Nick Schmaltz

Five reasons to be optimistic about Blackhawks in 2018-19

Five reasons to be optimistic about Blackhawks in 2018-19

Listen. There are many question marks surrounding the Blackhawks this season. We get it.

But let's not think about that ahead of Opening Night. Instead, let's look at some reasons for optimism.

Here are five of them:

1. Corey Crawford could return earlier than expected

If somebody told you after the Blackhawks Convention in July that Crawford would likely return in mid-to-late October, would you have believed it? If you did, it was undoubtedly wishful thinking. 

Crawford has progressed extremely well over the past three weeks, and it appears he may not miss as much time as originally believed.

Out with a concussion since Dec. 23, 2017, the Blackhawks are "optimistically" hoping Crawford could make his season debut by Oct. 18 against the Arizona Coyotes. If that perfect scenario comes true, that means he would have missed only five games to start the season. That's the best news the Blackhawks could get, considering how much of this season depends on his health and how quickly he's able to recapture that elite form.

2. Special teams can't be any worse, right?

It was a disastrous 2017-18 campaign for the Blackhawks when it came to special teams. They finished 28th in power play percentage (16.0) and 20th in penalty kill efficiency (79.1). That simply can't happen again.

To help change their fortunes in that area, the Blackhawks took a page out of the lethal defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals playbook by adapting to a 1-3-1 scheme and are loading up the top unit, like the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins do. It's why they're so successful and the Blackhawks are hoping they can have that same success.

Here's the good news about the penalty kill: When Crawford went down with an injury on Dec. 23, the Blackhawks had the seventh-best penalty kill unit in the league with an 83.0 percent success rate. It makes you wonder how much of that was because of Crawford, the ensuing dramatic drop-off in goal when he was injured or whether the effort wasn't as high when he was out. Maybe it was a combination of all three.

But with Marcus Kruger back in the fold and the addition of another defensive specialist like Luke Johnson, it's not unreasonable to think the Blackhawks can go from being a bottom 10 penalty kill unit to a top 10 one.

3. Henri Jokiharju is here

Yes, the blue line looks thin in terms of impact-type players. Gustav Forsling and Connor Murphy out with injuries until November and December, respectively, doesn't exactly help the situation either.

But all summer long Chicago had hoped Jokiharju would make the big club out of training camp and emerge as a possible rookie breakout candidate, like Charlie McAvoy did with the Boston Bruins. And all summer long Chicago was dreaming for Jokiharju to play with Duncan Keith on the top pairing, like McAvoy did with Zdeno Chara.

Well, it's happening.

Ready or not, Jokiharju is getting thrown into the fire and coach Joel Quenneville will try to put him in the best possible positions to succeed, such as occasional power play time to maximize his offensive ability where he can gain confidence. Now it's up to the 19-year-old to take advantage of that opportunity. And if he does, it could be a real game-changer on the back end knowing Adam Boqvist is also in the pipeline.

4. Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz are poised for breakout seasons

These are the two players the Blackhawks are depending heavily on to take the next steps in their development. DeBrincat led the team in goals a year ago with 28 while Schmaltz tied DeBrincat for third on the team with 52 points.

The third season in the NHL is usually the breakout one for up and coming stars, because you know you belong in the league, what your role is and how you can flourish by learning from the previous two years. That's where Schmaltz is at right now. Starting on a line with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad will only help elevate his offensive production, along with playing on the top power play unit. Schmaltz is also a restricted free agent at the end of the season, so he's playing for a new contract. That's typically when you get the best out of players, because they're looking to cash in on a big payday.

With DeBrincat, it's amazing to think he nearly cracked 30 goals by averaging only 14:48 of ice time. By playing on the first line with Jonathan Toews and power play, that should increase significantly, much like Schmaltz when he went from 13:16 in Year 1 to 18:14 in Year 2. DeBrincat will certainly draw tougher matchups, but good things happen when he's on the ice, so the more he's out there the better it is for the Blackhawks.

5. The Blackhawks are still among NHL's best at 5-on-5 numbers

The Blackhawks seemingly outshot their opponent every night last season. They had the fourth-best 5-on-5 possession numbers in terms of shot attempts and second-most scoring chances. Their high-danger scoring chances, however, ranked 16th and high-danger goals for percentage 28th, according to naturalstattrick.com. The quantity was clearly there, but the quality was not.

But that can be corrected.

There were way too many games last year where a majority of the shots were coming from the perimeter without much of a net-front presence for second and third scoring opportunities. In today's NHL where scoring unconventionally is most effective, the Blackhawks must make more of an effort to go to the greasy areas to get those chances. And they can do that without seeing their 5-on-5 numbers suffer.

How Blackhawks are taking a page out of Capitals book in new-look power play scheme

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USA TODAY

How Blackhawks are taking a page out of Capitals book in new-look power play scheme

The Blackhawks haven't really been known to be a strong power-play team under Joel Quenneville. During their three Stanley Cup runs, they finished 16th (2010), 19th (2013) and 20th (2015) and often relied more on their 5-on-5 and penalty kill success.

But last season was a disaster with the man advantage in many ways, tied for third-worst with a 16.0 percent success rate. Something needed to change over the summer, whether it was schematically or personnel wise.

The Blackhawks showed on Monday that they have done both. And it looked awfully similar to the structure the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals ran that was so successful in the playoffs: a top-heavy first unit that consists of four forwards and one defenseman with a 1-3-1 setup.

Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane, Nick Schmaltz, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith made up the first unit. Victor Ejdsell, Chris Kunitz, Brandon Saad, Dylan Sikura and Erik Gustafsson made up the second.

But let's focus on the first unit and the technical changes.

Here's a general idea of what the Blackhawks power play setup looked like last season: 

As you can see, it's very spread out, essentially using the perimeter to create and cycle the puck. The advantage to this particular setup is the ability to have freedom in the offensive zone. The disadvantage is the lack of structure because you're basically just looking for openings. And trying to find that perfect pass or shot is something the Blackhawks did far too often last year.

"I think just not shooting enough, trying to be too cute, looking for that perfect play," Schmaltz said on what went wrong with the power play in 2017-18. "I think if you get that first shot then you retrieve it you can kind of make sure to get those second and third pucks and that's when they really tire out and then that's where those seam plays develop."

A lot of the times, it was Kane or bust. While your best offensive player should certainly have the puck and drive the possession, it's not the best team recipe for success when you're depending so heavily on one player. 

"Any time you have Kaner with the puck he's going to make things happen," said Kunitz, who was a part of several top-ranked power plays with Pittsburgh playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "But I don't think you can just rely on him to do it for everybody else. There's guys out there with tons of skill and they've shown that's why they're out in those first units to be able to go out there and make those plays, so I think it's something that you have to be a threat, everybody on the ice of making the right play and dictating where the puck can move.

"It doesn't always have to move through one guy. And when you do that it opens up some spaces for everybody else. But it's something that you have to be able to take that initiative to want to score goals, go out and do it and when you make those plays it'll open up the ice for everybody else."

To help do that, assistant coach Kevin Dineen unveiled a new 1-3-1 scheme with the biggest change being Schmaltz setting up shop in the slot, where T.J. Oshie found great success in Washington. It allows Schmaltz to be a hub in the middle of the zone, where he can pass it to four different players while also using his quick release to uncork a snapshot.

How many times did we see this play work for the Capitals last season?

Oshie and Alex Ovechkin finished with six power-play goals last postseason, which led all players. The Capitals as a team ranked seventh in the regular season (22.5 percent) and second in the playoffs, converting on 22 of 75 attempts for a conversation rate of 29.3 percent. Those two were crucial to the success.

Perhaps the thought to put DeBrincat on the left side is that it puts his deceptive shot to good use and, like Ovechkin, keeps penalty killers thinking by not giving him a clear path to tee off a slap shot from the faceoff circle, which could open up something else.

With Schmaltz playing the role of Oshie and DeBrincat playing the role of Ovechkin, that leaves Kane and Toews on the other side to play off each other like Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov (as seen in the GIF above) and allows Keith to play the role of John Carlson at the point. Not bad.

With an emphasis being put more on special teams success, particularly the power play, perhaps the Blackhawks will see more production in all areas if they're successful in the one they struggled in the most last season.

"It's the first day we practiced it, so it's just one day at a time here," Keith said. "I think try to turn the page, just focus on this year and not worry about last year and what happened. A lot of time's power play is about confidence too, 5-on-5, anything, individual players, your confidence is a major factor. It's a new year, let's have fun, move it around and make some plays."

Why Saad-Schmaltz-Kane line has potential to be one of NHL's best

Why Saad-Schmaltz-Kane line has potential to be one of NHL's best

Patrick Kane has played with Nick Schmaltz for two seasons now. They've been on the same wavelength since the start but didn't truly flourish together until last season. It should only strengthen in Year 3 with Kane still playing like he's in his prime and Schmaltz just entering it.

But there's a new piece added to the line combination puzzle.

Brandon Saad skated with Kane and Schmaltz to open training camp on Friday and did so again during Saturday's training camp festival scrimmage at the United Center. Kane could hardly contain his excitement about the likelihood of playing with Saad and Schmaltz to start the year.

"Oh, very excited about it," Kane admitted.

But will it work?

The three of them were on the ice together for 125:53 minutes of 5-on-5 time last season and actually had below average puck possession numbers, controlling 49.38 percent of the shot attempts. As a team the Blackhawks were ranked fourth at 52.3 percent.

They were, surprisingly, one of the least productive lines the Blackhawks had despite having a Zone Start Ratio — the percentage of non-neutral zone starts that are offensive zone starts — of 76.39 percent, according to corsica.hockey. Perhaps more time together on a consistent basis and through practice reps could help turn those numbers around rather than turning to it in desperate times from game-to-game.

"From skating with [Saad] this summer and seeing where his game is at, I think he's going to have a really big year," Kane said. "Schmaltz is a guy for me to develop that chemistry with and develop the east-west game, look for each other for one-timers, things like that."

Saad certainly adds a different dimension to the line. He's more of a north-south player while Kane and Schmaltz like to create by also playing east-west. The only challenge they may face is that Saad isn't that type of player to create on his own and Schmaltz plays center, unlike Artemi Panarin, whom Kane developed great chemistry with for two years playing opposite each other's wings. It'd be difficult for Kane and Schmaltz to create using only one side of the ice.

But Schmaltz doesn't see that being an issue once they get into the offensive zone because that's where they really do their creating. Plus, he and Kane are two of the best at carrying the puck through the neutral zone and offensive zone entries in general, so it works out great in that aspect.

"I think off the rush I'm more of a speed through the middle, back off the D-man and then he can kind of do his thing, whether it's pull up, find the late D or slide it through the middle to me," Schmaltz said after Saturday's scrimmage. "I think once we get in the zone that's when we really start moving. I thought we had a couple good shifts out there where we were moving, cycling, setting picks for each other and creating space. That's more of our style where we're rolling, we're finding each other, we're kind of just moving all over the place trying to screw up the defense."

This allows Saad to play more of an Artem Anisimov-type role in the offensive end, where he can provide net-front presence and allow Kane and Schmaltz to feed off each other, rather than playing more of a wing role. 

If that happens and they can put it all together, it has the potential to be a dangerous line both offensively and defensively.

"They all have different ingredients," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I looked at [Kane], boy, every year I always find he gets a little bit better and today on the ice he jumped out to me as far as how efficient he was, quickness. He finds a way to enhance a pretty special game. With them, [Saad] has some quickness, some speed, he’s around the net. Schmaltz has some real quickness off the rush.

"They all do some neat things off the puck. Upside, offensively, may be as exciting as maybe any in the league. I think the defensive part of it will determine, if they play that well they’ll be excellent offensively because they’ll have the puck a lot. They’re all capable of doing that on the defensive side, but I’m sure they’re excited to play with one another. We look forward that these guys can help our team on both sides."