I promised at the beginning of the season that I would do more of these game recaps as time permitted…I haven’t done one in probably a month so my apologies. That’s on me. Even though the title of this blog says “Quick Thoughts” that’s not really my nature so here’s like 1400 words on last night and the general status of the Blackhawks.
1) Nick Schmaltz Is A Center And He’s Got All-Star Potential
Schmaltz started the year playing center on Patrick Kane’s line and I think everyone remembered how that went the first couple of games. They played fast, they finished, they lit up the score board and it was BEAUTIFUL showtime hockey. The Hawks were fun again. Then Jack Johnson took Schmaltz’s block off and he wasn’t quite the same guy when he came back, and the team wasn’t playing great overall so Schmaltz ended up at wing playing with Kane and Anisimov and it’s worked out great.
HOWEVER, last night showed how great Schmaltz can be if he plays through the middle and plays with his speed. He opens things up for Kane because defenders have to respect his speed and they also now have to respect Schmaltz’s shot as he’s been shooting at a higher volume lately. He’s a legit threat with and without the puck and makes everyone better.
I don’t think people around the NHL or even in this market understand how good Schmaltz can be. The guy is a stud. Mike Kelly, who you may have seen on TSN or NHL Network, works closely with SportLogiq tweeted out a stat recently that I found really interesting. As you probably know by now, I think using shot attempts(Corsi/Fenwick) as a proxy for possession is SO dumb. Mike’s company does player tracking and this stat is about how long a particular player actually has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. You know…actually possession.
I asked Mike where Nick Schmaltz ranks by that metric because by my eye he has the puck a LOT.
NINTH in the league at 5 on 5 possession!!! He’d probably be higher than 25th overall if the Blackhawks power play was even half way decent.
There are two ways to get the puck…start the play with it by winning face-offs, Schmaltz is struggling there at 39%. OR…take it away from people. Schmaltz is already an elite player in that regard. Mikael Backlund leads the league in take-aways with 44 in 38 games. Schmaltz ranks 3rd in the league with 42 and has only played in 33 games. He is a smart player who always has great stick positioning and his speed takes away time and space and makes the opposition shit their pants and cough up the puck.
The problem with Schmaltz at center playing with Kane…what do you do with Anisimov. Anisimov is really well suited to play with Kane and Schmaltz because they have the puck the entire time. Kane is #1 in the league with o-zone puck possession, Schmaltz is #9. That frees Anisimov to play low in support or just in front of the net hanging out waiting to bury chances from in tight from two great play-makers. It also means Anisimov rarely has to chase the puck, win races, and regain possession. Quickness is not a strength of Anisimov so if you bump him down to the 3rd line role where he’s playing with lesser talent who don’t control the puck as well, then it exposes Anisimov’s weakness and he become a bit of a drag. He really struggled at the beginning of the year in the 3rd line center role regardless of who his linemates were and the as soon as he was put on a line with Kane…oh my goodness what do you know he’s an effective player again. Now, maybe if you put the right guys on his wings who can possess the puck and win some battles he could be effective again, but I’d be leary of that. Anisimov is on IR at the moment so it’s not a pressing issue, but its a tough puzzle to solve. DeBrincat-Anisimov-and…who? Sharp? Hinostroza? Panik? Hayden? Maybe down the road…Dylan Sikura?
Like I said, tough puzzle for the coaching staff to solve. How do you maximize Nick Schmaltz without wasting Anisimov and really…the entire 3rd line?
2) Speaking Of Dynamic Speedy Young Guys…Vinnie Hinostroza
VERY strong game for Hinostroza last night. He’s been in and out of the lineup since being called up. He’s had some wow moments, but in my opinion the Edmonton game was his strongest. I don’t think its a coincidence because they actually let him play his natural position…wing. DeBrincat-Kampf-Hinostroza was a very fun line last night. Generated offense. Had the puck a lot. Pretty impressive. I think it’s time to take the shackles off of Hinostroza and play him with Toews and Saad. They’ve tried seemingly everyone in that right wing spot except Vinnie. I think he’d be perfect. He has game changing speed, his forechecking has gotten much better and he’s a naturally offensive-minded player. He wants to score. He wants to create. Toews and Saad need a little bit of juice like that with them. He was also really effective running the 2nd power play unit. His play-making led to some chances and Jordan Oesterle’s goal.
3) Gustav Forsling And Jan Rutta Were Scratched
You could make an argument that Forsling and Rutta have been the Blackhawks best pair all year. Drawing tough assignments and big minutes and they’ve responded well…until recently. Rutta in particular has struggled lately with the puck. He has looked off since missing a few games with injury. Indecisive with passes that lead to turnovers and chances and he missed a passing opportunity against Vancouver which would’ve led to a Grade-A scoring chance from DeBrincat.
What was interesting to me was that during the intermission interview Ulf Samuelsson basically said that they weren’t good enough vs Vancouver and that’s why they were scractched. Very transparent from a coaching staff that almost never says anything besides “we’ll see”. I expect both guys to be back in vs Calgary on NYE, but I like that they were scratched last night.
4) Power-play Starting To Percolate
Three power play goals in the last two games. Can’t believe my eyes. The Hawks are still running the 1-3-1, which I detailed in the blog last week, but they’re running it more effectively and in my opinion, with the right personnel. Toews at the net, Schmaltz in the slot, DeBrincat and Kane operating from one-time shot positions. Edmonton stinks on the PK, but the passing was crisp, decisions were good, and they got results. It’s been trending in the right direction and the PP was the difference in the game last night. When you’re practicing your PP the coach will often make the PK turn their sticks upside down so the offensive guys have less pressure and better lanes and get more effective reps that can also build confidence. That’s what playing against Edmonton is like…facing a PK with guys who can’t use their sticks. If the PP can get going even just a little bit the Blackhawks will be light years better than they are right now.
5) Congratulations To Jeff Glass
32 years-old and got a win in his NHL debut. That’s an awesome story. And…he was very good last night. The Blackhawks put him right to work and he had to face 19 shots in the first period and like an onslaught of break-aways. He answered. Great start for Glass who everyone says is a great guy. He will get a start in his hometown against the Flames tomorrow night. It’s too bad that Forsberg is on a one-way contract because that means the Glass story will eventually turn back into a pumpkin when Crawford returns. Glass seems like a locker room guy. Important role for the backup goalie to be. Darling was GREAT at being that guy. A guy everyone liked and a guy who would GLADLY do all the backup bitch work like facing an extra 100 shots after practice because Kane asked and working his dick off against those 100 shots to make sure that it was beneficial for Kane. That’s one of the reasons why the Blackhawks decided to go with Darling over Raanta a few years back…because Kane and others appreciated Darling and were advocates for him. I get the impression that Glass is cut from the same cloth. Not that Forsberg isn’t, I just don’t know.
Nice to get two points last night after laying an egg against Vancouver the night before. I always try to not react too much to individual games. Don’t ride the rollercoaster. Well, that’s been impossible because this team has been a roller coaster all god damn year. Lose 5. Win 5. Lose 3, Win 2. Play great and lose, play terrible and somehow win. Whip Winnipeg’s ass, get pants by Vancouver. After nearly half the season I still don’t know what to make of this team. If the power-play gets going, the Toews-Saad line begins to produce(they have the puck too much not to start scoring), and Crawford comes back healthy than I really think the sky is the limit for this team. There’s also the very real possibility that this team will miss the playoffs all together if the those things I just listed don’t happen. Ultimately, I believe this team has enough talent and it will come together. They’ve got the juice, everyone just back sure you keep your arms and legs inside the roller coaster at all times.