Here we are in mid-December without hockey. Hell, there isn’t even an official NHL return plan in place. Recent reports indicate that could change soon, however. Even in the absence of the greatest game in the world, my beloved Blackhawks have still been on the mind. One specific area I have recently pondered is the power play.
With the team in a “rebuilding” phase, the results on the ice will not be pretty in 2021. Instead, the focus shifts to the development of young players up and down the roster. The arrival of Ian Mitchell will likely be the big story on the Blackhawks’ blue line, but today I want to focus on a different young defenseman: Adam Boqvist.
Setting The Stage
Entering his second NHL season, Boqvist has plenty of work to do if he wants to live up to the hype that surrounded him when he was selected eighth overall in the 2018 NHL Draft. Anyone who watched the Blackhawks last season knows Boqvist needs to make adjustments in his own zone to become a more reliable defender. While I could go down the rabbit hole dissecting that topic, today’s focus centers around Boqvist’s offensive game, specifically on the power play.
Because Boqvist is an offensive-minded puck-moving defenseman, the Blackhawks likely envision him as the quarterback of their top power play unit in the future. I’m here to proclaim that the process needs to start from day one of training camp, whenever that may be.
The 2019-20 NHL season was an adjustment period for Adam Boqvist. Between spending time in Rockford, stretches of limited minutes due to performance, and a healthy scratch in the playoffs, it was evident that Boqvist was still trying to find his footing on NHL ice.
The rookie defenseman averaged 2:10 TOI on the power play last season, so it wasn’t like he didn’t get his reps in. However, Erik Gustafsson primarily occupied the point on the first power play grouping before finding a new home in Calgary at the trade deadline.
Even after Gustafsson’s departure, it was clear that Jeremy Colliton still held reservations about Boqvist’s abilities when Duncan Keith assumed quarterback duties on the top power play unit in the playoffs. And there was nothing wrong with that. The Blackhawks should not have even been anywhere near the playoffs, so when they were gifted the last Western Conference seed in the NHL’s expanded 24-team postseason format, they might as well have put themselves in the best position to make some noise.
That run was fun for four games against Edmonton in early August, but it’s in the rearview mirror now. Going forward, development needs to be the Blackhawks’ primary focus.
Expect Growing Pains
It’s evident that Adam Boqvist is far from a finished product. Defensemen typically endure a lengthier development process than their forward counterparts, and Boqvist is no exception. Offseason training and practice sessions are undoubtedly key components of that process, but live action in competitive NHL games is where the critical growth will take place.
The Blackhawks themselves stated that they’re “committed to developing their young players” and those young players “will make some mistakes.” If they’re true to their word and Adam Boqvist is handed the keys to the top power play unit, he’ll inevitably turn the puck over at the blue line, make ill-advised passes, and miss reads that would have otherwise resulted in high-danger scoring chances. Those instances will probably be more frequent than one would like, but once again, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a crucial part of the development process.
The Bigger Picture
Letting a 37-year-old Duncan Keith run the top power play unit may produce more goals in the immediate future, but it does the Blackhawks no good in the grand scheme of things. In fact, I would consider it a hindrance to the development of one of their most important young players. This isn’t meant to be a Duncan Keith bad-mouthing session. The veteran blue-liner has already played a key role in Adam Boqvist’s development and will continue to do so over the next three seasons, barring a trade. However, it’s time for Keith to pass the torch, especially considering there will be less time for a “gradual transition” with the NHL targeting a shortened 56-game season in 2021.
Bottom line: the Blackhawks should thrust Adam Boqvist into the power play quarterback role on the top unit as soon as the team hits the ice to prepare for the 2021 season. As long as he learns from his inevitable mistakes and works with the coaching staff to correct those errors over the course of the season, the Hawks shouldn’t be concerned about lackluster power play statistics in 2021. The vision and decision-making process Boqvist will develop while playing that ever-important specialty spot will be worthwhile in the long-term.
In the Blackhawks’ own words once again, they’ll “miss the mark sometimes.” Hell, they’ll miss the mark more than they hit it over the next couple of seasons. But if they’re truly committed to building a winner in the future, they can take steps now that will help them get back to being a consistently competitive team.