Dissecting Alex DeBrincat’s slow start

Matthew Rago, Editor-in-Chief

Alex DeBrincat put the hockey world on notice last season with his sophomore 41-goal, 76-point campaign. You see, DeBrincat wasn’t supposed to light the lamp with the same regularity he enjoyed during his junior career. Sure, his timing is impeccable and his hands soft as butter, but according to the critics, he was just too small to compete on a regular basis in the NHL.

Standing only 5-foot-7, 165 pounds,  DeBrincat has made a career of proving the naysayers wrong. After a record-setting minors league career that saw DeBrincat become the first Erie Otter to record back-to-back 50-goal seasons, scouts opined that his success would not translate to the professional level. When you’re that small, scouts tend to overlook your competitive drive, relegating you to second-tier status.

Coming into the 2019-2020 NHL season, expectations were high for DeBrincat. The doubts that lingered after his 28-goal rookie season dissipated after his 41-goal effort. The critics were forced to concede defeat. This season, DeBrincat was expected to shoulder an increased offensive burden, tasked with helping lead a revamped Blackhawks’ roster back to postseason contention.

Instead, DeBrincat is laboring through a slow start to his third season, on pace for a career-low 19 goals and 52 points, the latter which would tie his rookie season point total. DeBrincat himself has acknowledged his ability to perform better, condemning a pattern of mental lapses that have led to uncharacteristic hesitancy and an absence of his trademark sure-handedness.

In a game of inches, the slightest hesitation can be the difference between a goal and an easy save for the opposing goaltender; an inch in one direction or the other can decide an entire game. So the slightest fumble on DeBrincat’s lethal one-timer or hesitation before unleashing his earmarked wristshot makes a monumental difference, which has been reflected in DeBrincat’s numbers.

While DeBrincat is on pace to surpass his shots on net total from 2018-2019, the Hawks’ right winger is only converting on only 8.3% on his shot attempts, a full 10.3 percentage points lower than his 18.6% conversation rate last season.  His 5-on-5 contributions have been nearly nonexistent, with DeBrincat only scoring four of his nine goals at even strength. While DeBrincat’s passing has improved–he’s on pace for a career high 37 assists–the Hawks desperately need DeBrincat to rediscover his scoring touch if they have any hopes of salvaging a tumultuous, injury-plagued season.

A deeper dive into DeBrincat’s advanced statistics show uniformity between this season and the previous two seasons. DeBrincat has had 50 shots blocked through his first 38 games, which puts him on pace for only 2 more blocked shot attempts than he had during the 2018-19 season. When DeBrincat is on the ice, the Blackhawks dictate the pace more often than not, as evidenced by his career highs both Corsi (57.2%) and Fenwick (55.9%) ratings. Furthermore, his shots per 60 minutes is a mere .1 higher than last season, with only a 17 second disparity in ice time between his 41-goal 2018-19 campaign and the 2019-20 season. In other words, the only noticeable difference is the rate at which DeBrincat is converting his scoring chances.

The chemistry enjoyed by DeBrincat and Dylan Strome manifested itself following a mid-season trade that sent Nick Schmaltz to the Arizona Coyotes. This season, that same camaraderie has been largely absent, resurfacing in glorious spells before fading away for extended periods of play, as evidenced by both DeBrincat and Strome trailing behind the near point-per-game output they offered last season.

Nevertheless, both DeBrincat and head coach Jeremy Colliton have expressed confidence in DeBrincat’s ability to rebound. In hockey, it only takes one goal to reverse a negative trajectory. With a streaky player like DeBrincat, it’s may be only a matter of time before he rediscovers his scoring touch.

While his doubters are tentatively reemerging following a laborious start, DeBrincat has erected an entire career of forcing the doubters back into the shadows.