Blackhawks’ lost penalty advantage puts poor special teams under microscope

The Duncan Keith of past seasons wouldn’t have reacted to an unfortunate hit with the unbridled fury we saw against the Predators recently. The defenseman had been an embodiment of Joel Quenneville’s emphasis on aggressive play without crossing the line, providing a disciplined edge to a three-time Stanley Cup winner.

But when Keith had enough in Nashville, he lashed out en route to a career-high 29 penalty minutes and an ejection. The future Hall of Famer took a shot near the boards less than eight minutes into the game, followed Miikka Salomaki a few feet down the ice and dropped the gloves to try to give his team a jolt in an eventual loss.

That moment, while on the extreme side, provided a microcosm of one of the many problems that’s cropped up for the Blackhawks this season: They’re no longer crushing teams in penalty differential like before. It’s a big issue for a team that’s 31st on the power play and tied for 28th on the penalty kill.

During the Quenneville era, discipline had become a hallmark of the Hawks. From 2008-09 through the end of last season, they ranked among the league’s top four in both drawing penalties and avoiding them, according to Corsica Hockey.

The Hawks were plus-295 in penalty differential over that decade-long stretch – better than all but two teams in the league.

Even amid last season’s struggles, the team was second in the NHL with 43 more penalties drawn than recorded.

 

(Statistics for chart provided by Corsica Hockey)

Starting early this season, and continuing into the Jeremy Colliton era, that’s been flipped. Through 29 games, the Hawks have been busted 98 times while drawing 97 infractions. For the first time in more than a decade, this team is on pace for a negative penalty differential. At even strength, they’re even worse with a minus-16 differential.

Personnel changes can help explain part of the problem. Ryan Hartman, Tommy Wingels, Richard Panik, Lance Bouma and Anthony Duclair were among the Hawks’ leaders in drawing penalties last season. All five of them are gone, and replaced by a mix of veterans that’re too slow and rookies that’re too unpolished to force opponents into errors.

But the dissipation of an advantage the Hawks held for roughly a decade also reflects the larger issues that are plaguing the team. Penalties are often a sign of frustration or getting beaten by your opponent. The Hawks have had issues with both. They’ve let things snowball at times, which culminates in moments like Keith’s outburst in Nashville. Those moments didn’t happen often during the glory days.

The good news is the Hawks’ recent history shows they can do much better in this area. They’re still near even despite taking a big step back.

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