Welcome to hockey season! I’m really glad it’s back. The NFL is in full swing, the MLB playoffs are on the horizon, NBA training camps kick off at the end of the month, but there is nothing like hockey in Chicago.
Last season was, well, weird to say the least. The Blackhawks failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. After being in five conference finals, and winning three Stanley Cups in the span of nine seasons, the Indianhead sweaters were packed up on the final day of the regular season.
This offseason, there was not a whole lot of action. General Manager Stan Bowman was able to get Marian Hossa’s contract off the books but did not do it without sweating the deal with fan favorite Vinny Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle to Arizona. The Blackhawks got Marcus Kruger back in the deal and the hope is he can return to the player he used to be in Chicago. After that, the Blackhawks signed three players once free agency began: Goalie Cam Ward, Defenseman Brandon Manning, and Forward Chris Kunitz. Not a big splash but Bowman and his staff have high hopes for their free agents. I’ll get into their impact on the team later in the piece.
As training camp kicks off Friday morning at MB Ice Arena on Jackson Blvd, there is a renewed focus. As Captain Johnathan Toews puts it, ” it was a learning experience for everyone to go through what we went through last year.”
The core is still here. Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, and Brandon Saad. Age is catching up on them( not Saad, he’s only 25), but there is plenty of optimism inside that locker room. A lot of pieces have to fall into place for the Blackhawks to make it back to the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference but no one is counting them out, yet.
So let’s get to the nitty-gritty. In this post, I’ll tell you how the Blackhawks can get back to the playoffs, and predict the opening night lines.
Getting back to the playoffs is the goal. Once you get in, anything can happen. Two years ago, the Nashville Predators, the 8th seed in the Western Conference, knocked off the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs. It was something no one saw coming. The Blackhawks had the third best record in the league and were a favorite to win their fourth Cup of the decade. But the Predators outplayed them in every aspect and sent the hockey world into shock.
The Blackhawks have an uphill battle if they want to be first in the central again this season, but Toews knows if you make the playoffs, anything can happen.
“It’s not only motivating, seeing how fast that play was and to have missed out on playoff hockey this year and to have the drive to get back there, but knowing if you do sneak into the playoffs it doesn’t matter. You can go a long way.” -Toews on watching the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs and not being apart of it.
Get in and you have a chance. Familiar saying right? We see upsets, and comebacks every year in the NHL. Why can’t the Blackhawks do that this season? That is the optimism the organization has going into camp. They know they are talented and this group has as much experience as any other contending team in the league. So why not us?
So how do the Blackhawks make it back to the playoffs? That is a very good question. A lot of things have to fall into place for Joel Quenneville’s men to get Stanley Cup Playoffs painted on the ice on Madison St come April.
First, Corey Crawford MUST be healthy. After Crawford went down last December, the Blackhawks fell apart. Until his exit, you could make the case that Crawford was the Blackhawks best player. In 27 games started, the 33-year old netminder went 16-9 with a .929 Save %. After being placed on the IR on December 1st, Crawford rejoined the team and was red hot. He won five straight games and allowed two goals or fewer in each appearance. His save percentage ranked 2nd in the league among goalies with at least 15 starts. The reasoning for being placed on IR for the second time? Upper-body injury. And since then, it has been a mystery of what Crawford has been dealing with.
In July at the Blackhawks convention, Crawford admitted he was not at 100% yet and people began to worry if he would be ready for the start of the season. But there was good news on Thursday as Scott Powers of The Athletic reported that Crawford is expected to be on the ice with his teammates at the start of camp.
Crawford is the backbone of this team. We saw firsthand what happened last season when Quenneville did not have a consistent goaltender. Between Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass, and JF Berube, it was not nearly enough to help the Blackhawks avoid missing the playoffs. Crawford needs to be healthy or this whole thing will fall apart.
It was not just the goaltending that led to the Blackhawks downfall and finishing last in the Central Divison. Toews, Saad, Keith, and Seabrook all had down years. Age caught up to the three-time champions(hopefully not to Saad). But the biggest question mark was Saad because only being 25, there is no reason why a player with his skill set should have had an underachieving year. But now they hit the reset button and all of these guys have to be on top of their game.
For Toews, it’s getting his offensive game back. He watched a lot of hockey this offseason and worked on changing his game. His defensive game was alive and well, but the lack of scoring really hurt the Blackhawks. Re-acquiring Saad was supposed to get Toews back to that elite level but it did not happen. Toews still managed to hit the 20 goal mark but it was not as impressive as past years. It starts with the captain. If Toews gets back to goal scoring machine during the Cup runs, the Blackhawks will be in business.
The same goes for Saad. After Bowman traded him away a few years ago, fans were not happy. He was added to the long list of cap casualties the Blackhawks have had to stomach since 2010. But Bowman got him back last season and traded Artemi Panarin to Columbus. Right away, fans were disappointed in losing one of the best young stars in the league. But Bowman was going for a long-term cost control playmaker. It was going to be tough to re-sign Panarin without making some serious changes. Saad is a way better defensive player and brought back a lot of experience on the biggest stage. Back to his play, the advanced metrics proved Saad was an effective player last season but everyone looks at the goal numbers. 18 goals are not going to do it. Saad has put in a lot of work this offseason and the Blackhawks are ready to see it pay off. If he and Toews can re-gain that connection they had in 2015, all bets are off.
Onto Keith and Seabrook, it was a miserable year for both. Keith managed just two goals and was a -29 on the year. It wasn’t pretty for the two-time Norris Trophy winner. And for Seabrook, he was a healthy scratch in Ottawa on January 9th. Unfamiliar territory for a playoff hero. It was a brutal year for the duo and it did not get any better. This offseason, it appears Seabrook has shed some weight in an effort to get back to an elite level. As for Keith, he’s been hard at work and is gearing up for a bounce-back year. I’m with those who say it was just a fluke year and Keith will be one of the NHL’s top defenseman next season.
If you have not caught on already, it starts with the core. You may have wondered why I did not mention Kane above? Well, number 88 was an All-Star last season and unlike the others, he has shown no signs of slowing down. He continues to be one of the best forwards in hockey and it does not look like that will change anytime soon. For Kane, it’s key for him to stick the course and be a playmaker for his young linemates.
Speaking of the youth, the Blackhawks are relying on their younger players to step up in a big way in order to have success. Nick Shmaltz, Dylan Sikura, Victor Ejdsell, John Hayden, and other like David Kampf and Matthew Highmore have a real shot to impact this team. Schmaltz is entering a contract year and if he really wants to cash in, he has to prove he can be a dynamic center. For the likes of Sikura and Ejdsell, they are going to have to grow up fast and be playmakers from the start. Both enjoyed plenty of success whether it was Ejdsell in Rockford or Sikura at Northeastern and the annual prospect tournament. Their offensive games are ready for the NHL. As for lower level guys like Hayden, Kampf, and Highmore, they will likely be slated to bottom six roles. They have the ability to score goals but will be asked to be defensive wonders.
Let’s shift to the newcomers for a bit. Ward, 34, signed a 1-year, $3M deal as free agency began. He has spent all of his career, 13 seasons, with the Carolina Hurricanes, posting a career .909 save percentage and a goal against average of 2.70. Bowman paid a premium price for Ward, but his track record is solid. While he may not be able to handle a full workload anymore, the Blackhawks hope they can have one of the best backups in the league.
Kunitz was an interesting move. After appearing in all 82 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, posting 13 goals and 16 assists, the Blackhawks signed the four-time Stanley Cup Champion to a one-year deal. Projected to be a bottom six player, Quenneville has said that Kunitz is someone who could move up and down the lineup. A 38-year old playing on the top line? We may see it multiple times this season. It’s a low risk, high reward type move.
Lastly, Manning, 28, was an interesting move. The former Flyer signed a two-year deal worth $2.25 AAV. A lot of money for a seventh defenseman right? Currently, that is the projection for Manning considering those ahead of him but who knows what will happen at camp. Manning is your traditional stay-at-home defenseman and could settle nicely into the lineup. He had a career year with the Flyers last season and Bowman is convinced he will fit. “Brandon has a bit of a different style than all of our defensemen, really. He’s got some physicality to his game. He’s sort of just coming into his own. He’s 28 years old, but his last season was his best year.” This may be one of the biggest storylines at camp.
There is another newcomer that is not a free agent but the Blackhawks first round pick from last year in Henri Jokiharju. The 19-year old Finnish defenseman will have a lot of eyes on him at camp and in the preseason as he attempts to crack Coach Q’s opening night roster. After a very successful season with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, 12 goals and 59 assists in 69 regular season games, Jokiharju will have his shot to crack the lineup. I’m really excited to watch him play in the coming weeks because all we have is mostly game highlights of the young star. Along with Crawford’s health, keep an eye on Jokiharju.
Alright, let’s project the lines and D-man pairings shall we.
DeBrincat- Schmaltz- Kane
Ejdsell- Anisimov- Kahun
This is what I think we will see to start the season. You are familiar with Erik Gustafsson and Jan Rutta, but you may not know about Dominik Kahun. The German forward signed an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks last April. He recorded 41 points in 42 regular season games last season with Red Bull EHC Munchen in Germany’s top league. The 23-year old also added 14 points in 17 playoff games. Impressive stuff. He’s got a legit shot to crack the roster and could move up in the ranks quickly.
There are guys like Artem Anisimov, Connor Murphy. Marcus Kruger, Alex DeBrincat that I did not touch on. We know who Anisimov is. He’s going to be a solid third line center and a front of the net presence on the power play. Murphy was awful last year. His advanced metrics were below average and he has a lot of work to do in camp to show the coaches he deserves a spot. Kruger should become the top penalty killer like old times and that would be huge for Toews who had those duties the past few years. And we all know DeBrincat or as his teammates call him “Brinsky”. His stellar rookie season and connection with Kane not only last season but this summer with Team USA and the Chicago Hockey league, he looks destined for another big season. And we know how much the Blackhawks need that.
So there you go. I attempted to cram an offseason, how the Blackhawks can be relevant again, projections, and more into one training camp primer. Hope you enjoyed it!
October 7th cannot come soon enough.