NASHVILLE — There are plenty of reasons why the Blackhawks will be watching the Stanley Cup playoffs from home for the second straight season. None more glaring than their defensive issues.
While it certainly got better in the second half of the season as players got accustomed to Jeremy Colliton's man-on-man defensive zone structure — which softened into a man-and-a-half — the Blackhawks still finished 25th in 5-on-5 goals against per game (2.25) and 30th in 5-on-5 shots against per game (27.7). Fixing that is their No. 1 priority going into the offseason.
"I think we've shown we can," Colliton said when asked whether the current personnel can get it done. "We're not ... we're gonna try to get better in that way too. But I think as the year went on we did play better defensively. And the thing is, it's not, we got a lot of firepower but we're not gonna get less offensively by being better defensively, we'll get more, we'll create more, we'll score more. That's the pitch, that's what we have to get across. We've made some progress and then we started to win some more games as the year went on but I don't think we're a top defensive team yet."
In what form that improvement comes in, that remains to be seen. The Blackhawks are likely going to look for external help in free agency, but they want the growth to largely come from within and how they play.
"It's a lot of things," Duncan Keith said. "It's a lot of reasons. Obviously the team's got the puck more. I always think it starts in our own zone and defending. A lot of it too is making good plays out of the zone, getting the puck out of the zone and getting the puck up to our forwards clean, then being smart with the puck up the ice, getting it in deep when we have a chance. There's a lot of things. There's good teams, and every team's good now. It's not one thing."
One way to improve the defensive numbers as a whole is by possessing the puck more than your opponents, which leads to spending less time in your own zone. The Blackhawks’ possession numbers were down from years past, and that doesn’t tend to favor the statistics on the defensive side of things.
When asked whether improving upon those possession metrics at 5-on-5 could help limit the defensive issues, Colliton gave a passionate response.
"I think it's all of the above,” Colliton said. “I think all of these stats, the possession numbers, whether it's Corsi, high-danger chances and the scoring chances, it's all ... the definition of all those things is arbitrary. And I think every team, every person evaluates things differently and we have our own numbers. It doesn't mean the ones that are public are not relevant, of course they are. It's the full picture.
“I mean [Patrick Kane], you look at his possession numbers, he's not in the top half of our team, but no one would doubt that he's a tremendous possession player. If you look at high-danger chances for or against, it doesn't look good on the paper if you go to those sites. But no one would doubt that he's our most dangerous offensive player. 5-on-5 since December I think he's plus-20. So I think you have to be careful how you interpret stuff."
And he’s right. No player in the NHL this season had the puck on his stick more than Kane, who averaged 1:19 per game, according to thepointhockey.com. He also ranked among the top 5 in controlled zone entries and puck possession in all areas.
And to Colliton’s point, the Blackhawks as a team ranked No. 1 at generating scoring chances off the rush. So they’re obviously on the right track in that department, which is a big part of the game nowadays.
But where the Blackhawks can separate themselves from the bottom of the pack next season is by strengthening their cycle game and wearing out the opposition by literally possessing the puck that way, not necessarily through shot attempts. That’s a formula teams have used to beat the Blackhawks this season, and one that works against any team. It’s a large reason why the Blackhawks have given up the most high-danger chances, because they weren't great at defending against the cycle.
It’s easy to place the blame on the blue line group when the defensive numbers across the board are near the basement, but it’s going to take all three forwards and both defensemen on the ice at a time working as a five-man unit to get the bigger issue solved next season.
“You defend with five guys and you attack with five guys,” Colliton said. “That’s the way the game is played now. Forwards and the D got to work together, whether it’s defending — you start defending in their end by how you play with the puck and your gap and your back-pressure and all the way up the ice. We can be better at controlling the neutral zone and denying clean entries and if you do a good job of all that, you’re in your D-zone less, and then of course, you’ve got to be better there, too.
“Protecting the middle of the ice and getting in shot lanes and controlling the front of our net. I think compared to the rest of the teams in the league, we gave up more deflections and tips and rebounds. So we’ll work on all that.
“I think it needs to look more like it has lately, and less like it did in November and December. We’ve seen a progression, but obviously got some work to do over the summer to prepare and make sure we don’t waste training camp. We’ll be better.“Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.