Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s biggest gripe in recent games has been his team’s defense. The Blackhawks have allowed nine 5-on-5 goals over the last four games. For a coach who preaches defense first, it's an increasing concern.
There are a number of reasons for the Blackhawks’ struggles. That often falls on every position. But here we’ll look at specifically how the defensemen have fared lately:
The addition of Kimmo Timonen hasn’t paid off for the Blackhawks yet. He and the Blackhawks knew it was going to take some time because he hadn’t played this season before being acquired and he is 40 years old. But that period of adjustment is coming just as the Blackhawks are battling for a playoff position. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has sheltered Timonen and 121 of his 144 zone starts have started in the offensive or neutral zone. That isn’t paying off with possession, though. Timonen has a 41.8 Corsi percentage. He’s had two games where his Corsi percentage has been better than 50 percent and six games where it’s been at 40 percent or below.
Duncan Keith is held to a different standard because of his past successes. That’s why his recent play has been surprising. He’s been on the ice for multiple 5-on-5 goals just six times this season, and two of those have come in the last two games. He was on the ice for two Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-on-5 goals Wednesday and three against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday.
The Flyers’ goals weren’t directly his fault. There were a couple different breakdowns on those goals. Against the Blue Jackets, Keith had more to do with the goals. He was unable to cleanly receive a pass from Marcus Kruger near the Blue Jackets’ blue line, and it led to a breakaway goal on the first one. The second one came after Keith attempted to clear the puck from the defensive zone, but it was intercepted near the blue line and the Blue Jackets were able to keep possession and scored seconds later. Keith also allowed the Blue Jackets to keep the puck in the Blackhawks’ zone when he missed Brandon Saad on a pass, and that led to the third goal. In the last six games, he has a minus-6 goal differential, minus-11 Corsi and a negative relative Corsi in four of the games.
Quenneville reunited Keith and Brent Seabrook on Friday. The two defensemen often end up being paired together for some shifts in any given game, but they hadn’t begun a game together since Jan. 18. Quenneville ultimately went away from the pairing as the Friday’s game progressed. He went with Keith and David Rundblad and Timonen and Seabrook.
Quenneville is still searching for the perfect pairings. Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson by far make the best pairing -- their zone-start adjusted stats together through 73 games are 156:25 of ice time, 0.77 goals-against per 60 minutes and 59.7 Corsi percentage -- but Quenneville is looking for balance.
Putting Hjalmarsson and Oduya back together has worked out for the Blackhawks. Oduya has a plus-6 goal differential in March after having a minus-14 differential through February. The other pairings haven’t been as solid. Michal Rozsival has been on the ice for five 5-on-5 goals and is a minus-23 Corsi his last five games. Rundblad has a plus-13 goal differential for the season, but he’s had a minus-3 goal differential since Feb. 1.
Keith with Seabrook is probably still Quenneville’s best bet. Keith has a higher Corsi percentage with Rundblad and a lower goals-against average per 60 minutes with Rozsival, but Keith has spent the most time with Seabrook, is somewhere in between both statistics with him and also has created his most offense this season with him. Of Keith’s four goals and 14 assists in 5-on-5 play this season, three goals and seven assists have come with Seabrook on the ice.
It’s becoming less of a probability now, but the Blackhawks could still recall Trevor van Riemsdyk from the AHL. He could possibly play with Timonen in a sheltered role. Van Riemsdyk said Wednesday he’s still working to get the strength back in his knee. His play has been solid through seven games with the Rockford IceHogs. He has three assists, which included two in a win Friday, and is a plus-4.