Final Report Card for the Chicago Blackhawks' 2013-14 Season
The defending Stanley Cup champions entered the 2013-14 season with only one objective: a repeat.
When the 'Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the team had been forced to endure draconian salary-cutting measures to keep it under the NHL salary cap. Consequently, much of the supporting cast was sent away and a pair of first-round exits followed.
This time, the story was different. Under the watch of general manager Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were in reasonably good fiscal shape and the 2013 championship crew was, with a few exceptions, kept intact.
Unfortunately, the dreams of a repeat were not to be realized, as Chicago fell in the Western Conference Final. Does that make the team's season a failure?
Read on to find out.
By any metric, the Chicago Blackhawks had no problems on the attack in 2013-14.
During the regular season, Chicago was one of just three teams to crack the barrier of 3.0 goals per game, coming in second in the league at 3.18. That figure dipped a little bit in the playoffs, but was still awfully impressive at 3.05.
At even strength, the Blackhawks benefited from a robust shooting percentage (8.4 percent, tied for fifth in the NHL), but also excelled in shot metrics, finishing in the top five regardless of whether one uses plain shots, unblocked shots or all shot attempts.
At the individual level, Chicago got exceptional seasons from the quartet of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, while defenceman Duncan Keith finished second among NHL rearguards in points with 61.
The only real negatives here are some individually disappointing regular seasons—Bryan Bickell, we're looking at you—and the difficulty in finding an effective second-line centre, which Chicago addressed in the postseason by using Andrew Shaw in the role.
Final Grade: A+
Chicago finished the 2013-14 regular season ranked a mediocre 12th in the NHL in goals against, with 2.58 per game, and that figure ballooned to 2.90 in the postseason. Was it the fault of the team's skaters?
Looking at the shot metrics, the answer would appear to be "No." The Blackhawks were a top-four team during the regular season in even-strength shots against, a top-three team in shot attempts against and a top-four team in unblocked shot attempts against.
Positionally, all five regulars on the blue line—Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank rotated in the No. 6 slot—posted at least 15 points and a double-digit plus/minus on the positive side, though everyone—other than perhaps Duncan Keith—had rough moments at some point over the postseason.
Chicago also boasts a forward core that plays an honest defensive game.
Jonathan Toews is one of three finalists for the Selke Trophy and everyone from Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa to Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger thrives at protecting his own end of the rink.
Final Grade: A-
The Blackhawks could have had a better year in net.
His playoff numbers, while initially good, eventually settled in at the 0.912 mark after a disastrous third round—he allowed three-plus goals in six of seven games and registered a 0.878 save percentage.
But if Crawford was merely adequate, the backups were a disaster.
Nikolai Khabibulin, the veteran signed over the summer to fill the No. 2 slot, lasted all of four starts, posting a 0.811 save percentage before finally going on injured reserve to stay.
Rookie Antti Raanta, in his first North American season, started strongly but collapsed in the new year, posting a sub-0.900 save percentage over the course of the campaign. Tellingly, Chicago's coaching staff never turned to him in the playoffs—even as Crawford imploded.
Overall, Chicago's save percentage at even strength over the full season was a woeful 0.913, 25th in the NHL.
For the sake of perspective, Edmonton—a team that burned through the first three goalies it used in 2013-14—managed a 0.912.
Final Grade: F
Despite what at first glance looks like a stunningly mediocre special teams performance, the Blackhawks were pretty good during the regular season in those situations.
Sure, the team just barely squeaked into the top 10 with a power-play efficiency of 19.5 percent and the penalty kill was easily in the bottom half of the league at 81.4 percent, but those aren't the figures that really matter.
What really matters is goal differential.
Adding in all the goals scored for and against while on the power play and on the penalty kill, Chicago finished the regular season plus-seven, which was the eighth-best result in the NHL.
Final Grade: B+
Joel Quenneville is one of the best in the business, though as the Daily Herald's Bob Verdi shows—with a lot of help from Chicago assistant coach Mike Kitchen—the love-in with him can go too far at times:
Mike Kitchen, the Blackhawks' assistant coach, says Quenneville is "the No. 99 of his profession … Like Wayne Gretzky, he misses nothing." The Great One did not just react, he anticipated. Everybody knew where the puck was; Gretzky knew where it was going. Quenneville seems to possess that extra gear. Your financial advisor should be so prescient at picking stocks.
Quenneville and his staff know their business, and made (many) more right moves than wrong ones, but there were still some curious decisions.
We might question, for example, the decision to dress Sheldon Brookbank in Game 6 against Los Angeles, or the curious reliance on players like Michal Handzus, Brandon Bollig and Kris Versteeg while Jeremy Morin sat unused.
Still, that's quibbling. Quenneville's team was a possession monster that thoroughly dominated at every position save in net, and the coaching staff deserves credit for that.
Final Grade: A
While we've looked at a lot in this brief overview of the Blackhawks' 2013-14 campaign, we still haven't touched on the question posed in the introduction: Was it a success or a failure?
On one level, failure is the only answer—an answer that fits 28 NHL teams presently and will describe 29 before all is said and done. Players don't play, and fans don't watch, for the sake of bowing out honourably to an excellent opponent in the third round.
Everybody's goal is the Stanley Cup.
But in a 30-team league, a Stanley Cup-or-nothing approach is an awfully stupid way to judge a hockey team. Back in the Original Six days, it might have been fair. In this age, any team that even plays in the conference finals is doing as much as those early champions did.
One bounce would have been the difference between the Blackhawks playing as favourites in the Stanley Cup Final and what actually happened. It went the wrong way, but that doesn't make the team's season a failure.
Final Grade: A-
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.