Hockey

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

I have to admit that my expectations for this one were not high. Given the Hawks recent string of play, the fact that the Lightning are a far superior squad, and that they badly needed to get a win at home, I felt that this one could get ugly. In the second period, I thought I was being proven right, and then the final frame happened. I am happily surprised to be wrong. Let’s dig in:

IF KUBALIK LOSES THE CALDER WE RIOT

– Let’s start with our header, as Dominik Kubalik really spearheaded the offensive attack for the Hawks, outscoring the Bolts all on his own in the third period (okay, one was an empty netter but it counts all the same). Given the scouting reports about him and the Hawks’ success in finding some hidden gems in Europe over the years, there was little doubt that Kubalik was going to be a good NHL player, but I don’t think even the most optimistic Hawks fan expected this kind of season from him. He’s been riding a hot steak for damn near two months now with 18 goals in his last 22 games, and with his first career hat trick tonight he now sits just one goal shy of 30 for the year. With 18 games still to go and the hot hand he’s riding, he has a real nice chance at 35 goals and an outside chance at 40. Especially given how snake bitten Top Cat has been this year, that is very welcome.

– The real MVP of this one was probably Corey Crawford, though. Really, that shouldn’t surprise you anymore, but it’s true nonetheless. Crawford was great in the first period, as the game saw a lot of back and forth action and Crow went blow for blow on impressive saves with Curtis McElhinney. The second period was all Tampa, though, and Crow really stood on his head to keep the Hawks in it. Eventually the Hawks allowed a goal, but it took a nice play on a cycle by Brayden Point and a hell of a shot to beat Crow and give the Lightning the lead. On the second Bolts goal there was literally nothing Crawford could do to stop it, and we will get to that shortly. Overall, another great performance from Crow in a career and season full of them.

– As much as I admittedly dislike Jeremy Colliton and have fun making fun of the smoothness of his brain, I have to give credit where it is due – he made some nice adjustments on the power play tonight when it came to the strategy of the first unit. Early in the game it was evident that Tampa was going to pressure the absolute shit out of Patrick Kane every time he touched the puck on the PP, which Olzcyk called out on the broadcast. As the game went on, you could see the Hawks adjusting to try and use that aggressiveness to their advantage, and eventually they were able to do so – on Kubalik’s second goal, go back and watch the way Tampa defended it. The Hawks put Keith right in the middle of the ice on the umbrella with Kane on his left and Kubalik to the right. Tampa was so unwilling to leave Kane along, even on his weak side, that they left the forward on that side down low so he could pressure Kane if the puck went to him, forcing the other forward to skate way out of position to pressure Keith at the point. Duncs just went right back to Kubalik, who had a wide open shooting lane with that forward out of position, and with his shot that is a gift he made the most of.

– This next part is another comment on a PP adjustment by Colliton, but you can choose how you want to read it, and you’ll get what I mean in a moment. I don’t know the exact numbers here and am too lazy to go dig it up right now, but the Hawks second PP unit got a bit more ice time tonight, and that was the unit that actually ended up scoring the Hawks first goal to get them on the board tonight. Now, you can take that as an adjustment by Colliton to get another unit of good scorers like Boqvist, Saad, and Strome on the ice and being willing to give them more opportunity after seeing that it is working. Or you can wonder why it took him so damn long to actually start doing that more consistently, and the answer to that would be that his brain is smoother than a fresh paint job. I mean, even with the small amount of credit I’ll give him for utilizing PP2 more often, he also is putting Olli Maatta out there with that unit….

– Speaking of which, that guy fucking sucks. Remember that second Lightning goal I talked about that wasn’t Crawford’s fault? Yeah, that’s cuz it was Maatta’s. The only reason the Bolts even scored that goal is because Maatta received a pass from Crawford terribly and lost the puck, made no legitimate effort to find the puck and instead tried to body Nikita Kucherov away while standing flat footed which resulted in Kucherov winning the puck (shocker), and then Maatta just completely failed to follow him and lost track of him altogether, leaving him all alone deep in the zone for Point to find with a nice pass that Kucherov had all day to put into a wide open net, cuz Crawford never even had a chance to react to all of this because it happened so quickly. Get that guy the fuck out of here, and send Slater Koekkoek along with him.

– But I won’t do anymore negative. This was a good win, good enough to restore a small amount of faith in this group, even if I still don’t think they have any chance of making the playoffs and even if I think that losing more games than they win is the more favorable result for this team moving forward. You’re probably sick of me lobbying for tanking by now, huh?

– Hawks go next on Saturday, as they’ll head down to Miami to take on Coach Q and the Panthers. Until then.

Hockey

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

My biggest concern for the Hawks going into this season was that they might end up having a good forward group and good goaltending undone by a terrible blue line. Tonight, that was absolutely the case, with a little help from Braden Holtby playing well for the first time this year. The Hawks pretty much dominated this game to the tune of a 59.81 CF% and a 44-30 shot on goal advantage, and yet it still came down to a few key saves by Holtby and a few terrible plays from the Hawks blue line. It’s my first time this year, so let’s get back it in style:

– Brace yourself for this one: Alex Nylander was quite good tonight. In fact, two of the Hawks’ three goals were the direct results of him making some kind of very good play. One of them was even a very good play in his defensive zone! I KNOW! I was shocked too! On the Hawks first goal, Nylander did a nice job getting to the front of the net where the puck found him before he made a beautiful no-look, backhand pass to a wide open Drake Caggiula who was waiting in the slot with a fucking soccer net to shoot at, and accordingly did not miss.

The second great play from Nyland led to the Hawks’ third goal, as he stepped up very nicely onto a cross-ice pass near the Hawks’ blue line and intercepted it, then quickly got it to Kane and transitioned them into a two-on-one. Nylander caught up quickly and opened himself up, but Kane decided to shoot (Feather talked about this having been a thing a few times last week even, and it continued here) and found the net to draw the Hawks even. Overall, Nylander finished the night with a 53.57 CF%, which was well below team rate, but when the Hawks dominate possession like they did tonight it feels like splitting hairs to pick on that part and ignore that 53.57% is very good.

– On the other end of the spectrum, I am truly not sure what it is that Erik Gustafsson is still doing on this roster. We’ve talked about it time and time again, but the Hawks really should have traded him either at the trade deadline last year or certainly at the draft. At this point, he isn’t even good at the things he is supposed to be good at. The Hawks gave up a shorthanded goal tonight (more on that in a moment) that only game together because Gus tossed Kane a hand-grenade pass across the ice – Kane literally had to settle it with his hands – which forced him to flounder with the puck and turned into a 2-on-1 for Washington, which Gus defended like absolute shit and the Caps scored.

Then in the final minute, Colliton called his timeout to draw up a play after an icing, and he had to literally draw up a a faceoff play that did not involve Gustafsson because he can’t even receive the puck off the draws. And then after that play, when Gus did get the puck, he lost it and shortly after the puck went 200-feet the other way for the Caps final goal.

At this point, there is no excuse to not have Adam Boqvist here playing the Gustafsson role. Boqvist almost undeniably does the offensive part of “offensive defenseman” better than Gus, is probably a wash at worst in the defensive zone, and at least if he played like this you could understand it given that he’s 19. Gustafsson is 27. Get him gone.

– Not sure what happened over the summer, perhaps the Magic Training Camp undid it, but the Hawks power play is back to sucking big time, and it looks mysteriously a lot like how it looked when Q was here. Fixing the PP was one of the few things Colliton really had to hang his hat on last year, so to have it fall apart like this is not exactly good for him.

– Speaking of the power play, and circling back to that shorthanded goal, it is impressively bad that the Hawks went into a four-minute double-minor power play in a 1-1 tie and came out of it down 2-1. I would like someone to find out how many times a team has gone into a 4-min PP tied and come out of it losing. It cannot be that many.

– Yes he got knocked over, but Brent Seabrook watching the Caps score a goal from the goalmouth while he is sitting on his ass in front was a work of art sculpted by the hockey gods themsevles. It was truly impressive.

– I am a big fan of the Saad-Kampf-Kubalik line. Keep them going.

– Kirby Dach did not jump off the ice tonight, but he played well. In the first period he won a really nice battle in the corner before setting Kane up with a beautiful scoring chance. He didn’t do a whole lot else in the game honestly, but at least he wasn’t awful. I will keep coming back for more.

Also, to #18 of Washington whose name I choose not to look up, if you ever hook that boy by the face again I will hunt you down, find you, and kill you. Thanks.

– Hawks go next on Tuesday against Vegas. Until then.

Hockey

Sixty points. First-pairing minutes. A league-leading power play from middle December onward. A $1.2 million cap hit. These are some of the statistics that surround Erik Gustafsson. He’s the center of gravity that draws analytics nerds, construction-working meatballs, GMs, coaches, and agents alike to ask, “Just what the fuck are we looking at here?” Is Gus the future bedrock on the backend or is he a bum in a talented man’s clothes?

2018–19 Stats

79 GP – 17 G, 43 A, 60 P

50.24 CF% (2.1 CF% Rel), 60.8 oZS%

53.24 GF% (5.37 Rel GF%), 45.5 xGF% (0.64 Rel xGF% )

Avg. TOI 22:35

FFUD Review of 2018–19 Erik Gustafsson

A Brief History: Erik Gustafsson led all Blackhawks D-men in goals, assists, and points, both at even strength and on the PP. Of Hawks D-men who played at least 41 games (so, minus Jokiharju and Koekkoek), he led in CF% and CF% Rel. Only five D-men in the NHL scored more points than Gustafsson last year. And of course, upon his insertion as the #1 PP unit’s quarterback on December 18, 2018, no team had a higher PP% than the Blackhawks.

No matter how you slice it, Erik Gustafsson was an offensive force last year. You don’t need a map to find that.

But his offensiveness extended to his defense—you know, the very title of his position—because he was a botched graveside burial in his own zone. This is where we need a couple maps to understand just how fucking awful Gus was on the defensive side of the puck.

A3Z tool from Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) and CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil)

This tool is fairly forgiving to Gus. The offense and own-zone exit ability are on full display. Now, look at the ENTRY DEFENSE section.

The only thing objectively bad about it is his breakups per 60 minutes. What this means is that when opposing skaters go directly at Gus with the puck, more likely than not, he won’t break the entry up. On the plus side, Gus doesn’t allow too many opposing skaters to skate into the zone with possession (i.e., not dumping it in), in terms of both raw possession entries (PossEntriesAllowed60) and the percentage of entries with possession allowed (PossEntry% Allowed).

We can’t say the same about his partner, Duncan Keith. Last year, teams tended to attack Keith on the entry with better success. This means that generally, opponents got into the zone with possession on Keith’s side rather than Gus’s.

Why talk about Keith though? Does that mean that Gus is better on defense than we give him credit for? Are we deflecting by using Keith as a comp? Do you think I’d be doing all this if that were the case, dear reader?

Charts by Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath)

So, we’ve established that Keith is more of a hole in terms of possession entries than Gus. It’s what happens after Gus gets stuck in his own zone that’s the menace.

These two heatmaps compare opponent shot rates with Gus on the ice (left) vs. without Gus on the ice (right). More red means more opponent shots in that area.

Both are really red, because the Blackhawks defense—and I cannot and will not ever stress this enough—is more embarrassing than having your first period in white pants. But it somehow got worse with Gus on the ice.

With Gus on defense, you’re looking at a higher concentration of high-danger shots AND more shots from the top of the circle on the side Gus plays on. Recall too that the only D-man on the ice for more high-danger goals than Gus last year was his partner, Duncan Keith. And though Keith’s heatmaps were bad, they weren’t this bad. (You can guess whose were worst on the team overall.)

In short, last year saw opponents enter the zone on Keith’s side and do a ton of damage on Gus’s side. This is their top pairing. Very good, very conducive to winning.

This is what we’ve been saying about Gus for a while. The offense and creativity are all there, but he’s stagnant ditch water in his own zone. The question is, which side of the coin has more weight?

It Was the Best of Times: Gustafsson pairs with Connor Murphy and continues his incredible offensive output. He vastly outpaces his xGF% just like last year, and the PP ranks in the top five based on Gustafsson’s vision and creativity at the point—both of which are direct results of playing with Patrick Kane more than everyone, just like last year. Murphy cancels out Gustafsson’s complete lack of ability in his own zone, and Gus’s offense far outweighs his poor defense. He scores 55 points. Essentially, the Hawks get Brent Burns lite.

It Was the BLURST of Times: Gus doesn’t spend most of his time with Patrick Kane, and he regresses to the mean. Opponents wait just a second longer to catch Gus on some of his ill-advised own-zone dangles and exploit his John Wayne tendencies. He and Keith continue to get buried in their own zone. The power play flattens out, but this time, it isn’t a result of Patrick Kane running on fumes.

Prediction: Gustafsson is an offensive powerhouse. He continues to outperform his xGF% and doesn’t see an offensive regression. The same power play unit that came to life after Gus became THE GUY continues to run roughshod, finishing in the top 10 on the year. (There’s a concern that it won’t produce, based on how the PP finished last year. I think that’s a valid concern, but I also think that it was more a result of Kane running on fumes than anything.)

There’s one huge caveat to this: Patrick Kane must stay healthy. Kane has the same sort of gap between GF% and xGF% throughout his career that we saw from Gus last year. And Gus’s performance correlates with whether he’s playing with Kane.

  • When Gus plays with Kane at 5v5, his GF% is 57.69. Without Kane, it’s 46.09.
  • When Gus plays with Kane at 5v5, his SCGF% is 56.34. Without, it’s 47.17.
  • Of Gus’s 60 points last year, his breakdown was:
    • 60 total points. 42 of them (70%) came playing with Kane
    • 42 even-strength points. 25 of them (59.5%) came playing with Kane
    • 18 PP points. 17 of them (94%) came playing with Kane

You can see similar performance tracks when Gus plays with Toews, DeBrincat, and Strome in similar situations, but they aren’t quite as extreme. All this is to say that Gus doesn’t carry it by himself. When he plays with top-tier talent, he looks like a top-tier player. When he doesn’t, he doesn’t. What’s that worth to you?

So, what the fuck are we looking at with Gus? An outstanding complementary player. A good, creative play maker. Good enough to score 60 points with the right teammates, but not good enough to create by himself. Reliant on a generational talent. A farce in his own zone. Probably most valuable as a trade piece.

In other words, we’re looking at the Blackhawks’s next 6 x $6 million man.

Stats from hockey-reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, Corsica.hockey, NHL.com, HockeyViz.com, and the Sznajder–Turtoro A3Z Player Comp Tool

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One of the most baffling things about the Hawks during The Core’s 11.5-year run together has been the overall underperformance and at times downright putridness of the power play. With all of the scoring threats the Hawks have had since the 07–08 campaign—Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, and DeBrincat, just to name a few—the Hawks have finished in the Top-10 for PP% just three times. In each of their Stanley Cup campaigns, the Hawks finished 16th, 19th, and 20th in PP% during the regular season, respectively. Their best finish came in 2015–16, when the Hawks finished second in the league. You might recall that as the year Patrick Kane scored 17 PP goals (T-2nd in league behind Ovechkin) next to Panarin and won the Hart, Ross, and Pearson (Lindsay).

Over the last year and a half, though, it’s looked dismal even by the Hawks’s underwhelming standards. For reference, last year they finished 28th, and they currently sit at 24th this year. But this year’s bad ranking was much worse just a few weeks ago, when the Hawks power play ranked dead last (31st).

Things have begun to look up recently, with the Hawks catapulting seven spots. But why?

For context, let’s first compare Time on Ice Per Game on the power play for the Hawks’s top time-getting defensemen between Quenneville and Colliton.

PP TOI/Game: Quenneville (15 Games)

PP TOI/Game: Colliton (26 Games)

Keith

2:34

1:03

Gustafsson

2:18

2:25

Seabrook

2:16

2:08

Right off the bat, you can see a huge difference in how Colliton uses Keith on the PP vs. Quenneville. We’ve been screaming in the rain about how Duncan Keith is not and never has been a good PP QB, and it looks like Colliton agrees. Since taking over, the Hawks have leaned primarily on Gustafsson and Seabrook in the QB1 and QB2 roles.

Now, let’s do the same for the Hawks forwards who tend to see the most time on the PP:

PP TOI/Game: Quenneville (15 Games)

PP TOI/Game: Colliton (26 Games)

Kane

3:34

3:43

Toews

3:15

3:05

DeBrincat

3:14

2:50

Schmaltz

2:53

2:22

Anisimov

2:20

1:20

Saad

1:46

1:34

Kahun

1:42

0:52

Strome

2:19

Both coaches used Kane, Toews, DeBrincat, and Schmaltz primarily. The biggest differences in terms of time were that Colliton has used Anisimov much less and replaced Schmaltz with Strome. There’s a frustrating dip in DeBrincat’s time under Colliton, but over the last six games, that number is closer to 3:20, so it may have just been Colliton trying things on. (John Hayden was on the PP for a while under Colliton. No, really.)

Essentially, Colliton has preferred Gus to Keith and Strome to Anisimov, quite rightly.

Now we have an idea about the big changes Colliton made (less Keith and Artie, more Gus and Strome). Let’s dig into the more recent success the Hawks have had on the PP. Check out the splits between the PP1 (Gus, Cat, Toews, Kane, Strome) and PP2 (Seabrook, Keith, Artie, Saad, Kahun) units over the last six games, which is when the PP started clicking:

PP TOI/Game (12/18–12/30)

Gustafsson

3:35

Kane

3:28

DeBrincat

3:20

Strome

3:15

Toews

3:11

Saad

1:04

Keith

1:01

Anisimov

0:52

Kahun

0:52

Seabrook

0:40

Colliton has really relied on his PP1 unit over the last six games. So that’s one piece of the puzzle. But that sure as shit doesn’t explain it all. Next, we’ll look at the difference between Kane–Seabrook and Kane–Gustafsson as a combo to determine whether who QBs for Kane matters.

Let’s compare Goals For and High-Danger Chances For between the Kane–Seabrook combo and Kane–Gustafsson combo. We’ll look over two time frames: 11/08–12/16 (19 games, beginning when Colliton took over) and 12/18–12/30 (6 games, beginning when the PP started clicking):

PP TOI/Game

Goals For

HDCF

Kane–Seabrook, 11/08–12/16/18

2:31

4

17

Kane–Gustafsson, 11/08–12/16/18

1:20

0

5

Kane–Seabrook 12/18/18–12/30/18

0

Kane–Gustafsson, 12/18/18–12/30/18

3:26

6

10

In isolation, it sure looks like simply having Gustafsson out with Kane regularly is far more effective than having Seabrook with Kane regularly. They’ve put up two more goals in six games than Kane–Seabrook did in 19, and the high-danger chances for are quickly catching up in a fraction of the time.

The reason we’re using six games as the touchpoint is twofold: First, the last time Kane played even a minute with Seabrook on the PP was on 12/16. He hasn’t played a single minute with Seabrook as the QB in the last six games.

Second, over the last six games, the Hawks have a 36.8 PP%.

Thirty-fucking-six-point-motherfucking-eight!

The only team ahead of them over that span is Pittsburgh (40%), who is sixth in the league and benefited from a 4/4 night against St. Louis on 12/29. What an outhouse that team and city is. The next closest teams over a similar span are Florida (35.3%), the third-best PP% team in the NHL, and Boston (33.3%), the fifth best.

But how do all of these numbers fit into the overall gameplay? One of the crazy theories we had earlier in the year was that the Hawks PP was struggling because of Kane, not despite him. Compare these two clips:

This is a clip of a Hawks power play against Vegas on 12/06. Notice how long Kane spends with the puck (“Carmelo-ing” as Fels calls it) in both instances and how it allows Vegas’s PK to set up, leaving only low-danger perimeter shots for Seabrook and DeBrincat.

This is a clip of the Hawks power play against the Stars on 12/20. Rather than playing with his dick on the boards, notice how much more movement Kane creates with Gus at QB. The Stars now have to focus on both Kane coming off the half-boards and Toews in the high slot. The biggest difference here is that Gustafsson can move farther than five feet in any direction, unlike Seabrook in the previous clip. With DeBrincat and Gustafsson cycling, Kane doesn’t have to make everything happen by himself. It also lets him move into higher-danger spots, such as when he skated to set up the slapper in the spot that DeBrincat was once in (DeBrincat cycled to the point while Gus took Kane’s usual spot).

Another wrinkle between the two set ups is how Colliton uses Toews. In the first clip, Toews rarely stayed put in the high slot, instead roving around the lower portions of the ice. This “movement” was less strategic and more moving for the sake of moving. Note how no one on Vegas pays much heed to Toews.

In the second clip, Toews tends to stay in the high-to-mid slot. After one retrieval behind the net at the very beginning of the clip, Toews never strays past the dots or lower than the blue paint. In this set up, Toews is a threat to either (a) tip a shot, (b) sweep in a rebound, or (c) set up in the slot for a wrister or a one-timer. By cutting unnecessary movement out, Toews makes himself a threat and gives Kane, DeBrincat, and Gus more real estate to work with.

While both of these set ups came under Colliton, you could easily mistake the first clip for a Quenneville set up. It may have just been a matter of time and experimentation, but once Colliton put Kane and Gus together on the PP1, things started to change.

It took a little over a month, but Colliton has done three things to improve the power play:

1. Massively reduced Keith’s role.

2. Put Gus with Kane at nearly all times.

3. Set Toews in the high slot and reduced unnecessary movement.

When you consider how much movement the Hawks PP has created over the last six games, the reason why the power play looks and is more formidable is likely a function of Gus’s skating ability and risk-taking. With Seabrook, the onus is on Kane to make plays because all Seabrook can do anymore is pound slappers from the point. That’s fine and all, but it’s a huge waste of Kane’s toolset. It forces everyone to play more conservatively, Kane included, because the point man in Seabrook needs cover and can’t create movement by himself. His passing can’t save him, basically.

Gus is more willing and able to make high-wire passes and plays because of his relative speed, decent vision, and the ways he takes advantage of Kane’s preternatural offensive skill, as we saw on Kane’s first goal against the Wild on 12/27. His aggressiveness and ability to cycle with Kane and DeBrincat, coupled with the threat of Toews in the high slot, open up more lanes for both good passing and shooting, rather than the dull perimeter passing they’d get with Keith and Seabrook.

While six games do not a power play make, the Hawks are trending in the right direction, and it looks like all it took was someone for Kane to perform with. The rub here is that you’re relying an awful lot on Gus not to do outlandishly stupid things, which is a coin-flip at best. Nonetheless, the results are clear:

1. The Kane–Gus combo has produced six of the Hawks last seven PP goals over six games. It took the PP 35 games to get to 12 goals prior to this combo playing regularly.

2. Since making Gus the QB on the PP1, the Hawks have the second-best PP% in the NHL, behind only Pittsburgh.

3. Before Gus became the QB1, the Hawks PP% sat at 11.4. With Gus as the QB1, it’s 36.8%. That’s a 223% increase in conversion rates. That’s right: 223%.

The sample sizes are small, but promising. If nothing else, it’s a relief to watch the Hawks PP do something, anything, other than suck out loud, even if it’s only for a little while. But the way the stats flesh out and the PP looks on the ice, this might be what the PP is now.

Stats compiled from hockey-reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, and nhl.com. Stats current as of 12/30/18.