Before the season opener, one talking point for the Blackhawks was how well defensemen Seth Jones and Calvin de Haan complemented each other. De Haan would pressure opposing forwards, forcing dump-ins, and Jones would have the space to retrieve and quickly move the puck the other way.
“We read off each other pretty well,” Jones said. “He loves to keep a tight gap, [and] then we can get that transition game going a lot quicker.”
“It’s better for your team if you’re making the other team chip and chase,” de Haan said. “Then at that point, there’s 50-50 pucks around the ice. That’s a goal of ours.”
That sounded effective and logical in theory. But last week’s season opener now feels like a month ago, and that plan — along with every other defensive scheme the Hawks have tried so far — has failed miserably.
The Hawks are breaking down in every area. They’re often one-and-done in the offensive zone, giving up possession too easily. They’re playing too aggressively in the neutral zone, leading to guys getting caught behind the play. They’re not identifying, sorting and covering players on those transition attacks. And their goaltenders and defensemen aren’t communicating well.
Entering the home opener Tuesday against the Islanders, coach Jeremy Colliton — feeling the pressure of his team’s early-season incompetence — didn’t bother sugarcoating the situation.
“We’re making decisions that put us in a gambling position,” Colliton said Monday. “And you’re hoping you come up with [the puck], and that’s not the right approach. We have a good power play, we have good goaltending, our penalty kill’s been good, so [at even strength, we need to] play a game that we’re going to make it difficult on the opponent to create chances. I don’t think we’ve done that well enough.”
Colliton specifically criticized his defensemen for pinching too recklessly and too often, leading to counterattacks. He specifically criticized his “F3s” — the high forward within, or the last to enter, the offensive zone — for not getting back fast enough to help defend counterattacks.
And he specifically criticized himself for evidently not teaching those lessons resoundingly enough already.
“It’s our job to get that message across,” he said. “It should be pretty correctable, and that’s something we’ve addressed.”
The Penguins’ third goal Saturday provides a relevant case study.
The Hawks initially looked threatening themselves, with Patrick Kane tossing a light shot off goalie Tristan Jarry’s far pad to create a rebound. But Alex DeBrincat and Jonathan Toews (the “F3”) rushed the net, and defenseman Erik Gustafsson drifted too deep in the zone.
When Jarry kicked out the puck, it instantly sparked a two-on-one rush the other way. Everyone but Riley Stillman was left chasing the play, and Stillman defended it poorly, too, taking away neither the shooting nor passing option for Penguins forward Drew O’Connor, who fed Brock McGinn for an easy goal.
Instances like that have happened constantly the first week. The Hawks have allowed 35.5 scoring chances per 60 even-strength minutes, up from 29.9 last season and ranked 28th in the NHL.
Judging by that same number, the aforementioned de Haan-Jones pair ranks 74th among 82 regular defensive pairs league-wide, and the Jake McCabe-Connor Murphy pair isn’t much better at 71st.
The Hawks need to improve dramatically in those aspects this week, and the entire team knows it.
“It’s [about] being in the right spots, taking less chances, backing each other and playing within the structure that we talk about,” Tyler Johnson said. “Sometimes we just get away from that a little bit. And the NHL is too good of a league — when your structure fails you and guys are in the wrong spots, other teams make you pay.
“We almost have to play a little bit more of a boring game. That would benefit us.”