Inside Chicago Blackhawks’ gloriously weird season (Trending Topics)

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 21: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates after the Blackhawks scored a goal against the St. Louis Blues in Game Five of the Western Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on April 21, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/ Getty Images)
Jonathan Toews celebrates a goal by the Chicago Blackhawks. (Getty)

Over the past week a lot of people have started to take notice of what the Columbus Blue Jackets are doing.

Specifically, they’re winning a lot. And they shouldn’t.

Greg covered it pretty well the other day: They’re a lot like the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, Ottawa Senators, and every other over-performing team before them. They get outshot pretty consistently, and are driven by a huge shooting percentage and sky-high save percentage.

The latter might be more sustainable because, when healthy, Sergei Bobrovsky has often proven himself a competent goaltender. “When healthy” is a tough caveat there, because at any second his groin might rip in half with the force of a Saturn V rocket trying to slip the earth’s surly bonds. But so far so good for Bobrovsky, and even when Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell stop shooting 20-plus percent, he might keep them in more games than they “should” be in.

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But they’re a poorly coached team that has a mountainous power play percentage and have been lucky as hell at 5-on-5, and we all know they’re going to collapse, if not in the regular season then in a first-round clubbing at the hands of an actual good team. It’s happened plenty of times before. It will continue happening.

And lately, the New York Rangers have started to land in this same kind of territory, which is kinda de rigueur for them as well. The defense isn’t good enough to keep shot volumes down, but Henrik Lundqvist is so outstanding it doesn’t matter (until about the second round). And that’s even with this improved — and impressive — offense they have going now. You can’t count on forwards to lug the puck out of your own zone forever, but for right now their expected-goals number is well above 50, so they should be safe for a while even as the defense collapses.

But there’s one team on a near-historic run of outperforming expected goals, which over the course of a season has long proven the best judge of future success. Pretty much all the analysis of “teams set to regress” has focused on the Blue Jackets and Rangers. Some have also pointed out Washington continues to be pretty damn lucky as a team, as has Arizona.

The team no one has talked about is Chicago, currently leading the West after many serious analysts thought they were due for a step back or two. And yet here they are, with 28 points banked by Thanksgiving despite the continual loss of supporting talent over the past few years. At some point, maybe everyone just believes that a unit of Toews, Kane, Panarin, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook, and Crawford is enough to will this team to dominance year in and year out for another half-decade.

But to give you an illustration of how incredibly lucky Chicago has been at 5-on-5 to this point in the season, here’s their expected versus actual performance versus the “lucky” Blue Jackets and the rest of the league. These stats are adjusted for score, venue, and zone:

Yahoo
Yahoo

As you can see, they’re well above 50 percent in goals (58.9 percent, second in the league behind super-lucky-but-at-least-good-also Washington). But they’re somewhat below break-even in expected goals (47 percent, fifth-last in the NHL). So they’ve won all these games despite a dreadful penalty kill and so-so power play, which tells you that they’ve been even luckier at 5-on-5 than you might otherwise expect. In fact, in all situations their expected-goals doesn’t change much, but their actual goals share drops to about 52 percent.

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All of this tells you a story you should have been able to guess if you’ve watched Chicago the past few years: Their quality has slowly but surely declined as more and more high-level depth players were jettisoned to keep the elites together. Ever since that second round of sell-offs after the 2013 Cup win, Chicago has relied more and more on their top guys to get the job done, because Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy, and Michael Frolik among others have been forced to find work elsewhere.

Here, then, is what Chicago “should have” scored over the past 100 or so games, based on league averages. Now, keep in mind they have plenty of high-end talent to deploy, so league-average numbers aren’t always going to apply to them, especially because Corey Crawford has proven himself so good. But nonetheless, they remain a good guide for where you want your process to be, and Chicago’s just isn’t good enough:

Yahoo
Yahoo

That’s a lot of time below water for a team everyone thinks is this good. Their expected-goals number over the past three seasons is a little under 49 percent, in the same area as Winnipeg, both New York teams, and Calgary. It’s a little behind Edmonton. That’s a number that might shock people, but it’s true: Chicago’s 5-on-5 performance since the start of 2015-16 is worse than the Oilers’. Which goes a long way toward explaining why they couldn’t beat the Blues in the first round last season.

Now the good news, if you want to look for it, is that Chicago is at least trending in the right direction in terms of their quality this season. They started the year off dreadfully, but are getting closer to equilibrium. Doesn’t mean they’ll make it, but again they’re banking so many points right now that their poor performance pretty much across the board isn’t going to hurt them as badly as it probably should.

Let’s put it this way: Their offense has generated shots of a general quality that puts them on par with the inept Buffalo Sabres. Their defense is currently in the same range as the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks. These are two bad measures. They have the talent to both make percentage of shots go in the net than those other teams, and stop them from doing so in their own end.

So the question is, how much is all this luck helping Chicago succeed? Well, in terms of simple math, it’s probably giving them an extra half a goal every 60 minutes they play at 5-on-5. That’s a huge gap. And one last time, some of that is going to be talent-driven, but it can’t be all of it.

Yahoo
Yahoo

No matter what your opinion is of Chicago this year or in the past, you have to understand they’re not this good. The largest 82-game difference between actual and expected goals was the 2010-11 Bruins outperforming their percentages by plus-8.9, thanks in large part to Tim Thomas having one of the two or three best goaltending seasons ever. Chicago is currently plus-11.9. It’s not going to last.

Weird to say this, but it looks like the best team of the past six or seven years is going to be this season’s PDOverperformer. Crazy.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.

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