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Super 16: No panic in Blackhawks despite slow start

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

There are not many franchises in the NHL where a 10-7-1 start to the season would elicit varying degrees of panic amongst the fan base, but the Chicago Blackhawks live in that space in 2014.

The Blackhawks have been one of the best teams in the NHL for seven seasons now, winning the Stanley Cup twice and reaching the Western Conference Final twice in the past six campaigns. There is an expectation to be playing in June 2015, or this season will be considered a failure.

So 21 points in 18 games, which as of Thursday morning was only good enough for ninth place in the West, has set off warning alarms in some homes in the greater Chicagoland area. One person who is not concerned? That would be Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman.

"I think we've played very well, probably better than our record shows," Bowman said Tuesday in Toronto after the League's general managers meeting. "I've been very pleased with our performance. One thing we haven't done until recently is scored a lot of goals, and that has always been a strength for us. We have essentially the same cast of characters back, so that will work itself out. We've been very good defensively. I think we've been No. 1 or 2 in goals against all year, and I think that is going to bode well for us down the stretch."

Super16 Playing Percentages

S% CF% GF/G GA/G
2014-15 5.94 56.9 2.67 2.00
2013-14 8.43 55.5 3.18 2.58
2012-13 8.97 54.1 3.10 2.02
2011-12 8.07 52.9 2.94 2.82
2010-11 8.01 52.8 3.07 2.68
2009-10 8.31 56.5 3.20 2.48
2008-09 7.41 55.3 3.17 2.55
KEY: S% = team shooting percentage at even strength; CF% = Corsi for percentage at even strength; GF/G = goals for per game; GA/G = goals against per game

The Blackhawks are tied with the Nashville Predators for the best goal differential in the West. They are the best team in the League in Corsi-for percentage at 56.9 percent and cultivate the most offensive-zone faceoffs (39.64 percent) in the NHL by a significant margin.

Bowman is correct about the goal prevention too. The Blackhawks are tied with the Predators for second in the League in goals-against per game at 2.00 (of note, the top four teams are all in the Central Division).

The Blackhawks have been one of the leaders in the NHL at using analytics to their advantage, a gap many other teams are frantically trying to close. Bowman sees the value of long-term process over short-term results, something that has tripped up several of his peers and influenced them to make poor reactionary decisions.

To Bowman, not scoring enough is not a problem. The Blackhawks have shot between 8.01 percent and 8.97 percent at even strength each season since 2009-10. Chicago is currently shooting 5.94 percent at evens, which is the second-worst mark in the League.

If anyone thinks the Blackhawks, who brought back essentially the same roster as last season with the addition of Brad Richards and the subtraction of Michael Handzus, have suddenly lost the ability to score goals at an elite rate, then their focus is in the wrong place.

The Blackhawks will have Patrick Sharp back soon, and while losing Trevor van Riemsdyk, who had been a welcome surprise, for a few months doesn't help, it certainly isn't going to be fatal.

Chicago remains one of the elite teams in the League, and certainly has less issues to deal with than fellow Cup contenders off to slow starts like the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins.

"We've lost some close games and we haven't really hit our stride offensively, but that is starting to turn. I've been pleased," Bowman said. "Our special teams have been good. The penalty kill has been great. The power play is coming along pretty good. There is a lot of things to like, but we'd just like to get some more victories."

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information.

1. St. Louis Blues (12-5-1)

After dealing with a variety of injuries to key players up front, the Blues are finally healthy. The three forwards who lead the team in scoring and have combined for 56 points (Vladimir Tarasenko, Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz) are officially the "third" line again, but they've been one of the best trios in the League this season.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (10-7-1)

The Blackhawks have been the best team in the NHL at producing shot attempts. Chicago is shooting the puck 65.61 times per 60 minutes of even-strength time. That's 6.55 more per 60 minutes than the second-best team.

Second place belongs to the New York Islanders, who have produced 59.06 shot attempts per 60 minutes. That is 6.49 more per 60 minutes than the Columbus Blue Jackets. Why is that significant? The Blue Jackets are 21st in the NHL.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins (13-3-1)

The Penguins have a strong case to be No. 1. They have a big lead in goal differential. They are third in the League in both possessions stats. The two biggest questions marks, forward depth and goaltending, have both passed the test to this point. There are 29 teams that do not have a No. 1 center as good as Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter might be the only player who keeps that same sentiment from being true about Evgeni Malkin and the League's No. 2 pivots (but probably not).

Losing Pascal Dupuis is a big deal. This team was probably one top-six forward short against the very best teams, and now they are probably two. Beau Bennett's return was encouraging, but let's see more than a few games in a row from him before anointing him a top-six guy on a Stanley Cup contender. Marc-Andre Fleury might be turning into one of the best stories of the season. Or it might be a 14-game sample.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (13-5-2)

The Lightning are a top-10 team in Corsi-for percentage and a top-five team in Fenwick-for percentage. And they have one of the best shooting-percentage drivers (Steven Stamkos) in the League back and healthy. And they will be getting one of the top five-to-eight defensemen in the League back soon. Better find a seat or something to hold onto, because the Lightning bandwagon isn't going to have a lot of room left on it pretty soon.

5. Minnesota Wild (10-7-0)

After only scoring three times during a four-game losing streak, the Wild have 12 goals during a three-game winning surge. Zach Parise missed five games, and four of the defensemen have missed time with symptoms consistent with the mumps.

Despite the missing players, Minnesota remains second in Corsi-for percentage and the League leader in Fenwick-for percentage. The Wild are still going to challenge for a spot near the top of the Western Conference.

6. Nashville Predators (12-4-2)

The Predators scored a lot of goals Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, an Ovechtrick's worth. Nashville's top line continues to produce, and the trio of James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and rookie Filip Forsberg might lack the pedigree of other No. 1 crews, but they have not lacked the production.

The accompanying graph shows the top trios in the League at even strength so far in 2014-15. St. Louis' duo of Lehtera and Tarasenko have combined with Alexander Steen for another eight points, but Nashville's top unit has found chemistry and success.

7. Anaheim Ducks (11-4-5)

There are a couple reasons to be concerned, but ultimately it could just be a minor blip. Six losses in seven games is not a desirable couple of weeks, but only one has been in regulation. It was an ugly loss though to the Florida Panthers at home.

Like the Wild, the Ducks have been dealing with players missing because of a strange illness. Not only does missing Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin affect Anaheim's ability to win games, there is bound to be some psychological effect on the other players who are wondering/worried if they're next.

8. Los Angeles Kings (10-5-4)

Jeff Carter's line has cooled off, but other players are starting to get it together offensively. The Kings have one non-shootout loss in the past seven games, but the possessions numbers, particularly when the score is close (within a goal in the first two periods or tied in the third) are still alarming. They will have to improve as Jonathan Quick's save percentage, currently at .938, recedes.

9. New York Islanders (12-6-0)

Not only are the Islanders inside the top 10 in both possession metrics (including fourth in Fenwick-for percentage) at even strength, New York is winning hockey's version of the field position battle. The Islanders have the sixth-highest percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone and the seventh-lowest percentage of draws in the defensive zone. That's a nice way to help out the defense corps.

10. Vancouver Canucks (13-6-0)

The Canucks are 21st in the League in Corsi-for percentage, but are neither shooting (8.1 percent) nor saving (.898) pucks at even strength at a particularly impressive rate. Vancouver has been good on special teams (top 12 in both categories), but how are the Canucks third in the West despite the possession numbers and scoring 56 non-shootout goals while allowing 56?

It is pretty simple. Vancouver is 7-0-0 in games decided by one goal. Before someone says they "know how to win close games" there has been plenty of research done in multiple sports on this topic and the results show that success over a large sample size of one-goal games is random.

The Colorado Avalanche have not forgotten how to win close games after being great at it last year, and the Canucks, certainly not with their average-at-best goaltending to this point, have not unlocked a secret code. Pucks take weird bounces, and one-goal leads become tie games or worse all the time, even if a team is playing well.

11. Boston Bruins (12-8-0)

And then there were two. The Bruins lost Adam McQuaid for up to two months because of a broken thumb. He has played in each of their first 20 games, but only Dennis Seidenberg and Dougie Hamilton from the defense corps will have a chance to have played in all 21 after Friday.

It's a lot of bad luck, but the Bruins are still one of five teams controlling more than 53 percent of the shot attempts at even strength, and Tuukka Rask has stopped 66 of 67 shots since the blowout in Toronto.

12. Detroit Red Wings (9-4-5)

Jimmy Howard didn't have a great year for the Red Wings in 2013-14, but his overall save percentage (.910) was impacted by some trouble on the penalty kill. His even-strength save percentage was .919, and is only slightly better so far (.922), but his overall percentage is up .924 because he's stopped 57 of 61 shots while shorthanded.

The Red Wings are leading the League in shot suppression at even strength, allowing fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes than anyone. They are not in the top 10 while shorthanded. If Howard wants to continue to sport a strong overall save percentage, he'll likely need to be slightly better at evens because he doesn't have as much control over that .938 mark while shorthanded.

13. Montreal Canadiens (14-5-1)

"The Canadiens have the best record in the East" is a statement someone would make if they looked at one column on the standings page. "The Canadiens are tied for 11th in goal differential (which is inflated by four shootout wins), have won more shootouts than any other team and are in the bottom half of the League in both measures of puck possession" is a statement someone who is writing this right now would make.

14. Calgary Flames (12-6-2)

Calgary has won more games than the Ducks, Kings and Sharks and possesses the most productive defense pairing in the NHL this season in Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. Calgary has also possessed the puck less at even strength than every team not named Colorado and Buffalo.

The Flames are shooting 10.61 percent at even strength, which is the highest in the League. The only team to shoot better than 10 percent at even strength over the course of an 82-game season since 2007-08 was the Washington Capitals in 2009-10. Giordano and Brodie are great, and Sean Monahan looks like he has a chance to be as well.

Calgary is not winning 60 percent of its games this season with less than 44 percent of the shot attempts.

15. Washington Capitals (8-7-3)

The Capitals are in the top 10 in preventing shot attempts, the top 12 in harvesting a percentage of the shot attempts and 27th in saving shots that reach the goaltender at even strength. Braden Holtby has yielded just six goals in his past four starts, so the biggest issue could be trending in a positive direction.

16. Winnipeg Jets (10-7-3)

The Jets have become a bizarro world version of themselves. They are 29th in the League in goals per game and on the power play, but fourth in goals against and on the penalty kill. Winnipeg hasn't allowed four goals in regulation since Oct. 24 and has done so only three times all season. That happened 27 (not a typo) times in 2013-14.

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