What We Learned: Chicago's early struggles show time catching up

One of the things that characterized the Red Wings’ slow collapse over the past several years is that, if you looked closely enough, you could see the cracks long before the structural weaknesses manifested.

The quality of their players was slowly declining due to age, attrition, poor drafting, bad trades, and misevaluation of existing talent. Anyone who looked at something other than the wins and losses could have told you five years out that trouble was coming.

The same principle could have been applied to the NHL’s closest thing to a modern dynasty. As soon as it won the first of its three Stanley Cups, Chicago had to start trading away future All-Stars and otherwise very good players. Every summer, for a period of five-plus years. Eventually, that kind of thing was going to catch up with even the best team of the era, and early on this season, it feels like we’ve reached something of a tipping point.

To be fair, Chicago racked up big point totals the past few years with even a so-so process. Such was their talent threshold, the quality of their top-end players in particular, and ability to continually find NHLers either in the draft or rookie free agent markets.

Rumors of this club’s demise have been swirling for a while, and no one should have been surprised by their two first-round losses, even if they did follow yet another Stanley Cup win. And much like the Red Wings, the highest-end players on the roster were still more than enough to truly stave off collapse.

That might not be the case any more, as two old foes have slowly been gathering their power for years, and now it seems like they’ve finally caught up with this incredible team: The tag team of flattening league revenues and Father Time may have finally done what no one else could do, and brought Chicago’s dynasty to an end.

Obviously they’ve played just 12 games so far this year, but from those games they’ve wrung just 12 points, putting them on a pace for 82.  It goes without saying that it’s still early, and this isn’t an 82-point team on paper, but it’s getting later all the time and there’s nothing in the numbers or circumstances to support any sort of resurgence coming down the pike any time soon.

They are, for the most part, healthy (with the obvious exception of Marian Hossa’s career most likely being over) and they can’t win regularly despite the fact that they’re getting great goaltending from Corey Crawford. Patrick Kane and the guys on his line are scoring at a high rate, but no one else is. Remember those 15 goals they scored in their first two games of the season? They’ve only scored 23 in the past 10, which isn’t going to be enough to win on most nights, even in an offense-starved league like this one.

The important number in terms of predicting long-term wins and losses is still, after all these years, shot attempts for and against at 5-on-5, and Chicago obviously used to be elite in this regard. Going back to the season when they won their first Stanley Cup of this era, their possession numbers were always elite, but more recently began to tail off. As late as 2014-15 — their last Cup win, obviously — they were second in the league in this regard, but in 2015-16 they lost more key players to free agency and trades, and ranked 15th in CF%. The next season, they improved slightly to 12th, but actually saw their attempt margin drop from plus-95 (which really isn’t a good number over 82 games) to plus-67. These are thin margins on which to live, but their talent level remained such that they still cleared 100 points every year.

However, anyone who was bearish on the club was making the right long-term bet, and that was borne out by their frustrating playoff exits. Then, so far this year, they’re ranked 18th and minus-23 in attempts over just 12 games. Indeed, since the start of 2015-16, their total CF% ranking is right in the middle of the league at 15th.

And unfortunately, it seems the attrition due to cap constraints and passage have made it so that even the overwhelming talent they have in a few positions just isn’t enough to make the difference most nights.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are both playing well enough to keep the team going a little bit. Kane is getting badly outpossessed and outshot, but still has the talent to score goals at an above-average pace, and the Toews line keeps pushing the puck in the right direction. What’s really concerning is how bad the defense has been. Only Duncan Keith and Jan Rutta have spent more time in the attacking zone than defending, and even then, just barely.

Keith is 34 now, so to expect him to still be what we conceive of Duncan Keith being as a player is a little unfair. Perfect example: When Connor McDavid recently roasted him for a highlight-reel goal, everyone said, “Wow, and he did that to Duncan Keith.” But does the Duncan Keith of yesteryear give up that goal? Seems unlikely (even if Brent Seabrook was the one who really screwed up on that play) and, well, that’s how it goes when even Hall of Fame defensemen approach the middle of their third decade on earth.

It’s incredible to say this, but all the problems Chicago really has this year might just boil down to what the loss of Niklas Hjalmarsson means for the defense. It’s led Joel Quenneville to put all his high-paid eggs in one basket, with the Keith/Seabrook pairing as his primary No. 1 unit. After that, you’re looking at Gustav Forsling and Jan Rutta, and a third pair of Connor Murphy and Michal Kempny. Yikes. The xGF% of those three units: 49.9, 42.5, and 55. Blessings to Murphy and Kempny for devouring bottom-of-the-lineup competition, but they don’t play together particularly often.

Quenneville’s pairing combos have been through the blender; everyone has played with everyone else. Few have gotten positive results, and the pairings that have only did so in limited action together.

The fact that Chicago sits at 12 points in 12 games despite the fifth-highest PDO in the league should be a cause for major concern, because they should be winning games getting this kind of shooting and save percentage. The problem, then, is that there’s no real way to fix this without doing something shocking to the roster. Even with all these machinations, Chicago is pretty much capped out and could even exceed the ceiling by the end of the season (leading to a penalty next year, necessitating even more trades). There’s no coach even close to being available who would be able to wring better results from this group, and Stan Bowman has to be smart enough to recognize that.

If Joel Quenneville can’t coach his way out of this one — and I’m not saying he absolutely can’t, but it’s increasingly unlikely — no one can. Sometimes, everything just comes together to hit you too hard to recover from. And it seems like, even after a couple of near-3 counts, the tag team of cap constraints and time just hit Chicago with the Doomsday Device. Some have kicked out of even the most devastating finishers, of course, but it doesn’t happen often.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Nice little win for the Ducks here. Seems like there won’t be too many teams picking up Ws when Tampa has last change this year.

Arizona Coyotes: The 1943-44 New York Rangers, do not read this. The 2017-18 Arizona Coyotes, hello.

Boston Bruins: How about nah?

Buffalo Sabres: How close are we to Jack Eichel becoming one of those guys where we all just kinda feel bad he’s stuck on this awful team? Gotta be pretty close.

Calgary Flames: Ah, jeez. Boy. Not ideal.

Carolina Hurricanes: So this is going great.

Chicago Blackhawks: Dawg, when you’re getting it handed to you by a team Vegas just beat 7-0? I dunno, man.

Colorado Avalanche: Oh man, craps out.” I get it.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Yeah that guy who couldn’t stick with Vegas? He’s the answer to all your problems.

Dallas Stars: The Stars are still figuring it out but Ken Hitchcock likes what he sees. Almost all their problems are at 5-on-5, which, hey, that’s Hitchcock’s whole thing.

Detroit Red Wings: What if — and bear with me here — what if this team is bad?

Edmonton Oilers: Truly, this is an incredible report. What a well-run team.

Florida Panthers: Yeah this is actually a pretty good illustration of how bad Detroit is: Florida put up 46 shots on him.

Los Angeles Kings: I love that John Stevens pulled the goalie for this one. Not every coach would do that!

Minnesota Wild: Are the Wild starting to get it together here? Hell, someone has to in that division.

Montreal Canadiens: Tough to think of being a bigger self-own than caring about a sports team so much that it ruins your health.

Nashville Predators: Maybe Juuse Saros isn’t the answer in net after all. Problem is: Neither is Rinne.

New Jersey Devils: Oh the Devils believe they can beat anyone? When they play the Coyotes, that’s certainly the case.

New York Islanders: Get Tavares some damn help!

New York Rangers: For real, though, you gotta blow it up.

Ottawa Senators: This 28-year-old guy I’ve never heard of? Definitely the difference-maker the Senators need.

Philadelphia Flyers: Boy, Brian Elliott has been all over the map this year, huh?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Phil Kessel has 300 career goals and I love him.

San Jose Sharks: Ah, yes, Patrick Marleau, the noted feelings-haver.

St. Louis Blues: The quote from Scottie Upshall to lead off this article is very good.

Tampa Bay Lightning: When you go 0-for-6 on all special teams opportunities in a game, you’re probably gonna lose. Just my thoughts.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Maybe don’t cancel practice next time!!!

Vancouver Canucks: Ah jeez. C’mon.

Vegas Golden Knights: This is going great.

Washington Capitals: DSP is finally doin’ it!

Winnipeg Jets: Hmm, it seems like having three goalies on NHL contracts leads you to shop one of them. Huh.

Play of the weekend

You knew it’d be this goal. Hey, that’s Adam Larsson getting torched.

Gold Star Award

Phillip Danault, good game.

Minus of the Weekend

Definitely at this point in October, we all thought the top five teams in the league would be St. Louis, LA, Tampa, New Jersey, and Vegas. For sure. I know I did.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Boxscore” is going above and beyond.

TO TOR:
– Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D

TO ARI:
– Kasperi Kapanen, F
– Timothy Liljegren, D
– 2018 1st Round Pick
– 2019 2nd Round Pick[/quote]

Signoff

No, that’s a spoon.

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Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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