ll have to address the goaltending position too, because Corey Crawford isn’t getting any younger and he’s scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st. He had been playing well down the stretch, but he’s become a question mark when it comes to staying healthy.

Big decisions are coming.

Highlight of the Season:

Kane has been one of the few bright spots on the ice for the this team and he continued to pile up incredible numbers throughout the season.

On January 19th, in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, Kane picked up a secondary assist on Saad’s goal late in the third period. That point allowed the Blackhawks forward to reach the 1,000-point club.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
Biggest surprises and disappointments

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It looks like Blackhawks are sticking with Bowman, Colliton

Blackhawks
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Before the 2019-20 NHL season went on pause the Chicago Blackhawks were headed toward their third consecutive non-playoff season and their fifth consecutive season without a playoff series win (with only three playoff game wins during that stretch).

It has been a pretty sudden fall from the top for an organization that was once the gold standard for winning in the salary cap NHL.

They are not only no longer a Stanley Cup contender, they are not even all that close to being a playoff team in what has been a mostly watered down Western Conference the past two years.

Despite the sudden descent into mediocrity, there does not appear to be any significant changes coming to the coaching staff or front office after this season.

In an interview with the Athletic’s Scott Powers, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said the trio of team president John McDonough, general manager Stan Bowman, and head coach Jeremy Colliton will all be back next season.

From the Athletic:

Wirtz isn’t on the same page as those fans. Asked about his confidence level in the trio, Wirtz replied, “I think they’re all good.”

Does he envision all three returning next season?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Wirtz said. “There’s not going to be any changes in the front office.”

Wirtz reiterated that when he was asked about a rumored Bowman contract extension.

“I’ll let John (McDonough) get into all the details,” Wirtz said of Bowman’s contract. “But there’s not going to be any changes, so let’s put that away.”

The level of confidence there is a little surprising given the current state of the Blackhawks’ organization, especially as it relates to the key people in the front office responsible with building the team.

It was just a little over a year ago that the team parted ways with a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach (Joel Quenneville) after a slow start to the season 2018-19 season. It wasn’t a stretch to think that move would have started the timer on Bowman given that the attention would eventually drift toward the team’s roster management. Especially after the Blackhawks seemed to go all in this offseason on trying to fix their flaws with the hope of squeezing another run out of this remaining core. Obviously, that gamble has not paid off.

While the Blackhawks have to deal with salary cap restrictions that come from paying a pair of superstars big money at the top, that alone isn’t enough of a justification for the drop in success, especially while teams like Washington and Pittsburgh have maintained consistent success with a similar cap structure. The issue still comes back to roster management and some questionable decisions over the years. The Blackhawks tried to get ahead of their salary cap issues over the years but simply made things worse in the short-and long-term.

They needed to dump Bryan Bickell’s contract and did so by attaching Teuvo Teravainen to it and trading him to Carolina for next to nothing. Today, Teravainen is one of the Hurricanes’ best players and would easily be a top player in Chicago.

They feared how much Artemi Panarin would cost on his next contract and dealt him to Columbus to bring back Brandon Saad and some cost certainty. Talent-for-talent, the trade was laughably one-sided and saw them deal a superstar for a good player. Maybe they couldn’t have re-signed him for his current contract and lost him anyway, but how much more competitive would they have been the previous two years with him at forward with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex DeBrincat?

Then there were smaller, minor deals this offseason like trading Dominik Kahun and Henri Jokiharju for Olli Maatta and Alex Nylander, and then getting an underwhelming return on Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the trade deadline. There are big mistakes. There are a bunch of small mistakes adding up into big mistakes. It all just keeps building up into what the Blackhawks have now.

That is not to say there have not been some successes.

Acquiring Dominik Kubalik has been one of the Blackhawks’ best steals in recent years. DeBrincat has turned out to be an outstanding second-round pick, while recent top picks Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach look like they can be young building blocks going forward. But even with those successes and the promise they bring there are still more questions than solutions throughout the roster. Without dramatic change somewhere, the mediocrity might only continue to build.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Golden Knights looking like a major Stanley Cup threat

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Let’s talk about the Vegas Golden Knights for a bit, because they are starting to emerge as one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference.

They enter Monday’s game in Edmonton in first-place in the Pacific Division and are one of the league’s hottest teams having won 10 of their past 12 games, while also owning a 14-5-2 record since the hiring of new coach Peter DeBoer.

It’s not just the recent results that make them such a threat right now in the West. It’s the fact they are starting to systematically dominate teams. It is the perfect storm of the right results and the right process.

So what’s happening in Vegas that is making them such a threat?

They have tightened things up defensively

Just to make it clear at the start: I was very critical of their decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant earlier this season and replace him with Peter DeBoer. Not because DeBoer isn’t a good coach (He is, as is Gallant), but because the problems in Vegas at the time seemed to be more of a goaltending issue than anything relating to coaching.

But fair is fair to DeBoer, and the Golden Knights have definitely improved their overall performance defensively.

The table below shows some of their 5-on-5 defensive metrics under the two coaches, including shot attempts against, shot attempt differential, expected goals against, goals against, and save percentage.

The goaltending still hasn’t been where they want it to be, and while they were still a top-10 team in some key defensive metrics under Gallant, they have been quite literally the league’s best under DeBoer.

The big change is in dramatic decrease in total shot attempts against, as well as the way they have cut down on the scoring chances and expected goals against. Even though the goaltending performance has remained similar, the defensive play in front of them has definitely improved.

The type of performance we are seeing from the right now is one that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams.

Robin Lehner gives them an intriguing option

Speaking of the goaltending situation, it’s going to be interesting to see how this situation unfolds down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise from the moment he was acquired in the expansion draft, and overall he’s been a rock for them in net. But the fact of the matter is that his overall performance has regressed this season, and outside of a handful of random games in February it hasn’t really consistently improved.

But with Robin Lehner now in the mix the Golden Knights have a very intriguing Plan B in place.

One of their biggest weaknesses the past two years has been the lack of a quality backup behind Fleury. It forced Fleury to take on a huge workload (not great for a goalie in his mid-30s) and had no safety net in case of an injury or poor play.

They not only have a great Plan B, their Plan B also happens to be one of the league’s best goalies the past two years, and he is 3-0 with a .940 save percentage since joining the Golden Knights at the trade deadline.

Forget the star power and reputations, there is no reason why that job should not be up for debate and an open competition down the stretch. If one of them emerges and solidifies that spot, it would take this team to an entirely different level.

Max Pacioretty has been amazing, and Mark Stone will be back

The Golden Knights may not have a true superstar in their lineup, but their top-end talent is legit. Leading the way is Pacioretty (he got a mention in this week’s MVP Power Rankings) who is having one of the best seasons of his career, driving play like a champion and scoring at close to a 40-goal pace.

As a team, they have six forwards scoring at a 20-goal pace over 82 games, while they have also played the past six games (4-2-0 record) without perhaps their best overall forward, Mark Stone.

They should have a very manageable playoff path

This might be one of the biggest things working in their favor.

There are a ton of factors that go into winning in the playoffs, from playing well, to health, to goaltending, to luck, to simply getting the right matchups.

Obviously nothing is a guarantee, but whether the Golden Knights finish first or second in the Pacific Division they should have an extremely manageable path through at least the first two rounds. They would almost certainly be favorites against any team they play in Rounds 1 and 2, while there remains a pretty significant gap between the top contenders in the Western Conference and the next tier of contenders.

Look at it this way: As of publication on Monday afternoon, only one of their potential playoff matchups in Rounds 1 or 2 (Edmonton) of the playoffs ranks higher than 15th in the league in points percentage, while several of their potential early matchups (Calgary, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Arizona, Nashville) are all in the 18-23 range.

It is entirely possible that they would not have to play a top-15 NHL team in the playoffs until a potential Western Conference Final matchup.

They still have to play the games and they still have actually win once they get there, but the way things are shaping up right now with their overall play and potential postseason path the Golden Knights should be one of the top teams to watch for coming out of the Western Conference.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Face-Off: Konecny is flying; Can Hurricanes survive goalie injuries?

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It’s Monday, which means it’s time for the PHT Face-Off. We’ll break down some of the topics and trends around the NHL for the upcoming week and beyond.

• Will Stanley Cup Champions bring back Pietrangelo?

The St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins both have free-agent defensemen that they’d probably like to re-sign before July 1st.

For the Blues, that’s captain Alex Pietrangelo. The 30-year-old will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and he’s been a key cog for the defending Stanley Cup Champions. He has 13 goals and 49 points in 65 games this year, which puts him on pace for over 60 points.

The veteran also plays key minutes for the Blues, as he’s currently averaging just over 24 minutes per game. One interesting nugget about Pietrangelo is that he’s capable of playing with different partners throughout the season. He’s played at least 220 minutes with Justin Faulk, Carl Gunnarsson, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn.

Whether they win the cup again or not, losing Pietrangelo to free agency for nothing would be devastating.

The Blues have almost $74 million committed to next year’s salary cap (assuming the upper limit stays at $81.5 million). They still need to fill out the rest of their roster, so that means they’ll have less than $7.5 million to give their captain to stay. Given the numbers he’s put up over the course of his career, it’ll take more than $7.5 million per year anyway.

General manager Doug Armstrong has an interesting problem on his hands. Last week, he mentioned that negotiations wouldn’t start until after the season. Can he make the numbers work?

• What will the Blackhawks do between the pipes? 

The Chicago Blackhawks traded Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights last week, which left Corey Crawford and Malcolm Subban, who they got in the trade, on their roster.

Crawford has looked relatively good over the last few weeks. He’s managed to keep the opposition to two goals or fewer in four of his last five outings. It’s arguably the best he’s looked all season.

“He’s been excellent,” head coach Jeremy Colliton said, per NBC Sports Chicago. “He’s been good all year but another level the last month or two, and it’s good for our group.”

The fact that they traded Lehner away doesn’t really affect their long-term question marks between the pipes. Like Lehner, Crawford is scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st. With a good showing down the stretch, Subban could become the team’s backup goaltender on a full-time basis next year, but they still need an undisputed starter heading into 2020-21.

Even if Crawford continues rolling down the stretch, you’d have to think that GM Stan Bowman will look for another proven option outside the organization. Crawford is 35 and he’s struggled to stay healthy over the last few years.

Assuming Capitals netminder Braden Holtby makes it to free agency, could he be a fit with the Blackhawks? Could they bring back Lehner once he hits the market?

Bowman can bring Crawford back as a part-time starter if he wants to, but they can’t go into next season with him as an undisputed starter. It’s way too much of a risk for a Blackhawks team that needs to make the playoffs.

• Can inexperienced goalies keep Hurricanes in playoff hunt?

If the playoffs started today, the Carolina Hurricanes wouldn’t be in them. There’s no denying that the ‘Canes have a talented group, but they’re currently facing some adversity in goal. Both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are out, and now that the Dave Ayres story has cooled off, they’re left with two inexperienced goalies in Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic.

Carolina is three points behind Columbus for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes have three games in hand though. But they’re coming off a 4-3 OT loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. Forsberg got the start in the game, but he was given the hook after allowing three goals on 20 shots before the midway point of the game. They managed to mount a three-goal comeback after Forsberg got the hook, but still ended up falling short.

Since Ayres won that game against Toronto two Saturdays ago, the ‘Canes have gone 0-2-1 with Forsberg and Nedeljkovic.

Can head coach Rod Brind’Amour get enough out of his goaltenders to sneak his team back into the postseason? That’s the biggest question mark right now.

“They’re very capable goalies,” forward Justin Williams said after the loss to Montreal, per NHL.com. “It could easily have been 4-0, then we’d be out of it. So it was an important point, and we dug in the last half of the game.”

• Konecny is flying

The Philadelphia Flyers have rattled off six wins in a row dating back to Feb. 18. They’ve been so good that Money Puck has given them the best odds of hoisting the Stanley Cup:

The Flyers have jumped ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division. They’re now just three points ahead of Washington for the first place. Can they do what most of us thought was unthinkable just a few weeks ago?

There’s many reasons why the Flyers are rolling, but one of the key contributors has been Travis Konecny. During this winning streak, he’s picked up four goals and eight assists. The 22-year-old has 23 goals and 60 points in 62 games this season, which puts him on pace for almost 30 goals and more than 75 points.

Check out these five-on-five numbers (originally tweeted on Feb. 26):

That’s some elite company for Konecny to be in. The scary thing is that he’s probably only going to get better from here.

What’s coming up this week
Jean-Gabriel Pageau plays Sens for first time since trade to Isles – Thu. Mar. 5, 7 p.m. ET
• Panthers will retire Luongo’s No. 1 – Sat. Mar. 7, 7 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
• Bruins vs. Lightning, Tue. Mar. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET
• Ducks vs. Avalanche, Wed. Mar. 4, 9:30 p.m. ET
• Hurricanes vs. Flyers, Thu. Mar. 5, 7 p.m. ET
• Blues vs. Blackhawks, Sun. Mar. 8, 7:30 p.m. ET
• Avalanche vs. Sharks, Sun. Mar. 8, 10 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey
• Flyers vs. Capitals, Wed. Mar. 4, 7 p.m. ET

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.