The NHL is a copycat league. Look no further than every team’s power play. Even though it is not always successful, the “push ’em back” zone entry is by far the most used entry league-wide. Furthermore, look at last offseason’s signings by the Tampa Bay Lightning. After helping the St. Louis Blues win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, Pat Maroon was signed by the Lightning in order to add more size and physicality to their lineup.
Now that the prolonged 2019-20 season has come to an end, every team will be comparing their rosters to the Lightning. General managers will be looking to copy the makeup of the Lightning depth chart while coaches around the league will be watching film trying to figure out just what made them so successful.
The Chicago Blackhawks are no different. The Blackhawks were lucky to experience postseason success this season, but they obviously have a long way to go until they are considered a Cup favorite once again. A good place to start is to learn from the best team in the league. Here are three things the Blackhawks can learn from the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
1. Shot Quality Over Quantity
“Pucks on net” is one of the most popular cliche phrases across the NHL. It can be heard during every broadcast and is a go-to line for players during intermission interviews. Blackhawks fans are extremely familiar with the phrase, as TV color commentator Eddie Olczyk is guaranteed to say it once or twice every game.
There’s just one problem. It is not always a good thing.
This season, the Blackhawks averaged 31.8 shots on goal a game, the 13th most in the league. They definitely had the mentality that no shot is a bad shot.
Hockey is a game in which hundreds of little plays culminate into scoring chances and goals. To most fans, the immediate play that results in a goal is the only thing that gets noticed, but there is much more to the formula than that.
During their Cup run, the Lightning were dominant on the forecheck. They dumped pucks with a purpose, gained possession, and wore teams down over time. Players like Pat Maroon, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat maintained possession along the boards while their linemates supported or found soft spots in the zone to get open. The longer a team maintains possession in the offensive zone, the more likely there will be a defensive breakdown that leads to scoring chances.
One of the many problems the Blackhawks had this season was their lack of offensive zone time. They were too eager to get pucks on net, which most of the time resulted in nothing more than a turnover. After seeing the style of play perfected by the Lightning, the Blackhawks should focus on cycling the puck in the offensive zone, changing while maintaining possession, and wearing down defenses over the course of the game. But do the Blackhawks have a roster built for this style of play?
2. Physicality is Still Effective
Contrary to popular belief, checking in hockey is not about knocking the opponent to the ice. The purpose is to separate the puck from the puck carrier. Far too often players go out of their way, getting out of position, to deliver a hit. In the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Lightning showed that being physical is much more than dishing out open-ice hits.
Lightning forward Blake Coleman was credited with 126 hits in 25 games this postseason. For the most part, none of those were highlight-reel hits leaving fans cheering like Coliseum crowds as gladiators fought to the death. Coleman’s hits came on the forecheck and were the definition of checking in hockey. The Lightning dumped pucks in corners, made contact in order to separate defenders from the puck, and gained possession. There were very few open ice hits and that’s okay.
The Blackhawks would be wise to copy the Lightning’s forechecking. Far too often dumping pucks resulted in turnovers this season. Players were soft on pucks and opponents didn’t have to worry about getting hit to make a play.
If the Blackhawks need some inspiration in this area, they should look no further than the success of Matthew Highmore in the postseason. He brought an intensity that the Blackhawks’ lineup was missing. He was hard on pucks, physical along the boards, and was rewarded with goals. It will be interesting to see if the Blackhawks’ roster has what it takes to play this way.
3. Movement on the Power Play
The Blackhawks finished the regular season with the fourth-worst power play in the league. There is no question that something needs to change. The Blackhawks can start by learning from the Lightning’s top-five power play.
The objective of every power play is to score. To do this, teams look to exploit the defense by forcing them to get out of position resulting in an open player or shooting lane. This season, the Blackhawks had a very difficult time finding open players because they were too stationary.
What Blackhawks fans have seen for years on the power play is Patrick Kane standing at the half wall with the puck with his head up looking to make a perfect pass. This has become way too predictable and penalty killers are able to defend against it.
What the Lightning have shown is that it takes all five players on the power play contributing and involved to be successful. All five players should be a threat to score, not just one player distributing the puck or making a perfect glove-high shot from the top of the circles.
If the Blackhawks want to improve on the power play, it will take more movement by the players and the puck. With the emergence of Dominik Kubalik, the Blackhawks are on the right track but there is still plenty of work to be done heading into next season on the man advantage.
What It All Means
Whenever the 2020-21 season does start, the Blackhawks would be wise to copy the success of the Lightning. In order to win in the NHL, teams must forecheck relentlessly to generate scoring chances, employ physicality along the boards, and create movement on the power play. If the Blackhawks can’t improve in these areas, it is going to be a very long season.