It was built up to be something of a renaissance season for the Chicago Blackhawks.
In addition to welcoming their captain, Jonathan Toews, back into the fold after months spent addressing health issues, Chicago made two of the highest-profile acquisitions all offseason, landing Seth Jones and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury in separate deals with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Vegas Golden Knights, respectively. Combined, the three are earning just short of $23 million, and Jones signed an extension that will make him one of the most profitable defenders in the league beginning next season, bumping that value up another couple million.
Be it real value or perceived value, the expectation inside the organization was that the three would provide a lift.
Instead, the franchise has sunk like a stone to start.
It’s been an alarmingly poor start for Chicago, which fell to 0-3-1 on Tuesday night following a 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders. Only the Montreal Canadiens are off to a worse start this season, at least by record, having dropped their first four games in regulation.
In Montreal, though, there’s at least a valid excuse. In some ways — foremost being dollar value — the Canadiens lost the equivalent of what Chicago was able to add. Seeing Shea Weber and Philip Danault depart, and starting the season without Carey Price, the Canadiens are playing without the three most important players from that unexpected run to the NHL’s championship series.
The Blackhawks are also different from Montreal in that they have yet to hold a lead at any point this season, and that their issues aren’t in large part connected to special teams.
So let’s not let that Montreal bagel distract from the point: Chicago’s start has been the NHL’s worst.
The numbers for this group are staggeringly bad.
The Blackhawks have been out-scored 15-3 at five-on-five through four games, and only the expansion Seattle Kraken, who have played one more game, have allowed more goals overall.
No team has spent more time trailing than Chicago, which has been chasing the game 65 percent of the way through after giving up goals in the first minute twice already. The Blackhawks have trailed by multiple goals in each game so far. Score effects, however, have not applied to Chicago, who despite all that multi-goal trailing, has a 43.4 percent share of targeted shots, 37 percent share of expected goals, and 10 even-strength goals against while playing from behind.
The only saving grace so far, really, is that they haven’t given up much of anything while on the penalty kill, mercifully surviving their first 18-plus shorthanded minutes.
Fleury has been on the hook for 12 goals in his three starts, but examining the work of their No. 1 offseason priority, and one of three players already named to the U.S. Olympic team, Jones, provides a more accurate window into the Blackhawks’ struggles.
Chicago was severely out-shot, out-chanced, and out-scored with its new No. 1 defender on the ice in the first three games before a bounce-back individual performance from an analytical perspective on Tuesday versus the Islanders. Jones still added to his personal negative on-ice goal differential in the game, with the Blackhawks now being out-scored 5-0 at even strength with him on the ice, but it should be noted that his overlap with Islanders star Mathew Barzal was minimal in the contest. Seven Islanders forwards had more head-to-head ice versus Jones than Barzal, with Chicago head coach Jeremy Colliton controlling last change for the first time all season.
Chicago seemed desperate to take a step forward this season, to bridge the gap between old and new in order to qualify for the postseason for the first time, on merit, in five seasons.
There is still time to turn things around, but it seems the Blackhawks are already facing a critical stretch, having more questions than answers originate from the first week of the NHL season.
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