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Blackhawks Season Preview Part One: A Whole New Era On Defense

I am going to start this season preview with a little parable that our previous coach would've enjoyed. The Zen Master, The Horse, and The Little Boy

In this village, a little boy is given a gift of a horse. The villagers all say, “Isn’t that fabulous? Isn’t that wonderful? What a wonderful gift.”

The Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

A couple years later the boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg. The villagers all say, “Isn’t that terrible? The horse is cursed! That’s horrible!”

The Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

A few years later the country goes to war and the government conscripts all the males into the army, but the boy’s leg is so screwed up, he doesn’t have to go. The villagers all say, “Isn’t that fabulous? Isn’t that wonderful?”

The Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

I never thought a player as good as Seth Jones would be so polarizing in the fan base and the greater hockey community. Is Seth Jones an elite defenseman? We'll see? Is he going to be worth the $9.5M AAV over the next 8 years? We'll see. Is he going to help the Blackhawks get back to being among the league's top teams? We'll see. 

There are so many variables that go into a player's "analytics". Who he is playing with, who he is playing against, where the shift started, at what point in the shift did the registered event take place, what is his team doing schematically, is the player playing through a nagging injury, etc. There are so many factors that go unaccounted for which is why hockey analytics are constantly evolving, changing, and hopefully improving. The analytics are a window into player's overall impact on a game, but it is a dirty window with dead bugs on the screen covered by shitty blinds. It's not the be all end all. All of those variables that went into Seth Jones' down year from an analytics standpoint are about to change in Chicago. What will the numbers say about him in another year? We'll see. 

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One thing I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the Blackhawks defense is better now than it was last year. For the first time in years the Hawks won't need to rely on rookies and teenagers for valuable minutes on the backend. The Blackhawks top 4 has bonafide NHL defensemen and that is a GREAT place to start. If Seth Jones is what I think he is and what everyone thought he was two years ago then the Blackhawks have a true #1, they also have what appears to be on paper an elite shutdown pair with Jake McCabe and Connor Murphy, then Cal de Haan rounds out the top 4 as the steady, smart, professional, stay-at-home defenseman that in my brain is the best compliment to Seth Jones. 

People have made a lot of bones about this graphic

People don't understand what they're citing with this chart. The chart is scary at first glance and the problem is first glance is as far as the internet is willing to go. They see something, call it fact, share their opinion that Seth Jones is a bum, feel good about themselves, and move on. Hockey isn't baseball. It's not static. The data points and how it's collected change. As do the variables I referenced earlier. 

What I do know about Seth Jones are the tools. He's got ALL the tools. He is 6'4 and over 200lbs. He can fucking skate. He has high end skill with the puck as a defenseman, he can be physical when he needs to be, he is smart, and most importantly he is competitive. I don't know why those tools weren't accounted for in the chart above, but they did show up with another analytics company, Sportlogiq

14th overall in zone exits, 16th in zone entries, and 13th at rush chances created. I've stated previously that when you watch CBJ he concedes the blue line a lot and perhaps his D-zone denials aren't what you want, but CBJ seems to do that as a function of scheme more than other teams too so that could be a factor. They also tried often to force plays to his side because he gave them the best chance to get the puck back. Which would explain why some of his metrics look bad compared to some of his teammates…he was often left on an island by design. Will being in Chicago with a different scheme and objectively better teammates help push Jones back to his 2017-18 levels where he was a legitimate Norris candidate? We'll see. 

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Another reason Seth Jones might be better in Chicago is that the Hawks now have two defenseman who can do a lot of the heavy lifting defensively. Jake McCabe and Connor Murphy are probably going to form a "shut down pair" and take many of the tougher matchups and defensive zone starts and I honestly can't wait to see them. I've loved McCabe forever. Literally started tweeting about him to the Hawks in 2017

I loved McCabe at Wisconsin. Loved him when the was captain of the Gold medal winning USA team at the WJC. I loved him in Buffalo which is hard to do because Buffalo is a place where good players go to die. McCabe somehow stayed above that and escaped and has landed in Chicago with his USA 2013 best friend, Connor Murphy. Two nice boys who play mean

And that is the thing the Blackhawks did this summer that I love the most…they added high character, highly intelligent, and highly competitive players. McCabe and Jones are certainly that. Murphy is that. de Haan has been here and he is that too. There will be no easy nights with those guys in your top four. They all compliment each other well, on paper, and if they are deployed properly the Blackhawks should never be at a disadvantage on their blueline. No more rookies. No more leaning on Duncan Keith and Connor Murphy to play heavy minutes with a rotating cast of underwhelming or under-age players. This is a top 4 worthy of the Chicago Blackhawks and a team that should be competitive every night. 

Rounding out the defense is where things get interesting because the Blackhawks have a ton of options there. There are three spots up for grabs, essentially, and there's going to be a DOG fight for them in camp. In previous years you were just hoping one of the Europeans or rookies would be able to spell the top 2-3 guys enough to win a game 4-3. That isn't the case anymore. Now the Blackhawks will have some NHL talent in either Rockford or the press box. Three spots to be divided up among Riley Stillman, Wyatt Kalynuk, Caleb Jones, Ian Mitchell, and Nic Beaudin. 

This isn't going to be a pure meritocracy, at least to start the year, filling out the third pair. The Blackhawks signed Riley Stillman to a 3 year deal. He is going to be on the roster. Will he play every night? We'll see. I like him. He is sort of a poor man's version of Jake McCabe. Very competitive. We saw a decent sample size last year coming over in a trade with Florida. The fact that he looked decent in 13 games getting integrated into a radically different system is reason enough for optimism. I don't think he's anything more than a 3rd pair guy, but he is also competitive and not fun to play against. Caleb Jones is the wild card here. He will have a chance to carve out a role. Big body, skates pretty well. He is probably in line to be the 7th defenseman on most nights because of his contract status. 

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So then the real battle of camp comes down to Wyatt Kalynuk vs Ian Mitchell as the third pair, right-side defenseman. I really believe in Ian Mitchell long term. He could be well served by getting big minutes in all situations down in Rockford for a bit. Something that should've been afforded to Jokiharju, Boqvist, and Mitchell, but never really happened partly because of covid-19 and partly because the Blackhawks had zero options on defense so they had to rush those guys before they were ready. I think ultimately Mitchell will be the better player of the two. I think he can create space against forecheckers with his skating and his brain. Kaylnuk definitely flashed more offensively with 9 points in 21 games last year. He is a bit older and maybe more physically mature than Mitchell. He is a left shot, but can play either side. Having too much depth is never a bad thing. The Hawks have a handful of fringe NHL guys with something to prove in order secure a long career. Injuries happen and you never make it through a full season with just your top 6 defense so if Caleb Jones and Stillman prove to be capable 3rd pair types and then Kaylnuk, Mitchell, or Beaudin take a step the Hawks should be in a good spot. They don't seem to have that swing type guy who can play in the top four at the moment and as much as I like Murphy, McCabe and de Haan there are injury concerns with all of them. 

The elephant in the room is Colliton. The Hawks have been playing this man-system for the most part since he got here. It has not been successful by any standard. Playing man means you need to play as a 5 man unit and there's different pressure points and communication needed to hand players off and it can lead to chaos in your own zone. Even when teams do it right, like Carolina, they still give up a bunch of high danger chances because that is the nature of the beast. It can also be tougher to break out once you get the puck back. Colliton was brought in to bring along the young players with communication and development or whatever. We haven't seen any of that. Now he suddenly has a VERY veteran team. Toews is back. They brought in Johnson. They brought in McCabe and Jones. They brought in Fleury. That is a TON of NHL games coming into the fold. There are no more excuses. If Colliton can't get this team in the playoffs or it's looking bad by Thanksgiving then they should have a plan B ready to go. 

It's the time of year where we are allowed to be positive. Squint your eyes enough and the red flags with the team turn into a nice rose color. Can Colliton get it done? Is Jones going to be a real cornerstone, Norris Trophy type of player? We'll see. 

Part 2 coming later this week