Blackhawks

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

The Blackhawks entered this season with the same mantra they have countless others: get off to a good start and save yourself a point chase at the end of the season.

My first season on the beat was probably the Blackhawks’ best lesson lately on what happens when you’re scrambling late; they just about missed the playoffs, losing to Detroit in the regular-season finale and needing Minnesota to beat Dallas to get into the postseason. And while the overall results have been a mixed bag, their opening record (5-2-2) isn’t shabby.

Still, there are questions regarding where the Blackhawks are and where they’re heading. To that end (yeah, we’re finally getting to the point of this whole spiel), we bring you this week’s mailbag:

The Blackhawks’ happiness with Tanner Kero was partly because of Kero’s work last season. But in terms of comparing to other centers, Kero’s emergence had more to do with replacing Dennis Rasmussen than it did Marcus Kruger – Kero re-signed with the Blackhawks around the same time talks reportedly went awry between the team and Rasmussen. Anyway, back to Kero. I don’t think it’s so much what he’s not doing as what Tommy Wingels is doing in that fourth-line spot. The Blackhawks originally envisioned Wingels at wing but he has previous experience at center and his work there has been pretty good. Saturday night’s game certainly helps, be it for Wingels alone or keeping that fourth line together (he, John Hayden and Lance Bouma, who scored the game-winner). Don’t be surprised if there’s some rotation there, though.

Maybe, although either of those guys will likely still be rotating in/out with another player. Just depends on how much the Blackhawks want those guys playing constantly (I would guess that would be the case with rookie Matthew Highmore more than Hinostroza).

We all know this contract, all know how it hamstrings the Blackhawks for a while. But in the immediate future, what can you do? Fellow scribe Mark Lazerus has asked a few times about Seabrook’s place in the lineup and coach Joel Quenneville has demurred. Granted, we’re guessing general manager Stan Bowman doesn’t want Seabrook out of the lineup, either. Seabrook’s leadership skills are tremendous; to a man, the Blackhawks will say how vocal he is. His past work, especially in the playoffs, speaks for itself. It depends on how things progress as the season goes but I don’t foresee Seabrook coming out of the lineup right now. Speaking of Seabrook…

Highly doubt it. The asking price won’t be just one guy for another. And with any trade talk I remind everyone to see a player’s NMC status. Seabrook has a full no movement clause.

Nope, he’s not going anywhere, as the traveling media confirmed with Quenneville on Monday afternoon in Las Vegas. I had to be reminded that DeBrincat was nearing that deadline on Sunday, his status not coming up in conversations with Quenneville and Stan Bowman like it did when Brandon Saad made the team at 19. DeBrincat has made such an impression that it was going to take something extraordinary for the Blackhawks to reassign him. DeBrincat has found his place in the lineup and whether or not he’s been scoring he’s been good. So here, he remains.

https://twitter.com/unclepauly5/status/922234405535604736

You don’t trade him. The Blackhawks are where they are right now due in large part to their goaltending, especially Crawford. There have been, what, two games in which the Blackhawks dominated? So no, you don’t trade Crawford.

We’re quite a while from the trade deadline, so let’s tap the breaks on any talk about what the Blackhawks may do several months from now. As far as Murphy’s current status, no, I don’t believe his job is in jeopardy. Again, part of this is the eight-defensemen situation. But it’s also getting Murphy more ingrained in the system. I talked to Dave Tippett, Murphy’s former coach, a few weeks ago. He said, “we put him into situations he may not have been ready for [with Arizona], but he always continued to improve in those situations. He still has a lot of growing to do but he’s a very dedicated athlete and I think there’s a lot of upside there.” It’s easy to look at who the Blackhawks traded away for Murphy and Murphy’s contract and say, “yeah, he should be an everyday guy.” He should be at some point but considering what I mentioned above, I’m not surprised he isn’t right now. Speaking of defensemen rotating in and out of the lineup…

Yeah, I’m still not a big fan of the eight-defensemen set, for the reason you just mentioned. I wrote about the Blackhawks’ defensive juggling act on Sunday and, while I still think it’s tough to do I believe the Blackhawks will stay with it for a while. I list some reasons in Sunday’s story, which is linked above. So far (judging from outward appearances) the defensemen seem to be on board with the changes. I’m just curious to see how long they can keep the balance to where no one is sitting too long. That’s always the challenge.

Signing Cody Franson was part of the short-term plan regarding the long-term injured reserve funds. I think the Blackhawks just let things play out now for a while. You’re not going to make a move based on the first month of the season.

Yeah, someday I will stop writing about the power play’s woes but it won’t be today. I personally don’t think it’s the personnel. Whenever we talk about this it’s usually the same culprits: lack of movement, not enough shots and net-front traffic. I still say a strong penalty kill is more important and if the Blackhawks’ 5-on-5 scoring increases the power-play concerns fade. But it has cost them, so it’s certainly a concern.

I wouldn’t take the stern expressions as a sign of unhappiness. I’ve seen them plenty of times arriving at an arena looking like that; just focused before a game.

Going to go with a B-plus mainly because they came out of those first eight games with a pretty solid record. Granted, goaltending deserves a massive pat on the back for that. But it’s still early and I still figure the lines will get rolling at some point. Penalty kill has been very good and power play absolutely has to get better.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.