Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Don't panic (yet)

Don’t panic.

It’s a phrase worth keeping in mind as you make your way through life. It’s calming, and helps keep things in perspective. Somebody should put it on the cover of a book someday.

And “don’t panic” is especially good advice when it comes to an NHL season that’s still just three weeks old. Every team in the league has over 70 games left to play, which is plenty of time to fix any flaws that may have emerged over the season’s first few matchups.

That said, we could all use a reminder every now and then. So today, let’s look at five situations around the league that have been a cause for concern, and why it might not be time to panic quite yet.

The team: Chicago Blackhawks

The panic: Their penalty killing is the worst.

Literally. It might be the worst we've ever seen. Through nine games, the Blackhawks are killing penalties at a rate of just 53 per cent. They'd been at just 50 per cent before Sunday night's performance against the Kings, the first game all season that the Hawks hadn't allowed a power-play goal. Granted, they only went 2-for-2, but hey, baby steps.

But wait: We'll start with the obvious, which is that there's simply no way the Blackhawks' penalty kill can continue to this bad. They've quite literally been historically bad, or at least as far back into history as our numbers can go. There's simply no way that a team that employs guys like Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa can be that bad over the long haul.

But while it's tempting to just say "small sample size" and move on, the Blackhawks struggled last year too, ranking 22nd in the league. That's a big drop from the strong PK that was a big part of their championship runs as recently as 2013 and 2015. Something is going on here, and a special teams unit doesn't have to be historically bad to derail a season.

So what's happening? That's a question that seems to have stumped most observers. There doesn't appear to have been any kind of strategic shift, nor have we seen any key penalty killers leave the team. A breakdown of some of the early goals against revealed that many were coming from right on the doorstep, but didn't reveal any obvious tactical issues.

One area that does stand out is the goaltending; Corey Crawford is posting a short-handed save percentage of just .683, compared to a career average of .861. That doesn't necessarily tell us a ton, since we know that a goalie's penalty-kill save percentage is heavily influenced by how the team plays in front of him. But a nearly 200-point drop is hard to ignore, and it suggests that there may be something to the whole sample size argument.

The other good news is that the Blackhawks have one of the league's best coach-GM combos, so you'd have to figure that they find a way to make whatever changes need to be made. In the meantime, Chicago has still managed to win five of nine. That's not great, but it's good enough to keep them in the Central Division picture. You'll probably take that when a big part of your game has been historically bad.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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