Some of the first adjustments Jeremy Colliton made as Blackhawks coach came on defense.
The zone system used by Joel Quenneville got tweaked to implement more man coverage in the defensive third of the ice. Greater emphasis was placed on allowing defensemen to carry the puck up in transition rather than look for the quick pass. In the Hawks’ 1-0 victory over the Blues on Wednesday, we saw how that all can come together.
The changes under Colliton seemed, in part, are an admission that the old approach wasn’t working. The team had been yielding goals by the barrel and goaltending couldn’t shoulder the load. According to Corsica,Cam Ward and Corey Crawford have allowed only 1.3 more goals than expected based on shot data.
The Hawks have remained a riddle despite that. They’re hoping tweaks under Colliton and reinforcements such as Gustav Forsling, who made his NHL season debut Wednesday, can right the ship. Connor Murphy’s return may come soon, as well. Whether all this adds up to a stronger defensive effort remains to be seen.
Goal prevention hasn’t just been a small problem for the Hawks. Only one team in the NHL— rebuilding Ottawa — has allowed more goals per game. That’s not a spot you want to be in.
And if you look beyond the Senators’ mess this season and to recent history, the Hawks’ situation looks equally dicey.
Opposing teams have scored 67 goals through 19 games, an average of 3.5. Only 23 teams, including the Hawks and Senators, have allowed that many that early since the 2004-05 lockout, per Hockey-Reference’s Play Index. The other 21 averaged just 33 wins and all but three of them missed the playoffs. None of them reached the conference finals.
That’s the path the Blackhawks have put themselves on. The only playoff teams to allow so many goals this early in the current era are the 2005-06 Flyers and Devils in the post-lockout offensive boom and the 2017-18 Penguins, who make for a tricky comparison given they boasted two of the best players of the generation. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, as good as they remain, aren’t on the same level as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
And for everyone else, the inability to stop teams in October and November was a harbinger of things to come.
The numbers look similarly dire if you comb through the Hawks’ recent history. Here’s a chart of how many goals the team allowed through 19 games for each of the last 25 seasons, from data provided by Hockey-Reference:
This is the most goals allowed by the Hawks through 19 games since 2005-06, when they finished with a 26-43-13 record and earned the draft pick that became Toews. The other season that stands out, 1998-99, ended with a 29-41-12 record.
Teams that allow this many goals early on tend not to figure it out quickly enough and meaningfully enough. While a shutout win over the Blues was a step in the right direction, Colliton and the players have their work cut out to avoid another last-place finish.