Q. The Blackhawks sit at the top of the Central Division standings, but have been the beneficiaries of 14 "loser points" and a bottom-10 penalty kill. Is this still the vaunted Blackhawks team of old?
A: Well, luckily for the Blackhawks, those loser points are still points and have helped the team remain one point out of the top spot in the Western Conference. The OT/SO troubles the team has experienced this season are peculiar to be sure. With offensive power stacked throughout the lineup, one would think this strange pattern would not be an issue. It seems to be one of those things that defy any good explanation, but I do not think it will hinder the team moving forward.
As for the penalty kill, the start of the season was bizarre. After being one of the top penalty killing teams last season, the first several weeks of this season were terrible. For several weeks after that, the PK shaped up somewhat, but was still a cause for concern. Over the last 24 games (from December 13th to the present) the Blackhawks PK has been much better, operating at a 90.4% kill rate. On the other hand, with the PK falling into the abyss this season, the Power Play took off like a shot. I suppose the team cannot have everything working well all at once during the regular season or we would have nothing to complain about.
The Blackhawks remain one of the top teams in the league despite these bumps in the road. This season the team is first in SF/60 (Shots For per 60 minutes played), second in GF/60 (Goals For per 60) and have the tenth best GA/60 (Goals Against per 60). These are all comparable to how the team fared in the 2012-13 and 2009-10 Stanley Cup seasons, so there does not seem to be any real reason for concern. I analyzed this with more depth recently here: Season to Season Comparison.
Q. Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews are all pretty good. However, a young guy who has stood out this season is Brandon Saad. What does the 21-year-old bring to an already potent lineup?
A: The feeling around Chicago is that Brandon Saad is really the second coming of Marian Hossa. He is amazingly strong and consistently wins puck battles along the boards. He has good speed and fantastic hockey instincts, which lead to repeated breakaways. His back checking is a treat to watch just like Hossa, who leads the league in takeaways. The two have remarkably similar numbers at the beginning of their careers. Saad had the good fortune of playing for a contender to start his career and thus will not have to chase a Cup like Hossa did when he migrated from Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Detroit and finally to Chicago.
There is a sense of reverence for Marian Hossa in Chicago and the overall feeling is very similar for Saad. Many of us feel as though we are watching the birth of a player who will be something very special for many years to come. Obviously this feeling is shared by many as Saad was one of the final cuts from Team USA for the Olympics. The great thing about Saad is that a player of his caliber could easily play on one of the top 2 lines for any team in the league but the Blackhawks have been slotting him in on the third line. This makes it very difficult for opposing teams to get a good matchup against him and is one of the reasons that Saad currently leads the Blackhawks in possession statistics with 59.5% CF% at Score Close (CF% = Corsi For percentage; Score Close = tied or +/- 1 in the 1st & 2nd periods, tied in 3rd period).
Q. Coyotes fans remember Michal Rozsival from the 2012 run to the WCF (including beating some unknown team in round one), but he's been in and out of the lineup for the ‘Hawks this season. How has he played as a Blackhawk, and is he just a depth defenseman at this point?
A: Michal Rozsival is one of the elder statesmen of the Blackhawks. The general feeling is that Quenneville is trying to keep him fresh in order to use him consistently in the playoffs. He has been getting a lot of rest as he is sharing time in the 6th defenseman role with 2 others, Sheldon Brookbank and Michael Kostka. Somewhat controversially, Quenneville decided to keep 8 defensemen on the roster coming out of training camp, which has led to this situation.
Rozsival plays more minutes per game in his appearances than the other defensemen he shares time with and also draws tougher assignments. He skates along with Nick Leddy on the third pairing and despite some early season penalty troubles, is very reliable. Using Rozsival in the lineup gives the team more options in terms of matchups. Rozsival has relished his ability to activate into the offense under Quenneville's system as well. He has very good playmaking instincts and contributes well to keeping team possession up while he is on the ice. He trails only Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in CF% for the defensemen with 58.1% CF% Score Close. I also did a more in depth analysis of the defensemen for the Blackhawks with a particular focus on the third pairing as well, here: Defensive Pairings & Possession.