Blackhawks use iPads on bench to gain key insights — but try not to get distracted

Tyler Johnson is a frequent user of the tablets, where he can watch instant replays to analyze opponent’s formations and learn from his mistakes. Colin Blackwell, however, has weaned himself off that habit — and coach Luke Richardson isn’t a big fan in general, either.

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Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson looks to pass the puck.

Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson is the team’s biggest user of the bench iPads.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

SAN JOSE, Calif. — When Tyler Johnson played for the Lightning, the iPads on the bench were often in such demand that he couldn’t get ahold of one.

With the Blackhawks, the iPads and the instant shift replays they provide are not quite as sought after, and Johnson — who brought the habit from Tampa to Chicago with him — has developed a reputation as one of the most frequent users.

“When you’re playing the game, sometimes you almost black out and don’t really quite remember everything that’s happening,” Johnson said. “When you’re able to use the iPad to see things a little slower and break things down, it helps quite a bit.”

He’s not the only Hawk who at least occasionally looks at the tablets, which the NHL first introduced on benches in 2016-17. In general, they’re more popular among forwards, with Patrick Kane and Andreas Athanasiou named by teammates as guys who frequently reach for them.

Much like iPhones at dinner, though, too much iPad viewing during a game can be a bad thing.

Coach Luke Richardson recently noted that Jason Dickinson’s surge the last couple of months, for example, has correlated with him looking less at the iPad. That is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum, but Richardson is probably right that it can become a crutch.

“Some guys, when they [look at it a lot], they’re not confident,” Richardson said. “They’re like, ‘I can’t figure out what’s going on,’ so they have to look at the iPad. Sometimes for a coach, it’s frustrating when guys are looking at the iPad every shift. You want them to watch the game, [see] what’s going on, be into the game and not worry about their last shift.”

Caleb Jones, for one, agrees with Richardson.

“If there’s something that happens every once in a while that I want to see, I take a look,” Jones said. “But, for the most part, I just keep moving forward with the game. You can’t go back. You’re not going to change anything.”

Colin Blackwell also has experienced that situation.

When breaking into the league a few years ago, Blackwell used the iPad heavily. But in recent years, he has mostly weaned himself off of it. He had found himself only referencing it after bad plays, not good ones, and the negative feedback loop affected his attitude.

“I try not to get so invested in that because some things are so situational,” he said. “It’s easy to slow a fast hockey play down and put it in ‘slo-mo,’ and that’s not quite how the game reacts out there. It gets in your head.”

When he makes a critical mistake that directly leads to a goal against, he knows it’s important to take accountability and learn from it. But when searching for tiny miscues many steps before a goal in the sequence of the play, he realized that was merely discouraging, not particularly helpful or necessary.

He does, however, still find some uses. During a recent stint on a line with Athanasiou, a unique player (because of his speed) whom he hadn’t played with much earlier this season, reviewing their shifts together on the iPad helped Blackwell better understand Athanasiou’s playing style.

“Seeing what [your teammates’] tendencies are and where they are . . . is sometimes good to have in the back of your mind as you’re getting comfortable in certain situations,” he said.

For Johnson, another thing the iPad can be especially useful for is examining an opponent’s defensive-zone coverage. The Hawks scout that before every game, but nuances often emerge within the game that he wants to examine.

“When you get the puck behind the net or in the corner, who’s looking at you?” Johnson said, offering an example. “How are they playing that? Who’s going to be pressuring you? And [then] you can see the open areas.”

Another example: Which opposing players are releasing to cover which Hawks right after a faceoff, and what routes are they taking to get there?

Johnson doesn’t get discouraged by watching his own mistakes, either, which probably reflects his famously positive overall mindset.

“It’s easier for me to see it,” he said. “Then I can say, ‘All right, I should’ve done this, or this should’ve happened.’ And then I let go of it. As long as I know what’s going on, that’s OK.”

In 2019, the NHL, in partnership with SAP, added a coach-specific app to the iPads that includes live time-on-ice data, faceoff probabilities and a shot-location tracker, among other things.

Richardson said he doesn’t use it. Instead, he relies on the statistics and video clips relayed to him at the intermissions. He will occasionally break that rule and glance at the iPad for a replay during a TV timeout if he missed something live.

Richardson supports iPad usage more early on in periods, when there’s longer to wait until an intermission and when players want to check something they can address immediately.

Those are often special-teams scenarios, and MacKenzie Entwistle mentioned the penalty kill as one specific instance in which the iPad is helpful.

“It gives you that edge: ‘OK, they’re doing this, [so] let’s try this,’ ” Entwistle said. “It’s just better to see it. Because when you’re out there, sometimes you don’t see where all four guys are, you just see your quadrant.”

That sums up the Hawks’ collective attitude toward the tablets. Look at them for an edge; don’t look at them for a distraction.

“It’s technology that we want to use,” Richardson said. “It’s just that we want to use it the right way. If we lean on it, then we lose our instincts. Hockey’s such an instinctual game — it’s so fast. You’re behind the eight ball if you’re relying on technology.”

NOTES: Patrick Kane missed practice Friday in San Jose for maintenance. Coach Luke Richardson said Kane felt a “little sore,” but with trade rumors swirling, it raised eyebrows. The Rangers held Vitali Kravtsov and Jake Leschyshyn — players speculated to be part of a Kane trade framework — out of their game Thursday for “roster management” reasons.

† Richardson nonetheless said general manager Kyle Davidson told him there are “lots of phone calls but no offers” right now.

Jake McCabe missed practice because of an illness. Richardson said McCabe “threw up eight times.” Jarred Tinordi (sprained knee) returned to practice.

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