Hawks still searching for Frolik replacement

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks appear to miss Michael Frolik more than they expected to this season.

The Blackhawks were among the NHL’s best penalty-killing teams last season. They ranked third in the league with an 87.2 penalty-kill percentage, and it was their penalty kill that often made the difference as they put together a 19-3-5 record in one-goal games and captured the Presidents’ Trophy.

Of that dominating penalty-killing unit, Frolik was the lone member not to return this season. He was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets in the offseason to free up cap space. The Blackhawks never diminished Frolik’s role on last year’s Stanley Cup championship team, but he was viewed as replaceable.

The problem for the Blackhawks through 11 games this season is they haven’t figured out who’s actually capable of replacing him. While they continue to locate that someone, the Blackhawks have been paying a price for it.

The Blackhawks are ranked last in the NHL with a 72.2 penalty-kill percentage. They’ve allowed 10 goals on 36 power-play opportunities and have held opponents without a power-play goal in just four of the 11 games.

By comparison, the Blackhawks didn’t allow a power-play goal in 34 of the 48 regular-season games last season and gave up a total of 18 goals in 141 chances. It wasn’t until their 25th game they allowed their 10th power-play goal.

“We know there’s a lot of room for improvement there, even getting back to where we were last year,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said prior to Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild.

Toews and Marian Hossa have been solid as the second forward pairing on the penalty kill. They’ve been on the ice together for two of the power-play goals. Toews has had 15:02 of overall short-handed ice time, and Hossa has had 13:47.

Just like last season, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya again lead the way with short-handed ice time among the defensemen. Hjalmarsson has had 31:06 of overall ice time, and Oduya has had 26:41. They’ve been on the ice together for five of the power-play goals. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith have been used as the second defenseman pairing, and they’ve been on the ice together for one power-play goal.

The Blackhawks’ main issue has been getting someone to click with Marcus Kruger as the top forward pairing. What Frolik provided the Blackhawks on the penalty kill was someone who had speed and quickness, could get his stick on the puck and worked in unison with Kruger. They became known throughout the league as a premier penalty-killing duo. Kruger averaged a team-high 2:30 of short-handed ice time per game among the forwards, and Frolik was second at 2:24.

Kruger is leading the forwards again with 28:42 of overall short-handed ice time this season. Which forward has been beside Kruger has varied from game to game, and that lack of cohesiveness has been apparent in the amount of power-play goals scored with Kruger on the ice. Opponents have tallied eight power-play goals with Kruger defending.

Four different forwards have been on the ice with Kruger during those goals. Rookie forward Joakim Nordstrom impressed Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville out of training camp and got first crack with Kruger, but Nordstrom was on the ice for three power-play goals in the first three games and he was moved. Ben Smith and Brandon Saad have also seen time on the penalty kill, but neither have been used consistently.

Lately, Quenneville opted for veteran Michal Handzus with Kruger. The pairing proved to be more effective as Handzus was on the ice for two power-play goals in 14:21 of playing time. But Handzus was removed from the lineup on Saturday due to an upper-body injury and is expected to miss at least a few games.

Brad Mills, who was called up from the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL on Friday, was given an opportunity to start on the penalty kill with Kruger on Saturday. The Wild welcomed Mills with a power-play goal five seconds into his first shift. Mills had better luck on the penalty kill as the game went on and finished with 1:24 of ice time and the one goal against.

“Tonight, I don’t think I was necessarily on top of my game,” Mills said after the Blackhawks' 5-3 loss. “I can definitely do better than that. I think going forward that’s something I’ll look to do.”

Until Mills or someone else steps up for the Blackhawks, the search for the next Frolik continues.