Breaking down Blackhawks’ neutral-zone attack against different structures

CALGARY, Alberta — The Blackhawks have experienced more offensive success transitioning through the neutral zone this season against teams with high-pressure structures than against teams with more passive structures.

It makes sense. The Hawks lack talent and chemistry, meaning they have a difficult time connecting enough passes to break down a well-organized trap. But the Hawks do employ some speedy forwards, so if given some space to skate, they can win races to get the puck over the blue line.

That contrast has been on vivid display recently. Last week against the Flyers’ aggressive 2-1-2 neutral-zone defense, the Hawks produced one of their best performances of the year.

But against the Kings’ tricky 1-3-1 formation on Sunday and the Canucks’ conservative 1-1-3 formation on Tuesday, the Hawks were thoroughly shut down.

“We play our best in the neutral [zone] when we don’t come back and set it up,” Patrick Kane said. “If we have forwards demanding the puck and getting speed — and they’re onside — our best option is to utilize that when [our opponent is] not set up and ready.”

Against the Flyers, Hawks coach Luke Richardson’s game plan worked to perfection. The plan involved one forward “posting up” in stationary position in the middle of the neutral zone while the other two forwards swung to the outside to build up speed.

The Hawks were consistently able — especially in the second period that night — to enter the zone cleanly on breakouts and regroups when their defensemen passed to the post-up guy, who tipped it over to one of the swinging wingers.

It worked for every line, too. At one point, the sequence went from Jake McCabe to Jason Dickinson to Andreas Athanasiou. The following shift, Ian Mitchell, MacKenzie Entwistle and Colin Blackwell executed it.

“[It] created a lot of offense for us,” Richardson said.

Against the Kings and Canucks, however, the Hawks committed turnovers on a fair number of their carry-in attempts and were therefore forced to dump the puck in more often.

Considering the Hawks are the NHL’s worst team at retrieving dump-ins, per All Three Zones, that proved rarely fruitful.

“We just had a lot of trouble [against L.A.], and it was [due to a] lack of energy and skating,” Richardson said. “[In Vancouver], it was just a lack of execution, whether it be getting it out of our zone cleanly or handling the puck in the neutral zone. We went offside a few times.

“You have to get even more simple when things aren’t going 100% perfectly. You’ve got to be one-touching out of your zone, one-touching in the neutral zone and playing [it] behind the other team. Tonight, we wanted to connect tape-to-tape, and it just wasn’t going tape-to-tape.”

There were a few bright spots against the Canucks. Sam Lafferty’s soft goal followed a legitimately good zone entry. Seth Jones’ ‘D’-to-‘D’ pass to McCabe caught the Canucks favoring the right side, giving Lafferty an easy carry-in on the left.

Minutes later, Jack Johnson tracked down a cleared puck and made a sooner-than-expected pass up to Kane just outside the blue line. The Canucks scrambled to get their three players back to “line up like a wall,” Richardson said, and Kane was able to find Dickinson cutting behind the wall for a scoring chance.

“Even [against] the teams that do trap up, if we can play a little faster [while] they’re trying to change somebody or set up their system, [that can help],” Richardson said.

Kane mentioned that creating an isolated two-on-one advantage against an outside defender in a 1-3-1 trap can also be an effective way to break it down.

But he believes the Hawks have struggled to attack bunkered-in neutral-zone defenses dating back to their 2017 playoff series against the Predators. And this year’s talent-lacking team hasn’t broken that pattern.

Numbers behind the story

Overall this season, the Hawks have carried the puck across the attacking blue line — rather than dumped it in — on just 43.4% of their offensive-zone entry attempts, per All Three Zones. That’s the second-lowest rate in the league.

That’s not inherently a bad thing if it’s intentional. The Hurricanes have the league’s lowest carry-in rate at 42.1%, for example, but lead the league by a mile in both forechecking pressures and recovered dump-ins. But for the Hawks, with their league-worst recovered dump-in rate, it’s suboptimal.

Four Hawks forwards have individual carry-in rates above the league average, per All Three Zones: Sam Lafferty (51.2%), Kane (56.8%), Athanasiou (65.8%) and Max Domi (70.0%). Athanasiou and Domi actually fall well within the league’s upper quartile in that regard.

On the other end of the spectrum, Reese Johnson carries the puck on just 23.1% of his attempts — which puts him bottom-20 league-wide — and Taylor Raddysh isn’t much higher at 26.9%. But Johnson and Raddysh unsurprisingly lead the team in recovered dump-ins, with now-injured Jujhar Khaira being the only other Hawk above league average in that regard.

Lafferty has been particularly effective in the neutral zone recently. In the Hawks’ win against the Blues (in between the Flyers and Kings matchups), he was almost singlehandedly responsible for their successful zone entries, especially early on. That ability could make him an attractive trade-deadline target for a contender.

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