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Blackhawks defensemen adjusting in camp to Jeremy Colliton’s possession-focused system

Training camp offers opportunity for Blackhawks’ old-timers and newcomers alike to finally fully acclimate to Colliton’s philosophy.

Brent Seabrook said Colliton has instructed him to be more patient before springing on opponents to battle for the puck.
AP Photos

WASHINGTON, D.C. — NHL scoring rose to 6.02 goals per game last season, topping the six-goal plateau for the first time since 2006, as the league continues to shift from size and strength to speed and skill.

With young Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton at the forefront of that revolution, the Hawks’ defensemen have spoken repeatedly — since the start of camp Friday — about their new focus on puck possession.

“When there’s opportunities to jump in, I think everybody has to do that,” Olli Maatta said Sunday. “That’s hockey. Nowadays, when you watch teams that have success, they get all five men on offense and defend with all five men.”

“Tactically now, you’re trying to put [opposing forwards] in a bad situation, and then jump in when you have the upper hand,” Brent Seabrook said Saturday. “Whereas before, you were trying to jump [immediately] and get them to get rid of the puck as fast as you could.”

“We’re trying to dictate a lot more.”

The Hawks brought in Maatta and the currently injured Calvin de Haan over the summer to restructure their back end, which last season allowed a whopping 3.56 goals per game. Maatta and de Haan were known with the Penguins and Hurricanes, respectively, as responsible defensive defensemen.

Their reliability will certainly be needed in the defensive zone: the Hawks’ 14.2 high-danger scoring chances allowed per game last season were the most in the 12 years the statistic has been kept.

Olli Maatta struggled with his skating pace in Pittsburgh.
AP Photos

But they’ll also be needed to help transition the puck from defense to offense, an expectation only recently asked of even hockey’s most conservative defensemen.

The Hawks, unsurprisingly, also struggled in that regard last year, with only the Devils failing on a higher percentage of their defensive zone exit attempts (per data analyst Corey Snzajder). Duncan Keith was the team’s only defenseman to grade above-average in exit attempt frequency and below-average in failure rate.

Maatta — who was criticized often in Pittsburgh for his slow pace — and Seabrook, who has faced the same criticisms in Chicago lately, will likely struggle the most with such roles.

That fact makes Colliton’s first impressions of Maatta encouraging.

“He makes a lot of plays. Like, he’s great on the breakout,” the coach said after Sunday’s intrasquad scrimmage. “He really influences play positively with the puck. ... [He] moved well, closed on guys, was able to transition us from defending to going the other way.”

Seabrook, on the other hand, said he sought out assistant coach Sheldon Brookbank during the opening practices of camp to work specifically on adapting to Colliton’s schemes.

He needs the work: he had the second-highest zone exit failure rate among all NHL defensemen in 2018-19. And he admits he’s still not fully comfortable: “I think I’m still sort of stuck in between a little bit,” he said.

There’s plenty of time yet to get there, however. Camp is just four days old, and although neither Maatta, Seabrook, Keith nor any of the Hawks’ other vets will play in Monday’s preseason opener in Washington, they’ll all likely appear in a few of the home games before heading to the Czech Republic for the Oct. 4 regular-season opener.

“Systems nowadays, with the way teams are, it’s important that everyone’s on the same page,” Keith said. “[If we] try to get on the same page early on, the quicker we can iron out everything, the better off we’re going to be.”