Deconstructing the West: Chicago Blackhawks

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Rumors are swirling about Patrick Kane’s future with the Chicago Blackhawks. If he were to be traded, it would be a monumental move that would have far-reaching consequences. Yet, as of this writing, Kane is still a Blackhawk. If that changes, more analysis examining his departure will follow. What is not uncertain is that the hockey season is here, and IH is kicking off its season previews. With the leveling of the terrain in the Western Conference, it only seemed fitting to start with the Cup champs. As usual, all advanced stats are supplied by and Enjoy!

 Criticizing a Stanley Cup-winning general manager who is widely regarded as one of the best minds in the sport is a dangerous undertaking. Notwithstanding, IH hated what Stan Bowman and Chicago’s front office did this offseason.

Brandon Saad, one of the best young wingers in the game, is a key starting point in this critique. At 22 years old, Saad scored 23 goals and 29 assists last season. Operating on the opposite wing of the same line as Marian Hossa for crucial parts of the season, the two forwards were frequently compared for their penchant for thriving in three zones. This is a testament to Saad’s bubbling potential. Hossa is a future Hall of Famer, so while the comparisons were a bit hyperbolic, subtle strengths in Saad’s 200-foot acumen gave credibility to the analogy.

The best two-way forwards possess elasticity – the defensive awareness and dexterity to play multiple positions in a single shift. Saad, like Hossa, could dive in from the point to the center spot and help out the Blackhawks’ defensive pairing if Chicago’s pivot went rogue or was out of position. More distinctly, both wingers excel at chasing down enemy attackers and disrupting their entries. Off the rush or cycle, Saad showed acuity in identifying where Chicago was vulnerable and where the opponent was tacking. On the offensive end, Saad was diligent about covering the swath of ice left bare if his strong-side defenseman pinched.

A way in which Saad and Hossa diverge is that Saad’s future offensive contribution is ascending while Hossa’s is descending. Forwards typically hit their prime at 23, but even at the age of 22, Saad demonstrated what was possible last season. (Hossa is 36.)

In the 2015 postseason, Saad trailed only Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in ice time among forwards. In the 105 games he played last year, combining the regular season and postseason, he trailed only Toews and Kane in points per 60 minutes at 5 on 5. In goals per 60 minutes, Saad was second only to Kane (and Kane played 21 less games). In scoring chances differential, Saad led all forwards at even strength. The only player he trailed on Chicago was all-world Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith.

And Saad was hardly a slouch in Corsi. When combining the regular season and postseason, Saad trailed only Keith, Toews, Hossa, and Patrick Sharp in Corsi differential. On a quantitative and qualitative level, the Pittsburgh native held his own with the Blackhawks’ star players.

Here is the list of wingers 23-years-old or younger who scored more points than Saad last season: Gabriel Landeskog, Jaden Schwartz, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Stone, Nikita Kucherov, and Vladimir Tarasenko. (Filip Forsberg is listed as a center, but played wing for most of last season; therefore, he can be included as well.) That is a small list of really dynamic players, three of whom are 23. Only Landeskog, Gaudreau, Kucherov, and Forsberg are 22 or younger.

While Gaudreau’s offensive output exceeded Saad’s, the Flames’ winger is still in the process of figuring out his defensive game at the NHL level. Therefore, the best comparisons to Saad are Landeskog, Kucherov, and Forsberg. Those are three tremendous players, and Forsberg, the only one of the three who was traded, is poised to make his move from Washington to Nashville one of the worst deals of the last ten years.

Examining hockey players by their position can be rigid and myopic, but in this case it highlights how rare a commodity Saad was for the Blackhawks. So why did they trade him? The most commonly heard explanation is that they needed to restructure their books, and this is indisputably true. But the most important duty in franchise management is to figure out who is dispensable and who is indispensable. In blunter terms: Saad was an indispensable building block who is entering his peak years.

Saad’s new contract would have counted for another $6 million on the Blackhawks’ books, but with Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya’s egress, Chicago should have made it work. Here is how: Artem Anisimov is going to count for $3.283 this season and then jump to $4.5 next season. Marko Dano is on an entry-level deal, but will be inked to his second contract next summer. The Blackhawks needed immediate cap relief and could have found that by dumping some combination of Kris Versteeg, Andrew Shaw, or by begging Bryan Bickell to waive his modified no-trade clause. Basically, the Blackhawks should have shed any player outside the putative forward and defensive core. They could have found a suitor for those unattractive contracts in the non-competitive, lottery teams. The sweetener to the deal would be packaging draft picks. The CBA enables Chicago to eat some of that salary, so while most teams would loathe to add Bickell at $4 million, more teams would be receptive to his arrival if he were being paid half of that. That said, if the Blackhawks trade Kane, this speculation will all be moot anyway because they won’t be competing for Cups anymore.

Toews and Kane are still categorically dominant, but, traditionally, an elite forward’s output ebbs in his late 20s. Saad falling in the 2011 NHL Draft and dropping into the Blackhawks’ lap was the type of luck that is essential for a repeat Cup winner. With Saad’s repertoire tailored to the current era of the NHL, his youth and dynamism presented a healthy dose of vigor that would have helped extend the Blackhawks’ “dynasty.” At least that was the working theory, until they traded him.

On June 30th, the Blackhawks didn’t want to meet Saad’s completely rational salary demands, so they traded the restricted free agent for center Artem Anisimov and right winger Marko Dano. Now Saad is a Columbus Blue Jacket. As for the return, neither player will immediately yield Saad’s degree of improvisational facility at disrupting opponents’ offensive forays, nor his fusion of finesse and power on the offensive end. But can Anisimov and Dano furnish Chicago with something commensurate to Saad’s value?

At 27 years old, Anisimov has played 412 regular season and 32 playoff games. That sample size makes him a known quantity. While Anisimov joins a multiple Stanley Cup winner, and hypothetically could be playing with Kane, he has been an auxiliary piece on previous teams. For those not familiar with his work, or those who are projecting a spike in his production, it is important to correct any misperceptions; Chicago is not receiving a top-flight second-rung pivot, such as a Ryan Kesler or David Krejci. Nor are they acquiring a forward talent like Hossa, as Hossa had played for several teams before landing in Chicago and flourishing. Anisimov is big and talented, but has left his previous clubs wanting. Still, there are those who insist he is going to be a strong complement to Toews.

The crux of the argument is that Anisimov has been undervalued by his prior teams. Controlling the puck is the name of the game, and last season Anisimov had his best Corsi output as a Blue Jacket, controlling 50.7 percent of shot attempts at even strength. Relative to his teammates, Anisimov fared especially well.

Then there are his strong even-strength metrics. Throughout his career, Anisimov has been a very good scorer at even strength on a per minute basis. Therefore, the thinking goes, he could add 16 minutes a game and supply important complementary scoring while helping the Blackhawks maintain possession. And with the contract and term he just received, one has to believe the Blackhawks see his role becoming more prominent.

But from IH’s vantage point, the Devils advocate position is more persuasive. Keep in mind, Anisimov signed a five-year contract extension; that means he will be a Blackhawks forward for six more seasons because his old deal expires after this season. Yet Anisimov cracked 40 points only once in his career, and it was a half-decade ago. (He was 22 and playing for New York at the time.) Appraising a player by his points total can play to the extremes; it can overrate a player’s significance or underrate his importance, but in this case it is telling. Anisimov has never proven himself to be a key cog, despite strong career underlying metrics.

There is also the issue of his age. Anisimov is closer to the end than the beginning. And if his scoring diminishes, he does not have strong work on draws to lean on. Anisimov has never finished higher than 49.4 in faceoff win percentage, and he saw a lot of time at wing last season. It should be a red flag that two astute front offices have traded him while he was in his early-to-mid-20s.

On paper, one sees a player who was perhaps underutilized: After all, he is a 6’4” center who tilts the ice and injects scoring at 5 on 5 at a healthy clip. Yet he has never played even 17 minutes per game in his career (16:36 in 2013-14 was his career high). Also, context and fit matter when a player changes teams. Chicago is wagering that their personnel will prop up Anisimov, but they could just as easily sink him. If Kane does not play and Hossa finally shows his age, who exactly is supposed to buoy Anisimov on the wings? The Blackhawks’ fans have been spoiled by their team’s overwhelming success, so if Anisimov does not produce people will point to him as a problem, whether that is fair or not.

As for Marko Dano, his underlying numbers in his inaugural season were fantastic. He led the Blue Jackets in points per 60 minutes (2.70), goals per 60 minutes (1.08), and assists per 60 minutes (1.62) at even strength. Moreover, he led the Blue Jackets at Corsi for percentage. So what gives? Did the Blackhawks just claim the next Vladimir Tarasenko?

Like the case with Anisimov, context is important. When Dano played his first eight games in October and November, he notched one goal and one assist. Over the next 27 contests, Dano racked up seven goals and 12 assists. Here is the caveat: his scoring came in the meaningless middle of February, March, and April games when there was little pressure to perform because the Blue Jackets were in the cellar of the Eastern Conference. Dano played 35 games and accrued 21 points, but his best work came in a small sample with small expectations. Extrapolating Dano’s production over a full season in an expanded role with a new team – with huge expectations – is a dangerous parlor game.

Interestingly enough, there was a Dano-like player in 2013-14. He was a later-in-the-first-round draft pick, torched the league for 37 games, and finished first in points per 60 minutes and goals per 60 minutes, and second in assists per 60 minutes at even strength for his team as a rookie. His Corsi for percentage was sky-high as well. Remember San Jose’s Tomas Hertl? In this small sample size, he set the world on fire in his first 30-plus games.

In 2014-15, Hertl’s Corsi was very strong but he registered only six more points than he did in 2013-14, despite playing 45 more games. He moved up and down the lineup. There were hiccups. It wasn’t all roses. Player trajectories are often not linear.

It is extremely rare for a player without a top-five overall draft pick pedigree to come in and submit extraordinary production and then maintain that production. Heck, it is extremely difficult even for a top-five pick. (Hello, Nathan MacKinnon.) And Hertl was 17th overall in 2012; Dano was 27th overall in 2013. It is important to remember that Columbus’s general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, is an ace talent evaluator at the prospect level. If he thought he could be giving away Tarasenko Jr., he would balk.

So where does this leave Chicago?

Having the best player in the NHL (Toews) is a good start. If Kane plays this season, he will score prolifically. Keith plays the game without friction, singularly controlling movement and dictating play. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson have demonstrated the ability to assume heightened responsibility despite deteriorating defensive depth. With Oduya’s exodus, whoever is paired with newcomer Trevor Daley will need to temper his offensive aggressiveness because Daley plays with the riskiness of two defensemen. To a degree, the Cup-winning core is intact.

Pushed to the fore will be Dano, Teuvo Teravainen, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk. The trio have combined for a whopping 115 total (regular season and playoff) games. Immense pressure is being placed on three talented, yet inexperienced, players. Chicago will likely start Teravainen as a top-three center and Dano will figure into the top-nine forward equation as well. TVR is expected to help solidify the third pair. While Cup teams routinely squeeze value from players on entry-level contracts, Chicago does not have much room for error. The young trio is being depended on to execute large team roles. There is no Plan B. These guys need to produce because the prospect cupboard is relatively empty.

Conjecture and dissection point to something important: there is a lot of uncertainty for the Blackhawks this season. A lot of gambles and hopes will need to break right for the team to contend for another Cup. Young players develop on different trajectories, and just because a player is skilled and promoted to a bigger role does not mean the transition will be seamless. Just because things have worked out for the Blackhawks in the past does not mean they will in the future.

Questions worth raising: Teuvo’s 2014-15 regular season was unremarkable, so can he maintain the play he unleashed in the late stages of the postseason? Can Dano produce immediately despite switching from a burgeoning fan base whose expectations fell to zero after Columbus dropped into the NHL cellar to the most popular, intense hockey environment in the United States? Can TVR play 15 minutes a night over 82 games in a steady third-pair role?

For the last several seasons, there has been a myth floated that the Western Conference was so stacked that anyone could win it. Of course, the Blackhawks and Kings have finished first and second in Corsi for percentage in the conference over the last three seasons, and in 2012, the Kings finished first (the Blackhawks third). The Blackhawks and Kings have possessed a formidable nucleus and acquired or developed quality depth that allowed them to survive the gauntlet of the conference playoffs. The gap shrunk last season, but they have mostly been a cut above their conference peers.

But as Toews and Kane enter their late 20s, they may not have that many serious cracks left at the Cup. The clock is ticking. Younger, fresher superstars emerge and eclipse the old guard. Change is inevitable.

Two thousand and fifteen was an Annus mirabilis for the Blackhawks organization. The Blackhawks overcame heartbreaking defeat from the 2014 postseason, hurdled the traditional adversity and obstacles that the playoffs presented, and won their third Cup in six seasons. Modifications to the existing roster were inevitable this offseason. Losing Sharp and Oduya was bad; trading Saad was inexcusable. In Saad, they dealt one of the best, most adaptable wingers in the game who is just entering his prime. To shore up the gaps, Chicago is relying on the underutilized and inexperienced to fill the voids. KHL standout Artemi Panarin will be thrust into an important forward role; whether he is capable of fulfilling it is another matter.

All great teams in hockey history have a life span, and Chicago’s most recent offseason ­­­­­­­­­decisions accelerated the end of theirs.

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