When Jeremy Colliton took over as head coach on Nov. 6, 2018, he implemented a man-on-man system in the defensive zone that took some time getting used to for the core players who had played zone coverage under Joel Quenneville for 10-plus years.
What Colliton didn’t mess with too much is how the Blackhawks generated offense. He allowed his players to play a run-and-gun-type game and it was high risk, high reward. After all, the Blackhawks were among the league leaders in scoring chances generated off the rush, but they also gave up the most.
Colliton knew that wasn’t a great formula for long-term success, so the Blackhawks became more of a dump-and-chase team this season to eliminate neutral zone turnovers and odd-man rushes against. They also altered the way they transitioned out of their own end.
The problem? The offense dried up significantly.
After a brutal four-game road trip in which they were outshot by 65 and averaged only 26.2 shots per game, Colliton was forced to make a systematic change going into Thursday's game against the Vancouver Canucks and gave his players more freedom to create offense similar to the way they did last season. And it could be the turning point of the 2019-20 season.
“We made a conscious effort to be a bit looser when the puck turned over, so we could create more out of D zone in transition and I think it's helped,” Colliton said following Sunday’s 5-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. “There's been a lot more plays available for us. Probably closer to how it looked last year, as far as our ability to make plays out of D-zone and through the neutral zone, and probably fits our top guys — and you can see, they're coming to life. It's good to see. Doesn't mean that the defensive side won't be a continued emphasis, because you've got to keep the puck out of your net to win, and when you get up like we did, would've loved to control the game.”
The results? The Blackhawks have scored 12 goals in their last three games and are 2-0-1 over that span.
“We’re trying to build some momentum here doing a lot of new things and new systems," Dylan Strome said on WGN Radio's postgame show after a 5-1 win over Vancouver. "It takes a little bit of getting used to. We kind of went back to our old system a little bit from last year, so [we felt] a lot more comfortable.”
Not only has the switch jumpstarted the offense, but the Blackhawks have seen improvement in their defensive numbers and it likely stems from the fact they aren’t spending as much time in their own zone.
Before the change on Thursday, the Blackhawks ranked 18th in scoring chances for (24.7), 18th in high-danger chances for (10.0), 30th in scoring chances against (29.2) and 30th in high-danger chances against (13.0) per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Since the change, the Blackhawks rank seventh in scoring chances for (28.8), 15th in high-danger chances for (10.9), 22nd in scoring chances against (28.3) and 20th in high-danger chances against (11.8) per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
It's still not perfect, but we're finally starting to see what the Blackhawks are capable of as a group. They're playing looser and with more confidence, they're attacking and not chasing — they've scored the first two goals in each of the past three games — and they're racking up points because of it.
The fundamental change doesn’t mean the Blackhawks are going to forget about the defense-first mentality they’re trying to establish. But Colliton knows he has to let his offensive players do what they do best and play to their strengths — it's no coincidence that Patrick Kane has caught fire in the last three games.
Now they’re trying to find a common ground where the team’s style of play can lead to sustained success, both on offense and defense.
“It's a happy medium,” Colliton said. “It was a big emphasis to keep the puck out of our net and still is. But at the same time, we've got to score more than them in order to win. We're trying to find the right balance and I think ultimately we need to win games to stay in the race, to allow ourselves to play important games. That's what we've done in the last week, we've got some points.”
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