In one sense, the Blackhawks exceeded expectations by picking up two wins on their season-opening five-game trip.
They were the underdogs in all five games, four of which were home openers for their opponents. Entering the trip, it was easy to imagine them losing all five.
By spoiling opening night for the Penguins and putting together an impressive team performance against the Maple Leafs, the Hawks cleared that bar, even though a respectable loss to the Bruins and uglier losses to the Canadiens and Avalanche sandwiched those wins.
In another sense, though, the Hawks failed to accomplish their locker-room goal of finishing the trip above .500.
They enter another brutal matchup against the Golden Knights in their home opener Saturday with a 2-3-0 record, coming off an awful performance Thursday in Colorado.
So the Hawks’ results have been a mixed bag of encouraging and concerning trends. Here are five takeaways from the trip:
Bedard learning over time
Connor Bedard deserved more than one goal and two assists out of the first four games. He was unlucky that a couple more of his 20 shots on goal and 28 scoring chances didn’t go in, and his awareness of that made him feel optimistic heading into Colorado.
But then the Hawks’ 18-year-old star endured the first moxie-testing game of his career. He couldn’t find a way to get anything going offensively — he was held without a shot — and Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon overwhelmed him defensively. After a third-period power play went to waste, he punched the bench in frustration.
But it’ll be important to keep a big-picture perspective when assessing Bedard this season. He’s experiencing so many things for the first time. On Thursday, for example, it was his first game at altitude — and also his first game without his parents present. As five games turn into 15 and 50 and 82, he’ll be expected to improve, but five games are only five games.
Plus, he hasn’t even played poorly, all things considered. He still ranks second in the NHL in scoring chances (as of Friday), and he’s still only one point shy of Corey Perry for the Hawks’ scoring lead. He must adjust to take shots closer to the net, for one thing, but there’s nothing suggesting he won’t be able to make those adjustments.
“He’s getting a good dose of learning, right?” veteran Nick Foligno said. “We all are, not just him. I think he’s understanding how hard this league is, and he’s still up to the task. He’s a great player; he’s going to learn.”
Same for other youngsters
The most worrying Hawks stat is Lukas Reichel remaining stuck on zero points. It was a disappointing trip for him; the Hawks were outscored 3-0 and outshot 45-23 during his five-on-five ice time. The struggles seemed to be affecting his confidence against the Avs as he passed up several decent shooting opportunities.
But the aforementioned small-sample-size caveat applies to Reichel, too, and the Hawks probably figured there would be a long adjustment period for him while trying to prove he can play center full-time. They’re going to give him months, not weeks, to prove that.
Meanwhile, the three rookie defensemen — Alex Vlasic, Kevin Korchinski and Wyatt Kaiser — can feel pretty good about how they’ve fared.
Vlasic’s outstanding performance in Toronto, even though it preceded a much rougher performance in Colorado, resolved any doubts about his potential to be a shutdown top-pairing defenseman for years to come.
Korchinski hasn’t generated much of his signature offensive production and Kaiser has been handicapped by playing alongside struggling veteran Nikita Zaitsev the last two games, but they haven’t made too many mistakes, either.
The goalie tandem of Petr Mrazek and Arvid Soderblom always seemed likely to exceed expectations, considering their poor overall stats last season despite both improving significantly from fall to spring.
But nobody could’ve predicted they would come home from the opening trip with a collective .935 save percentage and plus-2.57 GSAA. Mrazek started three games and Soderblom two — and in every one of those games, they were among the Hawks’ best players.
Maintaining that save percentage will be impossible, but even league-average goaltending over the course of the season would provide a great security blanket for the Hawks. That would keep them competitive in more games, giving their youngsters more learning opportunities in high-leverage moments, and also affirm management’s faith in Soderblom’s upside as a long-term starter.
Powerless power play
If Reichel’s goose egg isn’t the most worrisome Hawks stat right now, then the power play sitting at 1-for-22 — with two shorthanded goals allowed — takes the cake.
Defenseman Seth Jones, halfway through a question Thursday about the power-play issues, interjected with his descriptive adjective of choice: abysmal.
“I don’t know if we’re moving the puck fast enough,” Jones said. “[Our] breakouts are a little iffy; maybe we have to work on that a little bit more, as well.
“But we have to stick together. We have to do that as a unit. We can’t go off [as] one man and think you can beat all four guys. It’s too good of a league, so that’s not going to work. [We need to] just move the puck and shoot the puck a little bit more. Faceoffs are killing us a little bit, too. We’re not starting with the puck very much.”
The Hawks rank 22nd in scoring chances produced per minute on the power play, so they’ve actually been slightly less hapless than their 4.5% conversion rate suggests.
Still, Jones hit on a number of glaring issues: turnovers on zone entries, lack of cohesion and strategic puck movement in the offensive zone and woeful faceoff results, a category in which the Hawks rank last in the league at 35.9%.
During five-on-five play, however, Jones has been excellent. He’s handling a bigger workload than last season (25:10 average ice time) alongside a rookie partner (Vlasic) yet playing some of the soundest defense of his Chicago tenure.
“His game just excelled the second half of last year, and he came into camp really confident,” coach Luke Richardson said. “With Vlasic, [they’re] realizing the ground they can cover. They’re really working well off each other defensively, staying on their feet and using their reach, their range and their foot speed.”
It will be interesting to see if Richardson alters — or doesn’t alter — his usage of Jones’ top pair and Bedard’s top line now that the Hawks are finally at home, giving them the last-change advantage.