Hockey

Clearly I Remember Picking on the Boy: Re-Evaluating Jeremy Colliton

The Blackhawks were on their biggest tear of the year before the break. They won five of their last six and 12 of their last 18, with 10 of those 12 wins coming in regulation. During their five-game winning streak, four of the five wins were definitive, with just one win against the lowly Senators coming in overtime. That put the Hawks within three points of the last wild card spot (as of this writing). Hope abounds.

What, if anything, has Jeremy Colliton had to do with it?

We ask this question because we’ve been harsh on him all year. The organ-I-zation, beat writers, and even some of us (read: me) entered the year with a “Give him a training camp” attitude. When Colliton and his Crew came out of camp at 3-5-2—or seven losses in 10 games, because getting a point for losing is horseshit—it became clear that the “magic training camp” wasn’t really a thing, and we lost our asses.

Since then, the results have been hot and cold. A four-win streak followed by a 1-5-1 streak. Two extra-time wins followed by an 0-3-1. Each losing streak complemented with a “We need more effort” from their one-time wunderkind. Is he getting that effort now, or is he just getting out of his own way? I wanted to know, so now we’re going to do this together.

We’ll break this season into two parts: opening day through December 14 (33 games total), and December 15 through now (18 games). All of the Big Blackhawks Media have taken a liking to using December 15 as a touchpoint, and so we will do that, too. We’ll look primarily at high-level counting stats (goals for, goals allowed), team analytics (CF%, GF% vs. xGF%), and any big changes in personnel that Colliton had direct control over (line combos and TOI but NOT NECESSARILY individual player performance).

The Numbers

Team Stats 5v5 Goals For Goals Allowed GF% xGF% CF%
10/04–12/14 58 69 45.67 60.81 47.56
12/15–Now 47 39 54.65 47.35 49.33

Stats from NaturalStatTrick.com

Wouldn’t you know it, over the recent nice stretch, the Hawks have outscored their opponents, rather than getting outscored like they were at the beginning of the year. We’ve solved it, thanks for reading.

What’s fascinating is the why behind the goals. The Hawks are scoring goals at a nearly 9% higher rate over the last 18 games. And look at the difference between the xGF%s.

Quick aside, xGF% stands for expected goals for percentage. The important thing to know about it is that it measures shot quality (e.g., a point shot is typically lower quality than a shot off a rebound) and uses that to try to predict the likelihood of an actual goal scored.

So, the inversion of GF% and xGF% between the two time frames sure is curious. The Hawks should have scored more than they did during the first time frame, and they’re now scoring more than they should during this second time frame. Why?

Part of it is strength of schedule. Through today, the Hawks have had a slightly more challenging schedule than most other teams, based on points percentages. Another part of it is PDO. For the first time frame, the Hawks’s PDO was an even 1.000. From December 15 onward, the Hawks’s PDO is 1.024, good for fourth overall in the league. The difference has been the Hawks’s shooting percentage, which has skyrocketed from around 7% all the way up to 10%.

But these aren’t things Colliton can really control. What he CAN control for the most part is which players get the most ice time.

ATOI Rank 10/04–12/14 TTOI ATOI 12/15–Now TTOI ATOI
1 Keith (25) 456:24 18:16 Keith (17) 308:48 18:10
2 Murphy (21) 365:40 17:25 Murphy (18) 324:07 18:01
3 Kane (33) 555:49 16:50 Gus (18) 303:45 16:53
4 de Haan(29) 485:19 16:44 Kane (18) 290:55 16:10
5 Gus (32) 530:46 16:35 Maatta (17) 262:55 15:28
6 Maatta (29) 457:15 15:46 Boqvist (17) 244:25 14:23
7 Seabrook (31) 483:09 15:35 Toews (18) 245:40 13:39
8 Cat (33) 464:22 14:04 Dach (18) 236:15 13:08
9 Toews (33) 442:30 13:25 Kubalik (18) 230:13 12:47
10 Strome (29) 386:31 13:20 Cat (18) 229:34 12:45
11 Saad (33) 423:34 12:50 Carp (18) 213:51 11:53
12 Kampf (33) 384:48 11:40 Kampf (18) 200:54 11:10

ⴕ = suffered injury at some point during stretch. Stats calculated using NaturalStatTrick.com

The biggest difference between then and now is the emergence of Kubalik and Dach in terms of how much they’re playing. (Boqvist too, but he’s had only half the time of the other two, so let’s revisit him at the end of the year.) Since December 15, Kubalik and Dach have averaged almost two full minutes more of ice time apiece. They’ve also established themselves on what you could call the top six, if you look at the line up as follows over the last 18 games:

Kubalik–Toews–Caggiula/Kane

DeBrincat–Dach–Kampf/Kane

Saad–Carpenter–Kane

Nylander–Smith–Highmore/Caggiula

Though Kane has averaged slightly less ice time during the latest run, Colliton still likes to double shift him whenever he can, which you can see as a function of his 5v5 average time on ice. Because Kane has superhuman endurance and has consistently outperformed his xGF% throughout his career, it’s hard to blame him. But more encouraging is that Dach and Kubalik are getting chances that they weren’t at the beginning of the year. It may have taken him longer than we’d have liked, but Colliton has gotten that right recently.

This implies that with more time and the right teammates, Colliton has begun to give what portends to be The New Core the chance to try shit. You might recall Kubalik getting scratched a few times earlier in the season for simply unfathomable reasons. This trend ceased around the second week in December, or just prior to Kubalik’s scoring binge. Just check out the differences between the time frames:

Kubalik Goals Assists GF% xGF% CF%
10/04–12/14 6 3 50 53.68 50.22
12/15–Now 11 5 57.14 49.93 51.39

5v5 from NaturalStatTrick.com

Though you likely don’t need a fucking chart to tell you that Dominik Kubalik is not a third liner, there it is. Kubalik is starting to do what most good shooters do: pot shots that shouldn’t be going in. Colliton coming to Jesus on that has been helpful to the Hawks’s recent success, even if it took him way too long to get there.

It’s a similar story for Kirby Dach, though much more subtle.

Dach Goals Assists GF% xGF% CF%
10/04–12/14 5 4 47.83 43.8 46.32
12/15–Now 2 1 56.25 47.54 49.45

5v5 from NaturalStatTrick.com

The counting stats are down, but the fancy stats have gotten better as Dach has both settled in and settled into a more defensively responsible role. Granted, he’ll need to up the offense, but credit Colliton for giving Dach more time as the year has progressed.

The Penalty Kill

The Hawks have the sixth-best penalty kill in the league as of this writing. Given how horrible their blue has been and continues to be, this may not make a ton of sense. But the numbers on this make it pretty easy to figure out why.

First, here are the splits between the time frames:

PK% PK Rank PK SV% PK HDSV% PK TIME
10/04–12/14 80.4 14th 87.93 77.55 175:59
12/15–Now 88.6 1st 92.31 94.12 77:39

From NHL.com and NaturalStatTrick.com

A couple things to note. First, the Hawks are currently taking fewer penalty minutes during the recent run. At the current pace, if you extrapolate what they’ve been doing, the Hawks will end up taking about 141 penalty minutes over the same time frame (33 games) going forward. That’s about 34 fewer minutes on the kill, or 17 fewer minor penalties.

But this doesn’t explain the huge spikes in save percentages. Some of that has to do with Crawford’s horrid performance in the first half of the year. In the second half, Colliton has leaned more on Lehner, who has been nails on the PK all year. So, we can give Colliton credit for that.

But the answer is much easier than even that. Here are all of Hawks who have averaged at least one minute of PK time per game, along with their respective goals allowed per 60 (GA/60).

ATOI GA/60
Murphy 2:43 5
de Haan 2:41 5.5
Keith 2:37 6
Carpenter 2:24 5.5
Kampf 2:10 6.5
Toews 1:58 5.3
Maatta 1:51 5.6
Saad 1:50 6.7
Seabrook 1:31 11.2
Smith 1:14 6.6
Gilbert 1:13 4.9
Koekkoek 1:12 8.5

From hockey-reference.com

The NHL average for GA/60 usually falls between 5 and 6. Brent Seabrook’s 11.2 is simply horrifying, especially when you see that he averaged a minute and a half on the PK when he was still playing.

In fact, according to hockey-reference.com, of players who averaged at least one minute of PK time and who played at least 10 games, only the following were worse:

To give you an idea for what that means, everyone on that list aside from de la Rose (STL from DET) and Lindblom (who played with fucking bone cancer) belongs to one of the seven worst PK units in the league.

So, simply getting Seabrook off the PK likely had the greatest effect on its success, and his last game was on December 15. The defense still blows, but without Seabrook, it blows less.

Conclusion

Essentially, Colliton has done two things to change the team during this hot stretch:

    1. Healthy-scratched Seabrook three times, causing him to need two hip surgeries and one shoulder surgery
    2. Played Dach, Kubalik, and Boqvist more and higher on the depth chart

 

Getting Seabrook off the ice is probably the thing Colliton has done that’s had the greatest effect. We can argue about how he never really communicated with Seabrook about the scratches and how that’s shitty given Seabrook’s legendary status overall. But it’s obviously better for the team that Seabrook is off the ice, and Colliton clearly had a hand in that decision making. That’s a big move that he could have handled better, but a big move nonetheless.

You can credit him for playing Dach and Boqvist and letting them get their feet wet. Dach has taken to it better than Boqvist so far.

It’s hard to give him too much credit for promoting Kubalik, since he’s always shown that he belongs in the Top 6. You can’t help but wonder whether this scoring purge would have happened sooner had Colliton not dicked around with him so he could slot Nylander with Toews earlier in the year.

In short, Colliton’s contributions to this recent run of success amount to finally putting and keeping Kubalik on the top line, scratching his biggest anchor, and getting elite performances from elite players.

Patrick Kane is on a tear. Jonathan Toews has been on fire with Kubalik, who’s doing exactly what everyone but Jeremy Colliton thought he would do at the beginning of the year. Robin Lehner continues to play Vezina-level hockey. This is sort of what they’ve always done, even before Colliton.

Scratching Seabrook and elevating Kubalik were past-due epiphanies that clearly helped the team. Those are steps in the right direction. But his system still sucks, as shown by the fact that the Hawks are in the top 10 for both goals allowed (10th) and save percentage (6th). Until he fixes that latter part, it’s hard to totally buy in.

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