Musings

Defending Your Life, And Losing

I don’t know that we’ll make it strict blog policy, but I think it’s important that when analyzing and discussing the Hawks we always keep in mind their “real” record. That’s hard to decipher in the NHL at times, as they do everything they can to ensure the standings are what are interpreted as what a team really is. So the OT results can cloud things a bit, or sometimes more so. Right now, the Hawks are a 3-5-6 team. That’s essentially what they’ve earned. They have six ties, and three regulation wins: in Columbus where they were severely outplayed for most of it, and over the Ducks and Rangers who both suck eggs. If viewed through that prism, then recent results don’t really surprise.

Coming into this season, the biggest problem the Hawks had was that they were a bad defensive team last year. And that’s being kind. You might be tempted to describe them as “abominable” defensively. While the goaltending was awful without Corey Crawford, no one was pretending that he wasn’t Atlas-ing a very creaky if not downright faulty ship. The team didn’t seem to lie to you about it either, as they knew they were terrible in their own end and the neutral zone. Clearly changes had to be made not just personnel-wise, but structurally as well.

We’ll get to those changes in a minute, but the story so far is that they haven’t worked. The amount of attempts the Hawks give up at even-strength has gone from 58.1 per 60 to 58.0. Not exactly a cataclysmic improvement. Their shots against per 60 at evens has gone from 32.1 to 31.8. Again, an improvement but not enough and still one of the worst marks around. And their expected goals against per 60 has actually gotten worse, and by a noticeable margin, from 2.54 per 60 last year to 2.74 this year (about an 8% increase). So even if they’re giving up a shade less attempts and shots, they’re giving up even better chances than they did last year, and last year was a veritable waterfall of chances against (which you shouldn’t go chasing, as you well know by now).

What’s been clear in the season’s first 14 games is that Joel Quenneville appears to be trying to install a more aggressive tweak to the defensive system. It’s not an overhaul, and the Hawks were always aggressive–trying to stop rushes ahead of their line, going into the corners and half-boards as the slightest sign of an opening, etc.–as well as going with a more zonal system. But now the Hawks, at times, send two guys after the puck, are chasing behind their own net far more than I can remember, and are trying to step up even higher into the neutral zone.

The question one might ask is if this is a prudent change with a defense that overall has gotten even slower. Because the Hawks just don’t get there, which is leaving even bigger gaps than they had last year. Let’s look at some goals from recent games. Now, the following may seem like we’re trying to single out Brandon Manning, and we’re not….well, ok, that’s not the sole intention. But he is a good example of a player ill-suited to what the Hawks are trying to accomplish, or at least what I think they’re trying to accomplish. And I will admit that using a third-pairing on a mediocre team at best is cherry-picking, But there are things to learn.

Take the fourth Oilers goal last night:

Manning makes a bad pass, which is not systematic. There’s a turnover at the blue line. Davidson, who’s already cheating to the middle before, is by far the closer to the play and cuts across. Because Manning was already backing up when passing and is somewhere near his left circle, the read should be his partner cutting across and Manning being something of a free-safety. Instead, much like Gallahad, Manning comes charging to where Davidson and a Hawks forward already are, leaving an entire side of the ice open. And because it’s Brandons EAT ARBY’S, they both get beat and it’s a 2-on-0.

Let’s move back to Wednesday:

Again, it’s Manning and Davidson. Manning wants to step up on Granlund before his own blue line, but his gap to start before the pass even heads to Granlund is too big. And because he’s slow and a clod, he gets turned trying to make it up too late, leaving Davidson with about two and a half guys to cover.

But it’s not just them. Take St. Louis’s second goal on Saturday:

Jokiharju goes chasing the puck and Ryan O’Reilly around and up to the boards, even though ROR is basically in the corner and can be easily “contained.” Keith is now on the right side of the net. If that’s where he’s supposed to be, then Alex DeBrincat has to be crashing down low to deal with Perron. Toews is late to cover for Jokiharju and Keith as they try and scramble, but he has about four different places to be. At the beginning, Toews was the one who seemed to think ROR was at least accounted for along the boards and isn’t expecting Jokiharju to come flying out there.

Now, this is easily the result of a teenager learning at the highest level, and mistakes you can live with. Except they’re happening multiple times a night to everyone. The amount of times the Hawks leave an entire side of the ice open per game is simply confounding. No one seems to have any idea what the other guy is going to do, and they hence end up doing everything and nothing at the same time. Communication seems to be somewhere around the level of whatever that shrieking was on the NBCSN broadcast last night

Before we start breaking glass to get our axes, these are changes that would take some time to bed in, but the clock is ticking. You’d have to think that if the Hawks still look this iffy and unsure at the end of this month, then real problems are going to need real solutions. But by that point, it may be too late.

It should also be noted that the Hawks most consistent defender from last year, Connor Murphy, is yet to play. But when you’re really depending on the return of a 6′ 5″ d-man with back problems now, who is also Connor Murphy–a fine player but nowhere near a great one– that makes a statement of its own.

Which makes the Hawks’ personnel decisions on their blue line the past couple years all the more strange. The perfect d-man for this souped-up system in their own zone of course is Michal Kempny. But I don’t want to litigate that whole thing again. The blue line is just another area where the disagreements between coach and GM and how they see how a roster should be built are clear. Stan Bowman liked Kempny, and brought him back for a second year even though he spent the first being spit on by Quenneville. But when that didn’t work, Stan has provided Q with Jan Rutta and Manning, which more and more seem like decisions with a “Fine, here are the fucking monoliths you prefer” tinge of attitude to them. And Q’s now running a defensive system based on what he thinks Stan wanted with the players he was stuck with.

That’s all just a theory, and not even all that likely. On the ground, what we know is that Stan tried to make the blue line more mobile last year with bringing back Kempny and swapping out Hjalmarsson for Murphy. And this year he’s made it less so by bringing back Rutta and bringing in Manning. They were forced into playing Jokiharju, who isn’t really all that quick either, just smart though learning the hard way.

At the end of the day, through their performance, decisions, changes, and whatever else, none of it really makes sense.

 

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