Blackhawks’ converted centers adjusting to different defensive-zone responsibilities

Philipp Kurashev, MacKenzie Entwistle and Jujhar Khaira have moved from wing to center out of necessity during the second half of the season. That means they shoulder more responsibility in Luke Richardson’s zone coverage scheme.

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Blackhawks forward MacKenzie Entwistle plays defense.

When playing center, Blackhawks forward MacKenzie Entwistle has a wider range of defensive responsibilities.

AP Photo/Matt Marton

TEMPE, Ariz. — Being a center in Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson’s box-plus-one defensive zone coverage scheme requires reading and reacting quickly as plays evolve.

“You have to get side-to-side and low-to-high fast,” Richardson said. “You’re like that little ball that bounces around that square. You have to be supportive everywhere and jump on things.”

The other four players on the ice have more specifically defined roles to fill and “zones” to cover, as the system name implies.

The Hawks’ wingers cover their respective sides of the zone and move up when the puck also moves up to opposing defensemen along the blue line. The Hawks’ defensemen protect the front of the net and, when they see an opportunity, are supposed to be the first players to pin opposing forwards along the boards to try to jar the puck loose.

But the center has to provide support to any of the wingers or defensemen whenever needed.

If a defenseman has pinned an opponent with the puck, the center needs to be the second man in to “scoop” the puck up and orchestrate a zone exit.

And if the puck has moved up high and the opponent is running a “three-high” or “four-high” offensive formation — as are all the rage around the NHL — the center needs to cover the extra man that the wingers can’t cover.

“There definitely is a lot more responsibility [playing center] than playing wing,” MacKenzie Entwistle said. “If you’re the first guy back in the zone, then you’re going to play low...[and] then you look for a switch when you get the chance. But with the freedom...you have to be able to make reads. If your reads are on-point, then you’re going to get the puck back.”

All of those intricacies have been the case all season long — ever since Richardson implemented this system in training camp.

But the players executing it have changed quite a lot. In fact, Jason Dickinson is the only center left from the first half of the season. Max Domi and Sam Lafferty were traded, Jonathan Toews stepped away from the team and Reese Johnson suffered a concussion (although he is expected to return soon).

That means the Hawks have instead turned to Philipp Kurashev, Jujhar Khaira and Entwistle to play center in recent weeks.

And even though each of those guys does bring some experience at the position from previous stretches of their NHL careers, they have all needed to adjust significantly.

“When the coaching staff can trust me at another position, it can only benefit me,” Entwistle said. “It has been a little bit different responsibility in the ‘D’-zone, but I’ve been having fun. I can keep my speed more and get more offensive chances.”

Coverage_1.jpg

Philipp Kurashev (No. 23) has become the Hawks’ new first-line center in recent weeks.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Kurashev is shouldering arguably the biggest weight as the new first-line center, averaging over 19 minutes per game since the forward trade exodus around him began.

He was originally used as a center in his 2021 rookie season, but that was within Jeremy Colliton’s completely different defensive-zone system. He had barely received any time in that role over the past two seasons until this month.

He said he actually prefers playing center because “you’re free and can help out everywhere and play with your instincts more.” But he hasn’t been thrilled with his overall performance lately — including his offense, with just four points in his last 19 games.

Richardson saw improvement, however, in Kurashev’s defensive game this week against the Bruins and Predators. That indicated to him Kurashev figuring out “when to press and try to squeeze something off, and when to stand pat in the middle of that box-plus-one.”

Richardson showed a clip of Kurashev doing the former to the team Thursday morning. Kurashev then had a shift midway through the first period Thursday night in which he did the latter and blocked two Predators shots as a result.

“Guys like Kurashev and Entwistle, every game it looks like they’re getting quicker and better with the reads in the ‘D’-zone,” Richardson said. “That’s good for us, because we’re getting the puck back more and we have more energy.”

Meanwhile, one category in which the Hawks’ center personnel turnover has made a (likely unfixable) negative impact is on faceoffs. On Feb. 18, the Hawks led the NHL with a 55.2% team faceoff percentage; since then, they rank 27th with a 45.8% team faceoff percentage.

The absences of Toews and Domi, who both dominated in the circle this year, has made all the difference. Dickinson is at 47.6% this season, Kurashev is at 44.1% and Entwistle is at 42.8%.

“Somewhere where we definitely have to improve right now is our faceoffs,” Richardson said. “It’s not just the centermen. It’s our [wingers] battling on those 50-50 pucks that are kicking around in there. The other teams seem to be getting those, too. It’ll make the game easier if we can start getting above 50%, like we were the first part of the year.”

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