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Winter Classic Preview: 5 Questions with Second City Hockey

It’s time to get a Chicago perspective on the upcoming Winter Classic!

NHL: Boston Bruins at Chicago Blackhawks Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Winter Classic is just a couple days away! We’re working with our pals at Second City Hockey to give you a Chicago perspective on what’s happening with the Hawks. This is the first post in the series: a conversation with Matt Lucas, who runs the show over at SCH. Enjoy, and be nice to the Chicagoans!

1. The biggest news involving the Hawks this year was the firing of Joel Quenneville. What’s the general feel among Hawks fans on his firing: was it justified, or just a move to make a move?

When the news broke, the Blackhawks fanbase and the city of Chicago were in shock. Coach Q had become a city-wide legend who brought nine straight years of playoff hockey and three Stanley Cups to the United Center.

Before Coach Q, Chicago was run by the Cubs, Bulls, and the Bears. Hockey was an afterthought. After Q arrived, the Hawks slowly became a must have ticket in Chicago. Consequently, the majority of fans were confused and upset after the abrupt firing of Q, who was one of the faces of the franchise, along with Kane and Toews.

Fans were confused because if the organization was going to fire Q, why do it 15 games into the new season? There were constant murmurs that Stan Bowman and Q had some beefs about recent trades and signings for the past few seasons. Additionally, the Hawks were just coming off their worst season in a decade. Thus, fans were expecting a change to happen at some point in the near future, but not like this. Why not fire Q before the season and training camp to give the new coach some time to instill a new system? Why was there no message from Q to the team or fanbase?

Fans had every right to be upset. The Hawks just fired a Hall of Fame coach who has the second-most wins in NHL history. He deserved a more graceful exit and some respect from the organization. It did not feel like a move just to make a move.It felt like a move to protect other members of the organization for recent failures. Q will always be a legend in Chicago and hopefully one day he can come back for a salute from the fans and team, as well as watch a Q banner go up in the rafters.

2. Have you noticed any big difference in the team as a whole since Quenneville was let go?

The biggest difference in Jeremy Colliton’s Blackhawks is the remodeled defensive zone strategy. Quenneville instilled a hybrid zone system where each player had an assigned area of the defensive zone to cover, instead of a man-to-man assignment. If there ever was a breakdown in coverage, the defensive unit would collapse to the middle and take a man.

In Jeremy Colliton’s man-to-man system, the center and the strong side defenseman (closest to the puck carrier) usually are below the goal line or battling with their assigned opponents in the high danger area in front of the net and slot. The weak side defenseman has the third forward trying to sneak backdoor or behind the net. The wingers have the two opposing defenseman on the point.

The man-to-man system requires a ton of talk between the defenders when assignments are being called out or when a player needs to switch their assignment with another line-mate.

Since Q was around for a decade, the hybrid zone coverage became like a memorized dance for the core players who have been around for a handful of years and even for the younger players who did not want to get into Q’s doghouse for poor defensive play. The group of Hawks would have synchronized movement in and out of their zones and were comfortable with that system.

Switching from a hybrid zone to a man-to-man system might seem like an easy and swift transition; however, it takes lots of practice time, video review, and player discussion to get to a point where the defensive zone strategy is subconscious. As a result, the Hawks got steamrolled in the defensive zone for a long stretch of games and their goal differential became the worst in the NHL.

During an 8-game losing streak that stretched from late November to mid-December, the Hawks had a -17 goal differential and only held the lead for 41 seconds out of 662:32. In the past two weeks, the Hawks have been looking more confident in the D-zone and are starting to lessen scoring chances for the other teams and getting the chance to play with leads going into the third period.

In their past seven games, the Hawks are 4-2-1 and have an even goal differential (24 goals for and 24 goals against). In three of the wins, the Hawks only allowed four goals total, while scoring nine. Progress is apparent and hopefully more wins and a successful ten game stretch comes next.

3. Alex DeBrincat was a guy I wanted the Bruins to take back in 2016, as he was still on the board when they made their second pick. How has he been as a Blackhawk so far?

DeBrincat has been a revelation for the Hawks. Throughout his career, he has been cast aside for his height and weight. However, what a lot of scouts missed is his wicked release that is getting close to Auston Matthew’s level. DeBrincat can receive a pass from a line-mate, and then in a split second the puck is snapped towards the net with power and accuracy. There have been a couple goals in the past two seasons that have just been mesmerizing to watch. He can find an open corner in the net from anywhere in the offensive zone. This is one of my favorite goals so far this season

DeBrincat already has 45 goals. He has a knack for scoring and has tons of confidence with the puck on his stick. He is extremely talented at cutting to the middle in the high slot and using the defender as a screen. He also has a rocket of a one-timer that can be a weapon on power plays for many years to come. What’s even more exciting is that the recent Nick Schmaltz trade got Dylan Strome in return, giving DeBrincat an old buddy and former linemate from his OHL team, the Erie Otters.

Strome and DeBrincat have substantial chemistry and it shows every time they are on the ice together. Some games they are split up to provide more depth, but when they get a chance to play together, it is fun to watch.

DeBrincat is definitely a member of our young core going forward. I am looking forward to his development and his stardom to evolve and prosper in Chicago.

4. These are two teams that still have big pieces in place from the 2013 Final. Are guys like Kane, Toews and Keith still as effective as they were, or has age caught up to them?

Kane is a top ten player in the NHL and will probably stay in that list for a couple more years. His hands, touch, hockey IQ, scoring ability, passing, and ability to lift opponent’s sticks are off the charts. he is not slowing down anytime soon.

Toews had a couple low production years recently. In 2016-2017, Toews only had 21 goals and 58 points. In 2017-2018, he only had 20 goals and 52 points. Both of these years were very uncharacteristic of Toews, who usually is good for 25+ goals and 65+ points. He changed up his off-season training, got back to focusing on skills and speed, and so far this season, Toews has been on fire. In the first 6 games of the year, Toews had five goals, which includes a hat trick, and five assists. Fans were once again awe-struck by the dominance of Toews that we were used to seeing for so long. He is on pace for 34 goals and 68 points, which will put him one point shy from his career best during 2008-2009 season. Toews is absolutely having a solid resurrecting season and it is very refreshing for fans to watch.

Keith has slowed down a bit. All the minutes he has played over the past decade have definitely taken a toll on him. He is making an occasional uncharacteristic turnover, misses a check that causes an odd man break the other way, pinches when he should not, and just cannot seem to find the back of the net anymore like he used to. Keith is still a top-2 defenseman and a premier option on the back end for most teams.

However, there has been some regression in his game over the past two years. He just hit the 1,000 game mark in early October and is not a UFA until after the 2022-2023 season. He has a handful of years left in those legs and he will be used as mentor, just like Seabrook, for all of the high-end defensive prospects the Hawks have coming up in their system.

Kane, Toews, and Keith will most likely be Hall of Famers when their reigns in Chicago end. We are incredibly lucky to get to watch them on a nightly basis. I’m looking forward to the statues and banners that will be made for these Hawk legends.

5. What’s one thing about this Blackhawks team that may surprise opposing fans?

I think the ineffectiveness on the power play will surprise most opposing fans. Right now, the Hawks rank 29th in power-play with a dismal 13% conversion rate. For most of the year, they sat in dead last.

Most opposing fans will look at the stats and be a bit perplexed. How could a team with names like Toews, Kane, DeBrincat, Keith, Seabrook, and Saad be this unsuccessful on the man advantage? Coach Colliton has been optimizing the power play in practice over the past month, and recently it is starting it pay dividends.

However, it is still a rarity to watch a Blackhawk power play that has shots on goal and significant zone time. The majority of time, the power play is just a momentum builder for the other team. Opposing fans should keep an eye on the power play conversion rate for the Hawks over the year and see if it substantially rises. The goal should be to get back to just below 20%. It is starting to click, so hopefully the Hawks will get a chance to convert during the Winter Classic