It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. The Chicago Blackhawks know that there are 82 games to work out the kinks, and that new personnel are trying to find chemistry with the incumbents and settle into roles. But the fresh faces look comfortable in their duties, which have become more prominent for some due to the injury to Duncan Keith that will sideline him for 4-6 weeks. The season is a grind. The Blackhawks look sharp right now, but they will experience peaks and troughs like the rest of NHL teams. Seven games in, here is a temperature check on the newbies and Trevor van Riemsdyk, who missed most of last season due to injuries.
Artemi Panarin has been one of the best forwards for Chicago in the early going, a new reality that was precipitated when the Blackhawks dealt Brandon Saad. While Panarin was a star in the KHL, a journey across the Atlantic does not always result in a smooth transition to the NHL game. But Panarin has seemed to find immediate chemistry with Patrick Kane, and the high-caliber puck-handling by both players has allowed Artem Anisimov to work predominantly off the puck. It has been riveting to watch Kane, a dominant puck-handler, adjust to not being the only facilitating threat. He has acclimated swimmingly, as he has more consistently found quiet ice and provides puck support when needed.
Panarin possesses some Kane-line attributes. He excels in transition, and his composure under duress allows him to be a strong playmaker. He also has deceptive speed, and can gain inside position on defenseman when charging to the net. The similarities extend to the cycle as well, where his soft hands in tight spaces make him elusive and difficult to corral in the five men merry-go-round Chicago unfurls in the offensive zone.
Panarin and Kane can push the pace and the defense back with their ability to slash through the neutral zone and then, after they cross the blue line, stall for a second before finding a teammate cutting into a pocket of space. Together, the line has combined for a Corsi for percentage of 58.9, per Puckalytics, which is outstanding. But to control shot attempts at such a robust rate, a player needs to be able to incorporate his blueliners. As five opposing skaters glue their eyes on Kane and Panarin, the Blackhawks’ defensemen become ever more appealing options when offensive-zone advantage has been established on the cycle or off the rush. When a Chicago defenseman does pinch, Panarin recognizes he needs to move up to the point to plug that space and keep a fluid rotation going. With Panarin, the Blackhawks gain another puck-handler who can score and burnish their passing.
As viewers, we tend to get focused on the hero of the play, the primary force who drives the action. But Anisimov is a willing sidekick, a necessary complement on a line with two Alphas. He will hound an opposing puck-carrier on the backcheck, grapple below the goal line with opposing forwards to stoke a zone exit, screen the goalie in the offensive zone and look for a deflection, and set a pick on the cycle for his teammate to provide separation. None of this is glamorous, but it highlights why Anisimov has strong career Corsi numbers. They are a byproduct of his ability to support the puck and provide good back pressure on defense. He is an intuitive player, and while he doesn’t have the dazzle of Panarin – although he did score a pretty goal against Florida last night that won’t be the norm – his ability to do the small things make him an important part.
Anisimov has not been great in the faceoff circle so far, winning less than 46 percent of his draws. Anisimov is not going to overwhelm, but if he helps Chicago maintain possession by winning battles for the puck and adding defensive value, then he is doing his job.
With the Dallas Stars last season, Trevor Daley was like a bite of cotton candy: an intense sugar high that is fun while it lasts, but in the long run is bad for you. His underlying metrics were horrendous, but his reckless style of play was riveting television, as he accelerated both the Stars’ and their opposition’s offense. And his coaches’ heart rates! His vigilantism has been chastened in Chicago, and frankly, he has been a much more valuable player.
Daley’s offensive instincts have been a plus this season. His mobility makes him a threat to join the rush or dive in on the weak side on the cycle, and his passing is necessary on breakouts and neutral-zone regroups. Moreover, he has picked his spots more, and his decision-making when passing has been far more pragmatic.
Daley is not a great defensive player, but he can do things to offset that. Jumping an opponent’s pass in the neutral zone or making a strong outlet pass are things that keep the Blackhawks in possession. His off-the-puck attacking also creates space for Chicago’s top skill players by forcing adversaries to account for another player driving the net. And with the puck, Daley can take open ice and gain the offensive zone. With Keith out, Daley looks to see much more ice time. If Daley can make good reads on pinches and first passes, and continues to demonstrate good hockey awareness, the Blackhawks can survive Keith’s injury.
Trevor Van Riemsdyk:
TVR is not blessed with the same skating aptitude as Daley and, therefore, there is less of an inclination for renegade habits. Instead, TVR utilizes anticipation and hockey sense as his main NHL strengths, with the hope that by consistently making good decisions over the course of the game he is a net-positive. TVR has acclimated to how the Blackhawks want to play. Defensively, Chicago is a pressure team, and TVR knows that when he has back pressure through the middle of the ice, he is encouraged to assail the opposing puck-carrier on the perimeter. Offensively, Chicago demands its defensemen to be engaged participants in their offensive onslaught, so TVR has had to ratchet up his aggressiveness.
If two Blackhawks forwards are battling along the boards and the puck comes up the half-wall, TVR cannot back up, at least if he wants to receive important minutes. Instead, he needs to be that strong-side support so the Blackhawks keep the territorial advantage. If Chicago has speed through the neutral zone, TVR is encouraged to drive the middle or the outside lane to provide time and room for Chicago’s forwards. Once a shot is attempted, TVR is expected to play the role of a forechecker and battle for the puck below the circles. In all three zones, TVR has used his craftiness by looking off opponents on his first read before passing to a different player.
With Keith’s injury, TVR and Daley are going to see a more taxing workload. Therefore, it will be paramount that, in the defensive zone, the Blackhawks’ forwards need to consistently provide help on breakouts. Neither defensemen has the finesse or edge work to slip out of trouble like Keith, so centers and forwards need to sink lower under a heavy forecheck and propel the puck out of their own zone, even if it hurts their transition and offensive potency.