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Series Preview: Blackhawks’ Special Teams

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Breaking down the Chicago Blackhawks, position by position. Today, their special teams.

Chicago Blackhawks v Nashville Predators Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images

If there is a weakness anywhere on this Blackhawk team, it is their special teams play. Spotting the 19th ranked power play and the 24th ranked penalty kill, the Blackhawks are just plain bad at special teams.

Now, that’s not to say that the Blackhawks don’t have the capabilities to capitalize on the power play. With players like Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, and Jonathan Toews in the fold, they do have their weapons. You also can’t forget Duncan Keith’s booming slapshot from the point. However, for some reason, their unit has struggled this season.

While their power play certainly has the ability to excel, their penalty kill is, well, terrible. There’s an old hockey saying that you want your goalie to be your best penalty killer, and that is very much the case with the Blackhawks because nobody else seems to be doing much. Their saving grace is that they are the second least penalized team in the league, so their abomination of a penalty kill doesn’t have to take the ice that often.

However, before we get into a discussion on the Blackhawks special teams, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the two most common power play and penalty kill systems, and the goals each hopes to achieve. If you aren’t familiar with the basic power play systems, make sure to read the following paragraphs below before jumping down to the analysis on the Blackhawks. While each teams systems are much more intricate than those below, especially hybrid systems, one can usually tell how each team is setting up.

After explaining the various systems, we’ll look at some plays and set-ups the Blackhawks have been employing in the last two months and how that related to the Predators’ special teams.

Power Play Systems

Umbrella

The Umbrella system is exactly as it sounds. Two players stand towards the net in the middle of the slot, forming the umbrella cane. Meanwhile, one player stands at the top of the umbrella, centered at the blue line, while two other players hang just a tad above the face-off circles near the boards.

The two goals in the umbrella system are to have either the guy up top fire a low wrist or snap shot through traffic or having one of the two players by the top of the circles fire a one-time shot. Regardless of which option is chosen, the two players down low in the slot then attempt to shovel home any rebounds.

The player at the top of the umbrella cannot just fire a bomb of a slapshot because he’s the last line of defense. Often when short handed goals occur in the NHL, it’s because a big slap shot was taken from the top of an umbrella system, was blocked, and immediately resulted in a 2 on 1 the other way.

Overload

The goal of the overload system is also true to its name, as the team on the power play hopes to overload one half of the offensive zone with their players. Most overload systems have one player below the goal line, one low on one side of the boards, one player in front of the net, and then two defensemen up at the blue line. If a line was drawn connecting each player, nearly the entirety of either the left or right side of the offensive zone would be covered while the other half would be empty.

This system gives teams a lot of options. Common plays are operating a give-and-go between the player on the boards and the player below the goal line. The defensemen both need to have hard shots, but more importantly they need good puck handling skills. Of course, the player in front of the net is there to net as many garbage goals as possible.

While important with any system, it is imperative in the overload to be constantly moving. The moment an opponent is sucked in to the player with the puck, passing lanes are open. If an opponent is being sucked in to the puck-handler while rotating with a teammate, a quick drop pass can easily result in a lopsided 4 on 3 or a dynamite give-and-go scoring opportunity.

Penalty Kill Systems

Box

A trend that’s clear to see, these names accurately reflect the physical look of the set up on a coach’s whiteboard. In this penalty kill system, all four defenders should be positioned at the corners of a box were one to connect them with lines.

The goal of the box is to shut down the middle of the ice. It doesn’t really matter if the other team has the puck on the perimeter, as that means that they likely aren’t getting quality scoring chances. If an opponent isn’t in a good scoring position with the puck, there is no reason to chase them from their current post.. That being said, it’s not an aggressive, turnover-producing system, so the team on the power play likely can possess the puck for long lengths of time.

Diamond

A counter to the umbrella power play, the diamond is, once again, just as one would expect. One defender is attempting to cut off the puck from the attacker quarterbacking the play from the center of the blue line, while two other defenders try to deny shots from the players up by the top of the circles who are looking for one-timers.

The glaring flaw with the diamond is if the defender trying to disrupt the centered blue line attacker. If that attacker is able to get a shot past that defender, the attacking team has a two on one advantage down in front of the net. Nevertheless, despite its clear drawback, some teams choose to run this system.

Blackhawks Power Play

Before we even dive into their systems, we have to talk about this face-off play that they manage to run with so much success.

I made this on Google Slides. Someone please tweet me (@bmisey) if you know of a better way to draw up plays on a computer.

When facing off on their left offensive circle, Jonathan Toews will try and tie up the other center as Patrick Kane and Richard Panik crash the battle at the center of the circle. Most wingers are instructed to cheat in to try and get the puck anyways, so the opposing players lined up on the sides of the face-off circle will often battle for the puck too. If Kane or Panik can grab the puck first, they quickly dish it to Artemi Panarin who, building some speed, comes in all alone on the opposing goaltender. It’s such a lethal face-off play and has worked against the best teams in the league.

While teams with strong defensemen typically employ an umbrella, teams stacked with forwards, such as the Blackhawks, are more likely to run an overload system. Nevertheless, the best teams can even shift systems in seconds. In the clip below, the Blackhawks demonstrate incredible tactical sophistication, shifting from an overload on the right side of the ice to an overload on the left side, just to transfer to an umbrella system to set Hossa up with the one-time shot. Watch the clip twice just to see how out of sorts the Vancouver defense becomes trying to keep up with the Blackhawks.

This is simply an astounding piece of work by the Blackhawks power play and a dream for any chalk-talk aficionado. The Vancouver defenders look absolutely lost trying to keep up with the Blackhawks.

Albeit their incredible tactical skills off of face-offs and ability to transitioning within the power play, the Blackhawks have still not enjoyed as much success as other teams with the man advantage. Perhaps it’s because they can try and become too fancy at times, but it would still be a grave mistake to underestimate the capability of the Blackhawks power play.

Blackhawks Penalty Kill

A sub-par penalty kill, the box system that the Blackhawks employ has not enjoyed much success this season. In what appears to be communication breakdowns, the Blackhawks are prone to losing track of their responsibilities when the puck is in transition. Look at the clip below as they employ a box against Anaheim’s overload system.

The play begins with the Anaheim Ducks in a traditional overload set-up: there’s Corey Perry below the goal line, one players low on one side of the boards, one player in front of the net, and then two defensemen up at the blue line. However, the Ducks transition the overload to the opposite side of the ice. While shifting their box, Johnny Oduya loses track of Corey Perry as he just slides back door for the easy tip-in. This is not an overly complex maneuver by the Ducks, especially compared to the Blackhawks’ power play goal against Vancouver discussed earlier. It is simply an example of a penalty kill lacking awareness.

In the following clip versus Tampa Bay, we see that the Blackhawks also employ a box against the umbrella system. Similarly to the above clip against Anaheim, a little bit of movement throws the Blackhawks box off. Jonathan Drouin and Victor Hedman trade places, drawing Marian Hossa and Tanner Kero out of position. Watch this clip once focusing on the exchange of Drouin and Hedman, and then just watch again to see how Hossa and Kero are baited out of position.

Here the issue for the Blackhawks is their discipline to playing the box. Hossa and Kero should be communicating here to ensure that they don’t give Drouin space. Hossa should have been the one pinching in a little on Drouin, but instead yields to Kero who must still make his way all the way over from Hedman. This gives Drouin the space to get a clean shot on Scott Darling with a perfect screen by Palat. The commentators also correctly point out just how many options Hedman and Drouin had available.

What does this mean for Nashville?

The Predators may hold a special teams advantage, but it is not as clear as many make it out to be. The Blackhawks power play ranked just three spots below Nashville, so there’s not a large advantage for the Predators. The Predators’ penalty killers will need to show strong structural discipline on the penalty kill to avoid getting pulled out of position when the Blackhawks transition between systems.

Meanwhile, although the Predators will certainly get their chances when on the man advantage, those opportunities will likely be few and far between. Their penalty kill unit is extremely susceptible to strong movement and rotations by opposing defensemen. Fortunately, if there’s anything that the Predators are known for, it’s their incredibly mobile defensive group. After looking at these Blackhawk penalty kill videos, the Predators should feel confident about getting Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Ryan Ellis some excellent scoring chances whenever the Blackhawks are penalized.

If you pause the clip at 0:05, you can see that the Predators employ a hybrid umbrella-overload system. Here they execute a set overload play similar to the give-and-go with James Neal scoring. However, note how far over Roman Josi is positioned. He’s well into the other half of the offensive zone, spreading the play out like in an umbrella. In the clip below, the Predators exercise that umbrella option to get Roman Josi a hard one-time shot. Alex broke down this goal as well in an earlier piece, you should go check it out.

Both of the above clips are against box defenses similar to what the Predators will see against Chicago. While there isn’t a whole lot of rotation and movement among Predator attackers in those clips, Roman Josi’s one-time goal does come off of a positional exchange. The Predators are going to have their best success against the Blackhawks penalty kill when they execute their power play strategies with that kind of mobility.