Hockey

The key to fixing the Chicago Blackhawks, whatever side of the rebuilding question you reside, has to be the blueline. The defense has not been up to snuff for several seasons; this should not be breaking news to anyone. Fortunately, there’s a solution to what ails the Blackhawks. Draft and develop the back end and turn what is now a colossal weakness into a strength.

That’s all it takes…right?

This is going to be short and definitely not sweet, folks.

Chicago General Manager Stan Bowman does not have a strong track record in drafting defensive talent. Since he started making picks in the 2010 NHL Draft, he does have one decent stat line:

Games     Goals     Assists     Points     Rating

585            31          96              127          -35

Who is this mystery player? I’ll wait.

You won’t find this player because he doesn’t exist. The above numbers are the combined NHL numbers for every defenseman Stan Bowman has selected in the the last ten NHL Drafts.

Here’s the individual breakdown:

Player                          Games    G    A    Pts.    Rating

Klas Dahlbeck            170          6    17   23       -31

Stephen Johns           150          13  15   28       -6

Adam Clendenning   90            4   20   24       +11

Henri Jokiharju         76            3    19   22        -7

Carl Dahlstrom          60            0     9      9       +4

Justin Holl                  49            3     11    14      +10

Dennis Gilbert            15            0      2      2       -10

Adam Boqvist             14            1       2      3        -5

Blake Hillman              4            0      1       1        -1

Michael Paliotta          2            0       1       1        0

It will probably not surprise you that most of those 585 games are with other NHL teams. Only two of those players, Gilbert and Boqvist, are currently with the Blackhawks.

Dahlbeck is currently in the KHL. The oft-injured Johns hasn’t played for Dallas in nearly two years. Clendenning, who just got a call up to Columbus, is a good AHL player who just hasn’t been able to find the gear needed to stay in the NHL.

Jokiharju…well…let’s not talk about that right now.

In order to create a playoff-caliber defense, the Blackhawks are going to need to grow it themselves. Chicago doesn’t have the cap space to bring in a top-tier defense. Waiting for a free-agency solution to the Hawks problem is waiting for pigs to fly.

The three biggest defensive pieces of the dynasty came via the draft: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. The closest thing to a shut-down defender like Hjalmarsson (which I think Chicago needs two of to kickstart a turnaround) that Bowman has drafted are Dahlbeck and Dahlstrom. Combined, the two are not half the player Hjalmarsson was for Chicago.

“Drafting defenseman is hard”, you may say. “Bowman can just trade for the defensive prospects we so desperately need.”

Fair enough. Next time, I’ll take a look at the team’s recent history with obtaining that elusive impact defenseman. For now, I’ll give you room to breathe.

 

But What About The Hogs?

Rockford is at home Friday night, taking on the Iowa Wild. The IceHogs then head up to Manitoba Sunday for the first of two with the Moose.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for possible game updates this weekend and thoughts on the Hogs throughout the season.

 

 

Baseball

I saw this tweet everywhere yesterday in the aftermath of the Cubs complete self-immolation/hydrogen bombing of their season. I know why it happened, but first…

It’s undeniable that Nicholas Castellanos brought a different energy to the Cubs. He also hit the shit out of the ball, which helped. Jason Heyward has brought a different energy to the Cubs for the four years he’s been here, but no one really cares because he doesn’t hit. It was easy to see with Castellanos of course, the way he bounced out of the box and in the dugout and out to the field.

And we all want and like that. It is a kids’ game after all. And this kind of picture at least makes us feel like the players are as upset and depressed as we are. Or that they feel playing in Wrigley Field and being a Cub is truly special. To some it is, to even fewer it matters more than getting paid the most they can for as long as they can. Which will assuredly be Castellanos’s aim come November, as it should be.

But cold, dead-eyed analysis should tell you that the Cubs have different priorities this winter, no matter what you think of the offense. First, let’s compare some numbers:

Player A since August 1st: .325/.370/.675  164 wRC+

Player B since August 1st: .292/.282/.636  156 wRC+

You’ve probably figured out the second player is Kyle Schwarber, and yet you will still hear a great many fans and media types saying it’s Schwarber who should be traded and Castellanos re-signed, even though Schwarber is younger and cheaper and keeps a great deal more financial flexibility. You might not think the last part matters, or more to the point don’t think it should matter given the financial might of both the Cubs and the Ricketts family. And I would agree with you, except it’s going to anyway, and we should probably deal with reality. Though that’s never really been our strong-suit around here, which is why we still think Teuvo Teravainen is a Hawk.

You might also think that it doesn’t have to be an either-or choice between Castellanos and Schwarber, but it kind of does, and it kind of has to do with Jason Heyward. We’ll circle back to this.

What you have to decide is whether you think Castellanos, or Schwarber, is the player they showed the last two months or more the player they’ve been for years. Over the season, Castellanos has put together a 124 wRC+, which mirrors his 130 of last year. Here in his prime, that’s probably just about what he is? 120-125? We can’t expect this kind of binge every year. This will end up being Schwarber’s best season since his rookie campaign, and I would wager that’s what he will be going forward as well, as his numbers don’t have quite the inflation to them that Castellanos’s does.

But again, financial considerations come into this. You may think the Cubs have Hamels, Zobrist, and Morrow coming off the books for a cool $45M or so in flexibility. Doesn’t work that way though, as most of Zobrist’s money has been swallowed up by Kimbrel’s contract. And there are raises coming. Willson Contreras is probably getting a $3M-$5M raise from this year. Anthony Rizzo gets a $3M one. Kris Bryant is in line for another $3M or more than he got this year. Same goes for Javier Baez. Oh, and Schwarber too. Kyle Hendricks’s salary for sure bumps up $5M with his extension. Right there, that’s $20M gone, conservatively.

Castellanos is in line for, and this is a guess, 3/$54M contract or thereabouts. Given his age, maybe he gets four or five years. Give him that, and your flexibility is severely limited, even with a rise in the luxury tax threshold.

And quite simply, the Cubs have greater needs, even if the offense has caused you to dent your own skull. Right now the rotation for 2020 is Hendricks, Darvish, Lester, Q, and some mishmash of Chatwood or 80 innings of Alzolay or whatever’s behind door #3. Both Chatwood and Alzolay, given the amount of work he can provide, are almost certainly better used as multi-inning pieces out of the pen. Even if you slot Chatwood into that rotation, with the way Q and Lester have finished the season, you really think you’re going somewhere with that? Hamels is only coming back if he takes half of what he just got or less and for one year, and I don’t see that happening.

The free agent class blows, and that would still be the case if Stephen Strasburg opts out and the Cubs by some miracle want to give him more than the $25M and four years he’s owed. Still, there are improvements to be made.

Same goes for the pen, though that really shouldn’t be nearly as expensive.

But the most important factor is you simply can’t go a full season with Heyward in center between Castellanos and Schwarber and expect him not to simply get Thanos’d. A league average offensive hitting season out of Heyward is fine, just barely, when he’s giving you plus defense in right. When he gives you that at the plate and substandard defense in center–which is what he’s done–you have a black hole on your roster. And Heyward isn’t going anywhere. At least, not unless the Cubs front office I Dream Of Genie’s it.

Of the top 10 teams in fly-ball efficiency (fly balls turned into outs) six are playoff teams. Of the bottom 10, only Tampa is there and they hardly ever give up fly balls anyway. The Cubs are middling in that department and in the bottom-10 when it comes to line-drive efficiency.

Now maybe the calculous changes if the NL miraculously adopts the DH for 2020 (it won’t). Or maybe someone just takes Heyward away because and you can plug in a genuine centerfielder who won’t go John Henry having to pinball between Schwarber and Castellanos. But their defense is not something they can ignore, given the parameters they have.

It hurts to say. Nick has been a delight, and there’s nothing more he could do, with the injuries to basically everyone else. But the Cubs need to get back to catching everything and also limiting the amount of things they need to catch. Castellanos doesn’t really help with either of those.

Everything Else

So, as the season is about to wrap up (in a most unpleasant fashion no matter how it goes) and we can really get our teeth into the offseason, Scott Powers is here to give you, the people, some nuggets. They’re not…great nuggets.

The headline is that the Hawks have called the Jackets about Ryan Murray. Murray is an RFA this summer, and he can go completely unrestricted next summer if he were to sign a one-year deal. Which is probably what he wants to do, but that’ll be a hard sell to any team.

Murray had a pretty decent season last year, one for which he was finally able to stay in one piece for. At least for him. 56 games is an avalanche of efforts for him, but yeah, he’s got health issues. He’s been around six seasons now, if you can believe it, and has only gone the route once. And that 82 game season is the only one he’s managed more than 66. That’s generally the headline with Murray, something will fall off of him during the year.

Murray racked up 28 assists and 29 points, both career-highs. His metrics from this past season look pretty good, as he was +0.72 Corsi relative and +3.6 xGF% relative. The caveat is he spent a good portion of the season with Seth Jones. There is no Seth Jones here. However, Murray’s numbers don’t crater away from Jones, and Jones and Nutivaara’s (his other main partner) do go down without Murray. It’s perfectly in bounds to say that Murray is a fine player.

The thing is though, he helps your middle when the Hawks don’t have a top. They probably think they do, but they don’t. If you’re going to give up any kind of assets for a d-man who is made of balsa wood, why not just commit money to the one with red bursting crotch dots who is a top pairing player? There are more than a few guys who can do what Murray does that don’t involve giving up picks or prospects and then paying them. Fuck, Henri Jokiharju is supposed to do what Ryan Murray does and he’s already here and cheap. And if he can’t after a training-wheels season, then you better get his ass up outta here while other teams are still bewitched by his promise/have blind scouts. Connor Murphy basically already does what Murray does, and even better he’s now got the same health issues.

I understand why the Hawks might think they need a player like Murray. He’s stable in his own end. He’s big, but not immobile. And that certainly can’t hurt. He’s an upgrade on whatever they have now, but that’s hardly saying anything. But he’s not a puck-mover. He doesn’t pick up the Hawks’ pace, and the Hawks need that. He doesn’t get them out of the zone. They may think that Boqvist is going to do that one day but they also seem pretty damn determined to make sure that isn’t this day.

But you don’t get where you want to go by shopping in the middle. You get high end and then fill in below. The Hawks don’t have high end. They don’t have it anywhere, at least not proven. It’s not Keith anymore. It’s not Jokiharju, at least not proven. It’s not Boqvist, at least not proven. Either go big or go little but finding the middle is how you end up in the middle.

There isn’t a suggestion that this deal is close. And there isn’t a suggestion why the Jackets would even consider this unless Murray has made it clear he wants out (which is the trend around there). Losing their best forward makes their strength on the blue line all the more paramount, so unless they’re turning Murray into forward help I can’t see it. And the only forward help the Hawks have to move is Saad, and the Jackets have seen that movie and weren’t all that enamored then.

There’s a long way to go on this. It’s a defensible move, but it isn’t an inspirational one. My fear is that the Hawks don’t think they need an inspirational one, when it is clear that they do.

-Powers also adds to the rumble that the Hawks are going to take Alex Turcotte, which we probably should have all just accepted once you found out he was from here. Look, if the Hawks think he’s a genuine #1 center in waiting, and more of a sure thing to be that than Byram is to be a #1, then you can do that. And then you wait the year until he’s here, because while I wouldn’t bet on Jonathan Toews repeating that season, he’s still going to be productive. You don’t need the help at center the way you do at defense now.

I think I’d rather Byram, and we’ll dive into this during draft week. While the Hawks’ drafting generally gets good marks, remember it’s been six years since their 1st round pick made a serious impact (our dear sweet boy Teuvo). No, I’m not counting Ryan Hartman fuck you. Boqvist appears to be a major project. Jokiharju is an anything. The one before that was three years previous and it was Schmaltz and he ain’t here no more. You can’t miss on a #3 pick.

If you’re suspicious because of how the Hawks lust after local players, I’m not going to stop you. Turcotte’s scouting report is glowing as well. So are Byram’s though, and he could be here next season. He also creates flexibility via trades of your other prospects. Turcotte does not.

Getting itchy.

Everything Else

As the researchers and analysts pick through the rubble of the Hawks season, a theme both the coverage and the players themselves have been harping on the past few days is that for the last month or so, something has clicked with the Hawks defensively. That they’re “getting” the changes Jeremy Colliton wants to make. I, of course, dismiss this out of hand because it’s my way and also happen to think this team sucks historically defensively.

Funny thing, the Hawks have improved the last month…and they still suck.

If you look at before and after March 1st, when everything supposedly “clicked,” the Hawks do show a marked improvement in most categories. They’ve dropped their attempts against per 60 from 59 per game to 55, which might not sound like much but it is. They’ve dropped their scoring-chances against from 30.8 per 60 to 27.4, which is bordering on a massive change. They’ve brought their high-danger chances against per 60 from 13.9 to 12.8, which is also something of a big drop.

The thing is, in those categories the Hawks are still near bottom of the league. The attempts-against per 60 is actually 10th in the league since March 1st, so hey, look at that! But the scoring chances against is 21st in the league, and the high-danger chances against mark is third-worst the past month. So while the improvement is better than the alternative, the overall total is still unacceptable. They may be moving in the right direction but there’s a lot of driving to be done on that road in that direction before anyone can feel satisfied.

I have to reiterate, if you go by expected goals against, this is the worst team in the past 10 years. Yes, it’s a higher-scoring environment, but still to be the worst on record is not something you’d want. Here’s another one for ya: this is also the worst penalty-kill in the past 10 years, by a tenth of a point. If the Hawks have a good PK weekend, they might overtake last year’s Islanders. So while the Hawks’ brass might point to any improvement and cling to any hope that Coach Cool Youth Pastor is getting through, they can’t mistake the overhaul on the blue line that needs to come. And if you want to blame the goaltending on the kill, the expected-goals mark on the kill is third-worst in the past 10 years. So without a miracle in net, the kill was always going to be this bad.

I like it when everyone’s right, don’t you?

Everything Else

I don’t know that we’ll make it strict blog policy, but I think it’s important that when analyzing and discussing the Hawks we always keep in mind their “real” record. That’s hard to decipher in the NHL at times, as they do everything they can to ensure the standings are what are interpreted as what a team really is. So the OT results can cloud things a bit, or sometimes more so. Right now, the Hawks are a 3-5-6 team. That’s essentially what they’ve earned. They have six ties, and three regulation wins: in Columbus where they were severely outplayed for most of it, and over the Ducks and Rangers who both suck eggs. If viewed through that prism, then recent results don’t really surprise.

Coming into this season, the biggest problem the Hawks had was that they were a bad defensive team last year. And that’s being kind. You might be tempted to describe them as “abominable” defensively. While the goaltending was awful without Corey Crawford, no one was pretending that he wasn’t Atlas-ing a very creaky if not downright faulty ship. The team didn’t seem to lie to you about it either, as they knew they were terrible in their own end and the neutral zone. Clearly changes had to be made not just personnel-wise, but structurally as well.

We’ll get to those changes in a minute, but the story so far is that they haven’t worked. The amount of attempts the Hawks give up at even-strength has gone from 58.1 per 60 to 58.0. Not exactly a cataclysmic improvement. Their shots against per 60 at evens has gone from 32.1 to 31.8. Again, an improvement but not enough and still one of the worst marks around. And their expected goals against per 60 has actually gotten worse, and by a noticeable margin, from 2.54 per 60 last year to 2.74 this year (about an 8% increase). So even if they’re giving up a shade less attempts and shots, they’re giving up even better chances than they did last year, and last year was a veritable waterfall of chances against (which you shouldn’t go chasing, as you well know by now).

What’s been clear in the season’s first 14 games is that Joel Quenneville appears to be trying to install a more aggressive tweak to the defensive system. It’s not an overhaul, and the Hawks were always aggressive–trying to stop rushes ahead of their line, going into the corners and half-boards as the slightest sign of an opening, etc.–as well as going with a more zonal system. But now the Hawks, at times, send two guys after the puck, are chasing behind their own net far more than I can remember, and are trying to step up even higher into the neutral zone.

The question one might ask is if this is a prudent change with a defense that overall has gotten even slower. Because the Hawks just don’t get there, which is leaving even bigger gaps than they had last year. Let’s look at some goals from recent games. Now, the following may seem like we’re trying to single out Brandon Manning, and we’re not….well, ok, that’s not the sole intention. But he is a good example of a player ill-suited to what the Hawks are trying to accomplish, or at least what I think they’re trying to accomplish. And I will admit that using a third-pairing on a mediocre team at best is cherry-picking, But there are things to learn.

Take the fourth Oilers goal last night:

Manning makes a bad pass, which is not systematic. There’s a turnover at the blue line. Davidson, who’s already cheating to the middle before, is by far the closer to the play and cuts across. Because Manning was already backing up when passing and is somewhere near his left circle, the read should be his partner cutting across and Manning being something of a free-safety. Instead, much like Gallahad, Manning comes charging to where Davidson and a Hawks forward already are, leaving an entire side of the ice open. And because it’s Brandons EAT ARBY’S, they both get beat and it’s a 2-on-0.

Let’s move back to Wednesday:

Again, it’s Manning and Davidson. Manning wants to step up on Granlund before his own blue line, but his gap to start before the pass even heads to Granlund is too big. And because he’s slow and a clod, he gets turned trying to make it up too late, leaving Davidson with about two and a half guys to cover.

But it’s not just them. Take St. Louis’s second goal on Saturday:

Jokiharju goes chasing the puck and Ryan O’Reilly around and up to the boards, even though ROR is basically in the corner and can be easily “contained.” Keith is now on the right side of the net. If that’s where he’s supposed to be, then Alex DeBrincat has to be crashing down low to deal with Perron. Toews is late to cover for Jokiharju and Keith as they try and scramble, but he has about four different places to be. At the beginning, Toews was the one who seemed to think ROR was at least accounted for along the boards and isn’t expecting Jokiharju to come flying out there.

Now, this is easily the result of a teenager learning at the highest level, and mistakes you can live with. Except they’re happening multiple times a night to everyone. The amount of times the Hawks leave an entire side of the ice open per game is simply confounding. No one seems to have any idea what the other guy is going to do, and they hence end up doing everything and nothing at the same time. Communication seems to be somewhere around the level of whatever that shrieking was on the NBCSN broadcast last night

Before we start breaking glass to get our axes, these are changes that would take some time to bed in, but the clock is ticking. You’d have to think that if the Hawks still look this iffy and unsure at the end of this month, then real problems are going to need real solutions. But by that point, it may be too late.

It should also be noted that the Hawks most consistent defender from last year, Connor Murphy, is yet to play. But when you’re really depending on the return of a 6′ 5″ d-man with back problems now, who is also Connor Murphy–a fine player but nowhere near a great one– that makes a statement of its own.

Which makes the Hawks’ personnel decisions on their blue line the past couple years all the more strange. The perfect d-man for this souped-up system in their own zone of course is Michal Kempny. But I don’t want to litigate that whole thing again. The blue line is just another area where the disagreements between coach and GM and how they see how a roster should be built are clear. Stan Bowman liked Kempny, and brought him back for a second year even though he spent the first being spit on by Quenneville. But when that didn’t work, Stan has provided Q with Jan Rutta and Manning, which more and more seem like decisions with a “Fine, here are the fucking monoliths you prefer” tinge of attitude to them. And Q’s now running a defensive system based on what he thinks Stan wanted with the players he was stuck with.

That’s all just a theory, and not even all that likely. On the ground, what we know is that Stan tried to make the blue line more mobile last year with bringing back Kempny and swapping out Hjalmarsson for Murphy. And this year he’s made it less so by bringing back Rutta and bringing in Manning. They were forced into playing Jokiharju, who isn’t really all that quick either, just smart though learning the hard way.

At the end of the day, through their performance, decisions, changes, and whatever else, none of it really makes sense.

 

Everything Else

This is something we told ourselves we were going to do regularly before the season, and like everything else we tell ourselves we were completely lying. But in the interest of everything else we want to do in 2016, i.e. ramp up our content, we’re going to do this regularly. All of us get together to talk about something with the Hawks and something with the NHL. 

What would you like to see the Hawks do in 2016, be it a trade or a change in style or anything else?

Feather: Despite his lack of scoring thus far, Phillip Danault certainly has the look and feel of a guy that fans will be worried about the Hawks being able to afford in a few years. So that’s one less hole they will have to fill. 

The obvious answer on what the Hawks need is on the back end. The problem, of course, is that no one is dealing game-changing defenseman anymore. (The 80s and 90s were pretty remarkable) So instead, they’ll have to find a couple guys who still have value but close to expiring contracts on non-contenders. Like everyone else will be too. 

Or if they truly believe in TVR and Gustafsson, they can let them take their lumps and hope by the time the playoffs roll around, their games will have matured to levels where the Hawks three defensemen aren’t averaging 45 minutes a game. 

Slak: McClure and I have talked about this, seemingly for years, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t mention it in his answer – but clearly they need to trade someone who has value in the forward corps for someone who is good enough to play defense. One guy who is coming up as an RFA and doesn’t make a ton of sense as a longer and higher term player on this team is Andrew Shaw. The issue with that is a) I have no idea how other teams value him and b) the Hawks will probably re-sign him, which will enrage our circle of bloggers but delight most every other Hawks fan. He’s just not the kind of guy the Blackhawks don’t usually send away. Seems like a defenseman who can skate and it’s 38 years old would be a nice addition. Hopefully a catastrophic injury to one of their best players isn’t the path to acquiring one. 

Everything Else

After the first five d-men we’ve previewed, the Hawks have a mishmash of humanity that’s hard to make sense of. So we’ll just group them all together and see what we have. That might not be fair to David Rundblad, but I don’t think he’s going to come and plead his case, and I also doubt he’s going to be a mainstay in the lineup anyway. But we’ll start with him.

David Rundblad – We know Stan is going to force feed him into the lineup and give himself every chance to justify giving up a second round pick for him for… reasons. That doesn’t mean Rundblad is going to have the inside track on the #6 spot, because Q will eat his entire cigar collection if that were to happen.

When I look real hard, I think I can see what Stan sees in Rundblad. He does have a big shot. He does get it through. He does make a nice pass when he gets time. But that’s the caveat. “When he gets time.” Runds needs about five minutes to make that pass. Or get that shot off. And while he does have instincts on how to get into open ice and free himself up, he doesn’t have the feet to get him there in time.

It’s like Rundblad’s skills and skates are mismatched. He wants to play a puck-moving, aggressive game, but he’s got free safety feet. I can’t think of an offensive d-men who couldn’t skate really well. I thought it was Anton Stralman, but after watching him for six games in June he’s a far better skater than Rundblad. Combine that with Rundblad’s defensive allergies, his lack of physical stability when engaged along the boards, and it’s really hard to say what it is, in fact, that Rundblad gives you.

Everything Else

While the forwards that McClure previewed still have some threat and generational skill sprinkled throughout, when Hawks fans look at this back end is when they probably start licking their chops. The Scum defense was passable enough to see off a Ducks team that really only has one threatening line, as suddenly Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu looked every bit of the combined 175 years old that they in fact are. They will get no such respite here.

Here’s how the pairings shake out: