Predicting Which Chicago Blackhawks Players Will Have Best Plus-Minus in 2014-15
The Chicago Blackhawks are usually a team that dominates on the scoreboard and in puck possession, and their top players usually have impressive plus-minus numbers as the team plays confidently in the regular season.
Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were at the top of the Blackhawks' plus-minus ladder last year, but there have been some changes this year. While it seems likely that Toews and Keith will once again be among the team leaders, there may be some surprises.
By the way, don't look for Patrick Kane on this list. He finished at plus-seven last year, and that ranked just 12th among the Blackhawks. Through 22 games this season, Kane has a surprising minus-two mark, and that leaves him in a tie for 20th among Chicago's skaters.
Center Marcus Kruger
Marcus Kruger is largely known for his defensive proficiency and his ability to stay with his checks and maintain the proper positioning no matter which zone he is skating in.
He has some offensive talent, but he knows that his primary responsibilities are to play solid defensive hockey on five-on-five situations and when the Blackhawks are short-handed. Kruger and Ben Smith are often paired together when the Blackhawks are killing penalties, and the Blackhawks are the best in the league in that department. Opponents are failing to score on 90.6 percent of their power-play attempts.
Nevertheless, the 24-year-old appears to be an improved player from last year when he tallied eight goals and 20 assists and finished plus-eight for the season. He has scored three goals and six assists in 22 games and has a plus-two rating, which ties him for fifth on the Blackhawks.
The confident Kruger's plus-minus should improve as the Blackhawks pick up their goal-scoring efforts over the final 60 games of the season.
Best Previous Plus-Minus Mark: Plus-11 (2011-12)
Defenseman Duncan Keith
It would be a shocker if the two-time Norris Trophy winner was not among the top five Blackhawks in plus-minus by the end of the regular season.
Duncan Keith is an outstanding skater and a superb puck-handler, and he is often in the middle of the attack when the Blackhawks need a goal at the most crucial point in the game. He scored six goals and 55 assists last year and had a plus-22 rating.
This year he has already scored five goals and added nine assists and is tied for fifth on the team with a plus-two rating. Keith figures to pick that up as the season moves along. He will once again be among the team leaders.
One of the keys is the Blackhawks' defensive depth, because the more quality defensemen the Blackhawks can use, the less fatigued a star like Keith will be as the season progresses.
“You need that depth defensively, especially if you’re going to make a good run in the playoffs,” he told Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News. “You need a lot of good defensemen who can step in at key times and fill a void if need be.”
Best Previous Plus-Minus Mark: Plus-33 (2008-09)
Forward Kris Versteeg
The Blackhawks reacquired Kris Versteeg last year in a trade with the Florida Panthers, but he never found his consistency in 2013-14 as he was troubled by nagging injuries throughout much of the season. Versteeg scored 10 goals and had 19 assists in 63 games and finished with a plus-19 rating.
Versteeg had a tough time finding his skating legs and did not display the quickness that he had shown with the Blackhawks in his first stint with them from 2007 through 2010.
He missed the first four games of this season with a lower-body injury, but he returned ready to play. He has scored seven goals and seven assists in his first 18 games. He has a plus-five rating, which ranks second on the team.
It seems likely that Versteeg will continue to find his stride as long as he remains healthy. Head coach Joel Quenneville is playing him on the No. 2 line with Brad Richard and Patrick Kane, so opportunities to score should continue to pile up.
‘‘[Versteeg] gives us lots of options, plays left and right [wings], power play, penalty kill, important minutes—but his play will dictate that,’’ Quenneville told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this season.
Best Previous Plus-Minus Mark: Plus-21 (2011-12)
Center Jonathan Toews
The Chicago Blackhawks captain is the team's best all-around player and one of the most consistent centers in the league.
Jonathan Toews is on the ice in all situations, as Quenneville uses him on the power play and short-handed situations as well as in five-on-five situations.
Toews scored 28 goals and 40 assists last season and finished second in plus-minus with a plus-26 rating. He is off to a slow start in that category this season with a plus-two rating, but his past history shows that he will be at or near the top by the end of the season.
He plays with a hunger at all times, and he finds a way to gain possession of the puck in crucial situations to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
"He's a special player. Not too many players can do what he does," Quenneville said during last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. "His work ethic is contagious."
Best Previous Plus-Minus Mark: Plus-28 (2012-13)
Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson
Niklas Hjalmarsson may be the most underrated player on the Blackhawks.
That makes sense because the team is loaded with so many superstars. How is Hjalmarsson supposed to get any ink when the Blackhawks have Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa, and Patrick Sharp on the roster?
However, Quenneville uses Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya as his No. 1 defensive pairing against the opposition's top scoring lines. Hjalmarsson has been getting it done this year, as he has one goals and five assists and a team-best plus-eight rating.
That indicates he has made steady progress from last year, when he scored four goals and 22 assists while finishing with a plus-11 rating.
Hjalmarsson is smart, tough, reliable and consistent, and his plus-minus figures should only get better as the year continues.
General manager Stan Bowman recognized Hjalmarsson's value at the start of the 2013-14 season when he signed the defenseman to a five-year, $20.5 million contract.
"He does a lot of things other guys don't want to do—penalty killing, blocking shots, defending, keeping the puck out of the net," Bowman told Scott Powers of ESPN.com. "That's really important when we got a lot of guys who play different styles than that. I think he's a great complement.'
Best Previous Plus-Minus Mark: Plus-15 (2012-13)