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Adam Boqvist’s absence revealing Blackhawks’ difficulties with defensive-zone breakouts

The rookie defenseman’s recent injuries have ripped the band-aid off a newly evident Hawks weakness.

Adam Boqvist’s value to the Blackhawks has been underscored by their struggles without him.
AP Photos

Adam Boqvist has had a rough stretch injury-wise.

The rookie offensive defenseman missed the game Friday against the Red Wings with a wrist injury, then left halfway through the game against the Blues on Sunday after suffering a concussion on a controversial hit by Oscar Sundqvist. He remained out Wednesday against the Sharks, and the Blackhawks have given no update on his timetable.

His absence is concerning for the Hawks mainly with regard to his future longevity. Boqvist entered this season with a concussion history, and the Hawks have seen with Andrew Shaw and Drake Caggiula how problematic recurring concussions can be.

The rest of this season is of far lower priority, given that the Hawks are well out of the playoff picture and the NHL may or may not follow the NBA’s lead and suspend the season Thursday, when an announcement is expected.

But for now, the Hawks are still playing games, and Boqvist’s absence has had more of an impact on their performance than one might expect from a 19-year-old with 13 points in 41 games.

Without Boqvist — and the recently traded Erik Gustafsson — the Hawks are struggling mightily to break the puck out of their defensive zone while maintaining possession.

“We can just be more aware of making cleaner plays, and it’s not always just the defenseman,” Connor Murphy said Tuesday. “As a team, we have to make sure we’re giving flat, crisp passes to forwards, and then the forwards [have to be] making sure they’re out there giving themselves space or finding that next layer to take it out of the zone.”

Those struggles aren’t exactly surprises, considering the remaining healthy, full-time defensemen in the Hawks’ lineup — Murphy, Duncan Keith, Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek — are below-average in that regard.

According to analyst Corey Sznajder’s data, about 33 percent of all D-zone exit attempts are with possession. But only 30 percent of Keith’s are with possession, and, incredibly, he’s the best among active Hawks defensemen in that regard. Murphy (17 percent) and Maatta (18 percent) are among the league’s worst.

Even in practice Tuesday, the Hawks couldn’t click in their passes or breakouts, which alarmed coach Jeremy Colliton.

“We have to be way cleaner with the puck,” Colliton said. “Working on it in practice today, not clean enough. It’s no pressure; [we’ve] got to go tape-to-tape. If you’re having trouble going tape-to-tape with no pressure, it’s going to be tough when it’s five-on-five.

“We’ve got to keep focusing on it. Obviously, those guys who are out, it’s a strength of theirs. But we have to find a way.”

Finding a way might involve making some changes to the defensive corps. Nicolas Beaudin was recalled from Rockford mere hours after practice Tuesday and made his NHL debut Wednesday.

The recall made sense from the standpoint of using meaningless games to give a top prospect some NHL experience, but it also made sense because Beaudin is an offensive defenseman who showed in the AHL that he can move the puck well.

With Lucas Carlsson — whose puck-moving ability has stood out as his strongest suit in his first few weeks — also returning to the lineup, the Hawks will try to fix their breakout problem with two capable, if inexperienced, plug-ins.

“We’re talking about we can’t break out,” Colliton said. “[So] we’ve got to move the puck better. If those guys can defend and find a way to be in our lineup, it’s going to help us in a lot of ways.”