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Derek King’s early tinkering with Blackhawks focuses on neutral-zone improvement

Five days into his interim-coaching tenure, King’s tactical preferences — such as tight neutral-zone defense — are becoming clearer.

Interim coach Derek King wants the Blackhawks to give up less speed in the neutral zone.
AP Photos

Shortly after focusing on the Blackhawks’ neutral-zone play during practice Thursday, interim coach Derek King started breaking down their 1-2-2 trap to the media.

Then he caught himself in midsentence.

‘‘Maybe I shouldn’t say that; the other team may be listening,’’ he said, grinning sheepishly. ‘‘It’s a 1-3-1 we’re playing. . . . ’’

The day-to-day scrutiny and buttoned-down formality of NHL coaching has taken King by surprise. His dislike for the standing lectern the Hawks give him for his practice-day news conferences — he claims it makes him feel like a presidential candidate — has become a running joke.

As the days tick by, however, King seems more comfortable and more willing to pick spots where he can adjust things, at least on the ice.

One small but logical change entails Kirby Dach replacing Ryan Carpenter in the ‘‘bumper’’ spot of the first power-play unit. King likes the chemistry and continuity Dach has established with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, his usual five-on-five linemates.

And, on a broader scale, it has become clear King puts high importance on the neutral zone.

Despite being overwhelmed by the quantity of data with which the Hawks’ analytics team can provide him — much of which he admits he doesn’t understand yet — one statistic he wants tracked closely is the decisions his players make when approaching the offensive blue line.

‘‘My biggest thing is just the puck management, the risk over reward,’’ he said Wednesday. ‘‘That’s what I’m really looking at right now. [If you’re] entering the offensive zone and you have nothing and you turn the puck over there, that’s a minus. If you put it in deep and we can establish a forecheck, that’s a plus.’’

And in the opposite situation — when the Hawks are defending their own blue line — he wants to see improvement, too.

The 1-2-2 trap involves the Hawks’ lead winger — the ‘‘1’’ — angling a puck-carrying defenseman to one side of the ice, cutting off his defenseman-to-defenseman passing option. There, the Hawks’ other forwards — the middle ‘‘2’’ — can take away time, space and other passing options, ideally forcing a dump-in that the Hawks’ defensemen — the last ‘‘2’’ — can retrieve.

The Hawks’ use of that structure began under former coach Jeremy Colliton, and King came in blind to it. He said he never even had faced an opponent that used it. But the formation is staying — for now. He just wants it employed effectively.

‘‘[In] the games since I’ve been here, we’re giving up too much speed in the neutral zone,’’ he said Thursday. ‘‘And the 1-2-2 is not supposed to do that. It’s supposed to slow things down and force bad puck [plays], so we can turn and transition and get on our offense.

‘‘Sometimes you need to do that with teams: You’ve got to go back to basics and go through your structure again. [It was] just a little refresher course, which was good for me to see how we really want to use this.’’

The Hawks’ struggles in that regard have been noticeable. Public data about neutral-zone defense isn’t readily available, but analyst Corey Sznajder’s tracking shows every Hawks defenseman but one (Calvin de Haan) faced an opponent carry-in (versus dump-in) percentage higher than the league average last season. This season certainly hasn’t looked better, either, as the third period Tuesday against the Penguins exemplified.

King still doesn’t know many of his players on a personal level yet, a shortcoming he expects the Hawks’ upcoming road trip to Seattle, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary will give him time to remedy. But he is getting more comfortable tinkering on the ice.

‘‘It all happened so fast,’’ Carpenter said. ‘‘We’re just trying to buy into some of the advice . . . and some of the little pointers or tips he gives us.’’

‘‘You’ve got to remember where I came from — pushing pucks and doing development [in the American Hockey League],’’ King said. ‘‘There’s no reason to stop doing that.’’