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The Blackhawks Need to Develop A "Killer Instinct"

Mario Tirabassi Avatar
November 10, 2023

No one expects the Chicago Blackhawks to be contending for anything this season. That has been clear since well before the puck dropped on the 2023-24 season in Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t exclude the team from needing to develop characteristics and tendencies, especially among the young players who expect to be part of the next contending core, that will translate year-over-year into sustained success. One such trait that head coach Luke Richardson has been stressing to his team and young players specifically this past week has been developing a “killer instinct” when it comes to goal production.

Chicago has one player as part of their next contending core that has that instinct and ability in Connor Bedard. He’s not someone to really worry about at this point. But he cannot be the only player with that ability and drive to want to be the goal-scorer on the team. If you look back at the Championship Blackhawks of the 2010’s, there were plenty of players that had that instinct from Patrick Sharp to Patrick Kane to Jonathan Toews to Marian Hossa to Alex DeBrincat and so on down the list. It’s not just about being able to score goals and shoot the puck at a high level. It’s about being willing to do whatever it takes to score goals in a league where the pretty goals are nice, but few and far between.

With the young group of players in the Blackhawks system like Bedard, Lukas Reichel, Philipp Kurashev, Frank Nazar, Oliver Moore, Colton Dach, etc., there needs to be a group of them that emerge to have that kind of mentality if Chicago is going to be able to keep up in a high-scoring era of the NHL. But can that “killer instinct” when it comes to scoring be taught to players, or is it just a part of a hockey player’s DNA?

“I think it’s up to the player to find it,” Richardson said on Wednesday before the Blackhawks left for their Florida road trip. “We show them examples from games to be aggressive and proactive. We want to keep our feet moving and thinking shoot first on two-on-ones, two-on-twos, and line rushes. If the defense reacts to you and opens up, there might be a time to pass. But if you’re stopping your feet and trying to wait-out the defense, it’ll usually get closed off.”

A veteran in the locker room, a former Stanley Cup winner, a former 50-goal scorer, and a former league MVP, Corey Perry echoed the same sentiment about players needing to have it within them to strive to be great goal-scorers. “It’s a little bit of both. You can talk to players, tell them how to do it, where to go, what to do. But somebody has to be willing to go do it. You have to have that instinct. At the end of the day, if you want to score goals, you have to go to the front of the net. It’s not going to be pretty each and every night. That’s what we’re trying to get through here. Those pretty goals are going to have but if you look around the league, most goals come from within ten feet of the crease.”

To Perry’s point, the Blackhawks rank dead-last in the NHL this season in High-Danger Chances with 119 at all-strengths. They also rank in the bottom-five of the league in Chances-For (632, 31st), Shots-For (324, 31st), and Goals-For (31, t-27th).

But the 19-year vet also said that the young players in the locker room now have that ability to develop that instinct at this stage in their careers. “I believe in everybody in this room that can go do that. Sometimes when you don’t want to, you have to be willing to go there. It’s a matter of continuing to grind at it and put it in people’s heads that this is a tough league to score in.”

It translated in Thursday night’s game when we saw Kurashev and Bedard connect on the game’s first goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kurashev had a chance to cut to the front of the net from the corner and fed the puck across to Bedard, who was getting inside position on Victor Hedman for a net-front goal. These two working together over the past few games is giving me confidence that Kurashev could be another on the list of players for the future that can develop that “killer instinct.”

One that is concerning me as this season progresses is Lukas Reichel. We’ve seen his skillset at the NHL level before and a ton of it in the AHL over the past three seasons. But the player that Reichel has shown himself to be this season is a shell of what we all expected to see from him. He has just one point this season, a secondary assist, in 12 games played. At all-strengths this season, Reichel has created 32 individual Chances-For, 19 individual Scoring Chances-For, and nine individual High-Danger Chances-For. Those numbers all rank behind players like Ryan Donato, Nick Foligno, and a Tyler Johnson. It is early in the season still, but that is concerning.

Reichel himself knows that he needs to be more assertive with the puck this season. “Some guys just have that natural instinct and ability like [Auston] Matthews or [David] Pastrnak. It’s just more just like getting it into our heads, me included, to have that mentality to shoot when there’s a 50-50 play or on a two-on-one, if the defense plays it well, we want to shoot it instead of passing it and having nothing happen.”

I don’t know if Reichel is trying to defer offense too much or create for the players around him, but he hasn’t been playing too much this season with players who should be deferred to all that often. Reichel and Taylor Hall or Connor Bedard have not been paired together this season and the 2020 first-round pick should be the one getting offense deferred to him, not the other way around.

Luke Richardson spoke about the young players trying to be good teammates, even a little too much, this season as they get their footing in the NHL. “Everybody wants to be a good teammate and you think [the pass] is open, but nowadays one pebble on the ice and the puck bounces and you lose that great chance…Sometimes you get the ‘it’s Taylor Hall, I want to get him the puck’ or ‘it’s Corey Perry, I want to get him the puck,’ and it’s not the right time. They will call for it and demand it when it’s time. It’s a fast game in the NHL and things close quick. You got to have the determination when you have a little bit of space, you have to make something of it…We can show them the clips, but they have to correct themselves on the ice.”

So if the Blackhawks don’t have that player in their young group, besides Bedard, who has that instinct as part of their makeup, who can develop it? I think we are seeing early stages of Kurashev starting to become that kind of player.

Elsewhere in the system, Colton Dach could be a candidate to have that kind of mentality and willingness to go to the hard areas of the ice to score goals. He’ll need more time to acclimate to the professional game, but his tenacity and size give him the inside edge to become that kind of player. I see a bit of that in Landon Slaggert as well in his time at Notre Dame. He’s not likely going to be a dynamically skilled as Brandon Hagel, but he is that same kind of energy and hard-nosed style of forechecker. It would be nice to see that hard work translate at the professional level and create those gritty, greasy goals.

Frank Nazar and Oliver Moore also could have that mentality because of their speed. We’ve seen a player like Andreas Athanasiou drive to the net and get breakaway chances just from his footspeed. It would be amazing to see speedsters like Nazar and Moore do that same in the NHL someday, but with a more skilled finishing ability in their hands.

But that is all coming from a place of hope and wishing that these players can develop that instinct. One that seems to already have that goal-scorers mentality and kill instinct when it comes to goal production isn’t with any NHL team right now.

No, it’s not Phil Kessel. It’s Cole Eiserman.

Eiserman is currently the No. 2 ranked draft prospect in the 2024 NHL Draft Class behind only Macklin Celebrini. He plays for the U.S. National Team Development Program and is scoring at a pace that will likely see him surpass USNTDP elites like Kessel, Auston Matthews, Jack Hughes, and Cole Caufield when it comes to putting the puck in the back of the net.

From Steven Ellis of Daily Faceoff in his latest NHL Draft rankings on Eiserman, “Sorry, Cole Caufield. Eiserman’s coming for your scoring record. Featuring a release a la Phil Kessel and Auston Matthews, Eiserman should have no issue blasting past the USA Hockey National Team Development Program’s record of 72 goals in a season set by Caufield in 2018-19. Whether it be against USHL or NCAA competition, Eiserman’s tremendous shot has been one of the top highlights of the season. The Boston University commit can be caught watching a little too often, but there’s no question he’s a 50-goal threat in the NHL.”

Eiserman stands six-foot tall and 200-pounds as a 17-year-old right now and has 27 goals and 37 points in 19 combined games this season for the USNTDP, on pace for 83(!!) goals this season. The Blackhawks are going to be in the NHL draft lottery again this spring and will be picking high in the first round again this summer. There is a good chance it will be within the top-five or top-three picks. Cole Eiserman is a real possibility for the Blackhawks and could be that player, alongside Bedard, as a goal-scorer with that “killer instinct” in their hockey DNA.

Whether it’s developed, acquired, or drafted, the Blackhawks will need more players who will be a par of the future that have the ability and the “want to” to put the puck in the net by any means necessary. That’ll have to come from driving the net, playing within ten-feet of the crease, and having a willingness to be the one to say, ‘I’m that M-Fer that’s going to score.’ The more we end up seeing that from the young group, the more the contending picture for the future will become clear.

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