Summer Doldrums – Projecting How the Blackhawks Will Do This Year

An active first two days of the week with the Dach signing on Monday and the curious-at-best Jokiharju trade Tuesday. The Hawks still haven’t traded Artem Anisimov, and I guess that that’s not horribly urgent, but it would make more sense if they did than if they didn’t. It might be hard for the Hawks to find a trading partner for a plodding third-line center with a $4.55 million per cap hit for the next two years who’s wide dicked his way into 20 goals three times in the past four years. But then again, Brandon Motherfucking Manning DID get a two-year deal for seven figures only to be traded and demoted last year, so I guess anything is possible. BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED.

Because summer is categorically the worst season of the year, we’re left thinking about all the ways Chicago hockey can either surprise us or go entirely ass up this fall. We’ve done a lot of looking at the ass-up side of things, so maybe we can try to look at potential positives for your 2019–20 Chicago Blackhawks.

We like to lean on advanced stats to make points about why guys who seem underwhelming really aren’t (Brandon Saad) and to bitch about why guys who suck shouldn’t be getting the praise they do (Duncan Keith over the last two years). That’s what we’re going to do for this little exercise, because it’s only fair, and on the off chance that if Pierre McGuire ever reads this his stupid bald head might simply evaporate from his meek and mealy body.

Earlier this week, Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) posted a projection model, which you can play around with yourself (phrasing). The model uses WAR (wins above replacement) data from Evolving Wild (@EvolvingWild) and prospect data from Manny Perry (@mannyelk). In short, the model tries to predict a team’s full-season WAR based on different line, pairing, and goalie combinations. It also tries to predict how many points teams might get in the standings based on those lineups.

You bet your ass I played around with shit.

There are countless ways to guess at how the lineup for Beto O’Colliton will shake out. So I compared three potential lineups for the Hawks. I used Scott Powers’s most recent projections for the first one. I used my own projections for the second. And I used what I think would be an ideal lineup, based on the Hawks’s current roster, for the third. As you’ll see, this model gives a ton of room for hope, even if some restrictions apply. I used all the default TOI% projections for forwards and D-men, and adjusted the goalie splits to 50/50 instead of 70/30.

The Powers Projection

For this projection, I used Scott Powers’s most recent predictions for how the lines would shake out. He’s in the know, he’s trustworthy, so this is as good a place to start as any.

The first thing you might notice is that the Hawks project to end up with about 99 points in the standings with the Powers projection. That’s pretty good. In fact, that’s playoff good for last year. Colorado, Vegas, Dallas, and Columbus all made the playoffs with fewer points last year. Winnipeg, Carolina, and St. Louis all made it with 99 points.

There are a few caveats to this projection (and all of them, really).

The first is that we assume that the Bird Boys split time in net perfectly evenly. We’re doing this because that’s the feeling we get about what will happen based on the reports we read and on Crow’s injury history of late. With a perfectly even split, the model prefers Robin Lehner to Crow, likely based on Crow’s relatively poor overall stats over the past two years caused by various head injuries and historically bad defense. Interestingly, the model projects that if Lehner were to get up to 70% of the starts, his ProjFSW climbs all the way up to 8.2. This makes sense, since other than his one dry heave in Buffalo in 2017–18, Lehner’s looked as good or better than Crow statistically over the last four years. In fact, they both have a .918 SV% on their career. So if the end is nigh for Crow, Lehner is a solid—if not better—replacement for him on the ice, even if he is a shithead.

The second assumption is that Dominik Kabulik produces like Dominik Kahun did. Kabulik wasn’t available in this model, so I used Kahun as a stand-in, since Kahun’s 37 points and 0.8 WAR seem entirely conceivable for Kabulik to hit, based on how well the Hawks scout European players.

The Powers projection shows that the Lehner signing could be the difference maker for this team (if we get the version from last year at least) and that if the Hawks are truly committed to playing Seabrook on the third pairing, it will only be a disaster, rather than an unmitigated disaster. As constructed by Powers, this team could make the playoffs if everything goes perfectly.

The Pullega Projection

In this version of reality, we roll with what I think the Hawks will do, based solely on instinct and what I’ve read. Again, pretend Kabulik gives you Kahun numbers coming up. With the recent trade of my sweet boy Henri Jokiharju, it’s much more likely that Brent Seabrook plays more minutes than he should on the second pairing, because more grind something something. That’s also why I think we’ll see Shaw start out on the top line with Toews and Saad, even though Shaw is a better fit on the third line. I’d be surprised if Colliton throws Kabulik on the top line, but then again. With this projected lineup, if everything goes perfectly, the Hawks project to get 95 points, which makes them a bubble team.

 The Ideal Projection

So as I was writing this, Bowman traded Jokiharju, which is an incredibly stupid move given the context of the Hawks’s situation (i.e., the defense is an atrocity and Harju was decent at worst last year. Get red-assed with me here.) This definitely means that the Seabrook playings will continue until morale improves. But just for the hell of it, I plugged in Adam Boqvist. With this lineup, the Hawks project to be a 104-point team, which likely puts them in the playoffs pretty easily.

But as with all ideals, everything has to break perfectly. Kirby Dach has to stay and be good, and there’s no indication that he’ll stay regardless. Shit, Harju got traded for William Nylander’s younger, dumber, lazier younger brother—in what might be Stan’s most meta “getting the band back together” moment ever (Nylander’s father played for the Hawks for a few years in the late 90s–early aughts)—after being the best D-man on the team (small sample sizes be damned) just the other day. And having Boqvist play definitely shuts Seabrook out, which isn’t going to happen, maybe not even after Seabrook’s contract expires. Finally, this model really likes Olli Maatta, which may goose the projections a bit, but that might be confirmation bias on my part. If Maatta’s as good as the projections say, there’s hope with this ideal.

Projections can be fun, but they require a lot of things to go perfectly. And outside the de Haan trade, assuming his shoulder heals nicely and quickly, it’d be really hard to describe this offseason as anything even close to perfect. But we’re trying to be positive, for a change if nothing else.

In all, the forwards project to be good, just like last year. The goaltending projects to be better because of Lehner falling into their laps. And the defense has shown improvement, but we’re still skeptical about a lot of things, particularly de Haan and Maatta’s health, Maatta’s mobility, and the ever-present living eclipse that is Brent Seabrook.

The projections are kind. We can hope the reality reflects it.

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