After dropping Tuesday night’s contest in a shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Chicago Blackhawks currently hold a 3-4-4 record. While the focus isn’t necessarily on the standings in a rebuilding season, seeing points pile up is certainly a confidence booster for the young players on the Hawks roster.
After starting the 2021 campaign with an 0-3-0 stretch, the Blackhawks have shown resilience by recording points in seven of their last eight contests. However, only three of those games have resulted in the coveted two points that come from an outright victory, and all such cases have occurred in regulation time. In games that go to overtime and/or a shootout, the Blackhawks are winless — 0-0-4 to be exact.
So what’s the issue with the Blackhawks in extra time? There are several factors that play into the equation, but one of the most damning elements is the absence of their captain, Jonathan Toews.
To find success in 3-on-3 overtime, it takes a combination of speed, skill, smarts, and a little bit of luck. Players who make effective contributions at 5-on-5 aren’t always suited for the track meet that is the extra frame due to slower foot speed. Two-way centers, first-pair defensemen, and speedy wingers with slick hands see the majority of ice time, often leaving defensive specialists and heavy hitters on the bench for the five-minute fiasco.
When examining that formula for the Blackhawks, they currently only check two of the three boxes. Duncan Keith is their most reliable defenseman and still moves exceptionally well at age 37, so it’s a no-brainer decision for Jeremy Colliton to rely heavily on #2 in overtime. Patrick Kane is the most skilled player on the team by a country mile, so he’s a lock for heavy ice time in the extra frame as well. At the center position, the Blackhawks currently lack an effective placeholder for Jonathan Toews.
Dylan Strome is a skilled offensive player, but lacking speed and defensive awareness have always been knocks on his game. Carl Soderberg is a veteran centerman, but he can’t keep up with younger, more-skilled players with so much open ice. David Kampf can cover defensive responsibilities effectively, but he doesn’t offer much from an offensive standpoint. Philipp Kurashev and Pius Suter are both promising rookies but simply don’t have much experience under their belts, making them potential liabilities in a do-or-die scenario.
Even if one of the aforementioned names elevates their play in the extra frame as the season progresses, they still won’t be able to fill the captain’s shoes. Toews is one of the best overtime players in NHL history and his 15 goals in extra time rank tied for third among active skaters. Only Alex Ovechkin (24) and Sidney Crosby (18) rank above Captain Serious.
Beyond lighting the lamp frequently in overtime, Toews provides a strong defensive presence in what is otherwise an offensive-oriented scoring-chance fest. A lack of communication in their own zone has already cost the Blackhawks a point this season, as evidenced by Strome struggling to effectively switch defensive assignments in an overtime loss at Nashville on January 26th.
As the Blackhawks roster currently stands, there is simply no replacement for Jonathan Toews in overtime. If they want to pick up two points in games that run longer than the standard 60 minutes, they will need their skilled wingers to capitalize on scoring chances before the team’s defensive structure — or lack thereof — gets exposed.
Even in the absence of Toews, the Blackhawks have been able to survive overtime and send the game to a shootout on two occasions through their first 11 contests. But this is where they’re missing the captain once again.
Toews is the most effective NHL player in shootouts of all time. He has scored 50 shootout goals on 101 attempts, good for a 49.5% conversion rate. Good luck replacing that.
Beyond missing the captain’s consistent production in the glorified penalty shot competition, the Blackhawks’ typical shootout order has been disrupted with Toews sidelined. Under both Joel Quenneville and Jeremy Colliton, Toews has been the leadoff man in the shootout. While Patrick Kane touts impressive shootout numbers as well (47/112, 42%), going first instead of following Toews may impact his approach and effectiveness. It hasn’t been Showtime in the shootout yet this season, as Kane is 0/2 on his attempts.
It’s not just Kane though. No Blackhawks player has been able to find twine in the shootout so far this season. That lack of success can certainly be attributed to rust or inexperience, but perhaps the team’s confidence is also out of whack without Toews setting the tone to begin shootouts.
In baseball, teams seem to struggle offensively if their leadoff hitter goes down, at least for an initial stretch. Chicago sports fans don’t need to look further than the North Side of town for such an example. The Chicago Cubs’ offensive production has not been nearly as consistent since former leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler left town after the 2016 World Series Championship.
While baseball and hockey are two different beasts, an orderly flow of personnel certainly plays a factor in team success for both sports. It’s safe to say the Blackhawks are missing their catalyst at the top of the lineup in shootouts.