Already in the early portion of this shortened season, we have been witness to a hockey story that will have ramifications lasting beyond this calendar year. I am, of course, referring to the Chicago Blackhawks amazing start. They have gone through the first 19 games of their schedule without a regulation loss. With 16 victories and three shootout lossesthey have not even lost in overtimethey have accumulated 35 points, eight more than any other team in the NHL. This record-setting opening runwhich toppled the previous mark of 16 straight season-opening games set by Anaheim in their Stanley Cup winning season of 2006-07has many pundits comparing this Hawks team with the version which lifted the Cup in 2010.
On one hand, the current iteration of the franchise is vastly different from the Cup-winning team of only three seasons ago, as only nine players remain. On the other hand, the nine standbys include nine of the current top 10 most valuable non-goaltending contributors to the team, as rated by GVT. The exception among the top 10 skaters is young pivot Marcus Kruger, a home-grown product who was still skating for Djurgarden of the SEL at the time. Kruger saw his first NHL action the following season.
If the Blackhawks of today are substantially different from the immortal squad of yesteryear, they are practically the equals of the team that finished sixth in the West last year. True, they finished with six more points than the eventual champions from Los Angeles, but they were also 10 points out of the number one seed which they currently hold. The only roster changes between last year and now are incoming depth defensemen Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank. The pair effectively act as a platoon at the bottom of the top six, as they have only dressed together on one occasion thus far, that time being the record-tying match against Vancouver on the 19th, when Brent Seabrook sat out nursing a "lower body injury."
Coming into the season on short notice, with only one week's worth of training camp and no preseason games to speak of, there was a popular idea that posited that teams that were more familiar with one another would be more likely to succeed quickly, while those with heavy turnover would be more likely to struggle as they adjusted to one another on the fly. In a recent look at teams that went through a coaching change in the offseason it was noted that three of the four were currently sitting out of a playoff position. Of course the sample size is not nearly big enough to draw any sweeping conclusions, but it does support that earlier hypothesis. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, teams with minimal roster turnover, we see the Boston Bruins, who have graduated a new starting goaltender, yet only changed depth parts among skaters. They currently sit fifth in the East, although with four or five games in hand on the teams on either side of them. Winning three of those games would give them the driver's seat in the conference. The defending champions from LA made no moves of any significance in the offseason, although injuries have since deprived them of half of their projected top six on the blueline. They have just recently snuck into seventh in the West, after spending the early season out of the top eight. They have also won seven of their last 10 after a rough opening. Last year's big surprise, the St. Louis Blues, also kept their lineup largely intact and currently hold the fifth seed in the West in spite of some predictable regression from former hero Brian Elliott in net. All other teams either brought in significant contributors and/or coaching staff, or lost key players. Again, it is a small sample, but it still supports the idea that continuity will have an outsized benefit in the absence of a training camp.
More than just year-over-year continuity, the Blackhawks have also displayed one of sports' hidden traits, that being health. Through 17 games, they have only had to use the injured reserve three times. One of the times was for winger Rostislav Olesz, who spent all but six games of 2011-12 in the AHL and was expected to do so again this year. In the recent Hockey Prospectus annual, we wrote of the Czech forward, "An AHL winger due $3.1 million per year for two more years: that is what Chicago got from Florida for Brian Campbell. Salary dumps don't come for free, you know." It feels safe to say that the team has only lost two players to injuries thus far, defenseman Steve Montador, who has yet to suit up, and rugged winger Dan Carcillo, who missed about three weeks before returning. No team has been lucky enough to need the injured reserve fewer than twice. Whether you consider health to be a "skill"which many do, at least on the individual player levelor luck, the Blackhawks have enjoyed it thus far, much as the Kings did in their 2012 playoff run.
Another area to consider on the teamwide level is special teams opportunity. With a power play that can be described as middling at best, the Hawks have at least been among the best in the league at killing penalties, currently tied for second, having shut down 88.7% of shorthanded situations. Rates only tell so much of the story, though, as opportunity comes at its own cost. It is one thing to kill penalties when they occur, but the more your team spends time in the box, the less time your team will enjoy prime scoring situations. So in not losing yet, the Blackhawks have been good at avoiding penalties. As they were not the beneficiaries of an undue amount of ice time on the power play, we are safe in saying that the majority of their success has been due to their work at 5-on-5.
If we want to see whether a team has been lucky or has succeeded through skills-based play, we have stats for that. A commonly-referenced metric is called PDO, which looks at the combined shooting and save percentages of a given team. PDO will typically regress to 1000, with numbers substantially below usually connoting bad luck and the inverse signifying good luck. At even strength, the Hawks have stopped 93.5% of shots against, while scoring on 8.99% of shots. The resultant PDO of 1025 is slightly above the norm and should regress at least a bit. The leader in PDO last year was the surprisingly successful St. Louis Blues, who finished with a mark of 1029. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, straddled the line of mediocrity at 999.
When regression inevitably hits, it is most likely to come on the defensive end of the spectrum. The team shooting percentage of 8.99% is only 28th in the league, remarkably showing that the Hawks may have actually been victims of bad luck while not losing. Backed by Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, the teamwide save percentage of 93.5% at even strength is bound to take a turn for the worse before too long. Crawford has stopped between 91.5-93.1% of even strength shots over the past three seasons, while Emery has ranged from 89.9-93.5%. In both cases, the higher number came three seasons ago, while the weaker season occurred last year.
It is not inconceivable that both goaltenders have turned things back around. Shocking as it may seem, Ray Emery is only 30 years old. Considering that he first made his mark on a good Senators team in 2005-06, we tend to forget that he was only 22 at the time, focusing instead on his subsequent travels and travails. After being dropped by the Sens due in part to makeup concerns, Emery played in Russia, returned to the NHL goalie graveyard of Philadelphia, and had surgery forand recovered fromavascular necrosis, a potentially debilitating hip condition. A brief comeback with Anaheim convinced the Blackhawks that he was worth taking a shot on during camp last season. Although he contributed -6.5 GVT to that squad, the Hawks gave him a raise anyway and Emery has repaid them with a near inverse of that GVT through his first seven games, including the last four when Crawford was not available due to a minor injury.
Although we can safely expect Emery's save percentage to fall from its current lofty mark of .927, he will also be playing less frequently, as Crawford is healthy again. About Emery, Director of Goalie Scouting for McKeen's Hockey, Justin Goldman stated that, "Since recovering from Avascular Necrosis, his technical game has evolved and morphed into a style that allows him to still be effective, but his durability will always be questioned. It's easy to see he's not a flexible or very agile goalie, but he is way more mature than his pre-injury days, and he's the type of goalie that out-works his opponent, competes really hard, relies on his size, and makes the timely save. (He) has had very good 8-10 game stretches before, namely with the Ducks at the end of the regular season in 2010-11. His first seven games this season have been awesome, but clearly I'm not expecting him to sustain it over the next seven games. I would be surprised if he finished with anything above a .920 SV%."
Crawford, a second round pick back in 2003, unlike Emery, feels much younger than his actual age of 28. Other goalies drafted in 2003 include Marc-Andre Fleury, Jimmy Howard, Jaroslav Halak, and Brian Elliott. Each of those four had established themselves as NHL goalies while Crawford was putting up middling numbers for AHL Rockford. His current save percentage of .941 would best that of the record set last year by his draft cohort-mate, Elliott's .940. That will undoubtedly not last, as the pure statistics agree with Goldman, who added, "It's impossible to know how much regression is in store, but despite the fact Crawford has played so well this season, from my perspective, I still don't see him as an elite talent capable of sustaining these numbers. He had a .917 SV% and .903 SV% over the past two seasons respectively, so while his game has clearly improved in the technical sense compared to last season (he's overall a more consistent goalie in the technical sense), I wouldn't expect him to finish with anything higher than a .925 SV%."
As Crawford has yet to surpass 57 games played in any season, we should expect coach Joel Quenneville to use his goalies judiciously so as to prevent fatigue from diminishing their play more than regression will on its own. If it seems coincidental that two of the goalies taken the same year as Crawford teamed up to win the Jennings Trophy last year for St. Louis for having the lowest teamwide GAA, it is, but that is the model we should look to as a best case scenario for Chicago. In fact, they don't even need to be that good to run away with the league. A regression of 10 percentage points on their combined save percentages should be overtaken by an improvement of near equal relative measure in their teamwide shooting percentage to keep their overall PDO in the same general neighborhood. While it has not been touched upon here, the Hawks have a very deep forward crew with superstar power on the top two lines (Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp) and talent on the bottom six as well (Saad, Bickell, Shaw, Kruger, Bolland, Stalberg, Frolik). Between Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, and Nick Leddy, offense can also be expected from the blue line.
Although the Blackhawks will not last the entire season without a regulation time loss, the pieces are in place for an historic regular season. Outside of injuries (debatably) their current record is not the result of rampant good luck but of a well-built team. Full credit goes to Stan Bowman, who had to rebuild the supporting talent after the team's last Cup run. It was not an easy task to fit 60% of a roster with only 40% of the cap space still available, but he seems to have pulled the trick off. With most of the team locked up past this season, Bowman will have to continue to be creative to get the squad compliant with the lowered cap. If history can be our guide, we should have some confidence in the trick being repeated.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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