We are officially one week into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and they have NOT disappointed. The speed, the physicality, the skill, the hate boiling over after whistles and after games. You’re sleep deprived, you’re constantly flipping channels between games and scrolling through twitter to make sure didn’t miss anything. It’s exhausting, it’s beautiful, its fun. There’s only been one thing missing…The Chicago Blackhawks.
As great as it has been sitting back and watching, you don’t get the same rush as when it’s your team involved. You’re not as glued to the tv. Sometimes you’ll even get up to piss during the game. The NHL Playoffs are a drug. And not having your team in it is like when you hear about someone who went to rehab for heroine, but he’s clean now…he just smokes weed. You’re still getting high and its fun, but it’s not the same thing. You’re butt doesn’t clench up on every shot against in OT, you don’t need to remind yourself to breathe, you don’t nevous eat(I just regular eat).
I need the Blackhawks playoff drug again. I need it so bad I’ve got the shakes. So naturally the question is…Can they get back there? The 2017-18 season was an absolute disaster and the team only got worse as the season went along. The Hawks were in a playoff spot on January 11th, and now they’re counting lottery balls. The way I see it there are five big questions/hurdles for the Blackhawks in their attempt to get back in the dance.
1. Corey Crawford
Every discussion about the Blackhawks return to relavency begins with Corey Crawford. One of the best goalies in the world and after the way the season went you could argue that Crawford has been the MVP of the team the past 3 seasons. He covers a lot of mistakes by a team with bad defense, and allows guys to play with confidence. His absense created a ripple effect through the entire team. Guys were apprehensive to hold on to the puck, make plays, and take chances because they knew that mistakes = goals…which leads to even more mistakes and turnovers and loss of possession. The Blackhawks have been very cryptic about what is actually the problem with Crawford. While Joel and Stan said they expect him to be back next year, I don’t think that’s a lock by any stretch. And if Crawford isn’t back or isn’t that Vezina level goalie we’ve seen since 2014 then you can forget about the Blackhawks being a top team next year.
The flip side is…if he were healthy this year the Blackhawks might have been a playoff team in 2017-18. The Hawks were 16-9-2 with Crawford in the lineup this year and played their best hockey of the season for that stretch from mid-November until mid-December. If he’s back, then the Hawks aren’t too far off.
2. The Defense
Those two have been the rock upon which a dynasty was built, and they aren’t going anywhere. Both guys saw a decline in their performance last year. No doubt. Some of that is age and wear and tear, some of it is just playing tight because the goaltending was so bad. I think that was definitely the case for Duncan Keith. Obviously I’m not a scout, but when I watch Duncan Keith skate he still looks like the same player to me. Move fast and efficiently. His mistakes seemed more mental. Bad plays with the puck. Bad reads. Turnovers. He may not be a Norris type guy anymore but he is absolutely a top 4 Dman in the NHL and probably still good enough to be a top pair guy.
Seabrook…if you talk to guys around the team and the league they’ll tell you that Seabs was probably still the Hawks second best defenseman last year. That might be true…if that is true that’s a HUGE problem because Seabrook, unlike Keith, is NOT a top 4 defenseman anymore. He can still provide some 3rd pair and special teams value, but the team needs to put him in a better position to succeed. He can’t do that if he’s the 2nd best defenseman. Which means the Blackhawks need to add 3-4 guys who are better than Seabrook this summer. That is no small task.
The Blackhawks are currently locked into 4 defensemen besides Keith and Seabrook for next year.
Jan Rutta, right shot, 1 year $2.3M AAV
Connor Murphy, right shot, 4 years $3.85M AAV
Erik Gustafsson, left shot, 2 years $1.2M AAV
Jordan Oesterle, left shot, 1 year $650k
I’ve said in previous blogs that Stan Bowman has lost his fucking mind if he thinks this group will be good enough to take the Blackhawks back to the contender level status. I think re-signing Rutta AND Gustafsson to significant raises was the height of stupidity. You already have Seabrook who needs some sheltering and those 4 guys above…they need some sheltering too. All of them had moments during the year where they looked okay. Moments when they looked like guys you wouldn’t mind having in your third pair if your top 4 was a dominant top 4 like the Hawks used to have. As things currently stand this is not a playoff caliber group.
Which makes me think that Stan has NO intention of starting the season with all 6 of these defensemen currently on the roster. I think it’s entirely possible that Stan re-signed Rutta and Gustafsson to play the same card he played with Panarin last off-season. Extensions = options. Maybe Stan can flip one or both of these guys for other assets instead of losing them for absolutely nothing. Credit to Stan for not giving them full no-trade clauses. I’m sure that was hard for him.
The other part of the Defense equation is that the Blackhawks have some young guys who appear ready to take the next step and be regular NHLers. Gustav Forsling spent the majority of the year in Rockford, but there was a stretch in the first part of the season where Forsling was unquestionably the Blackhawks best defenseman. He’s turning 22 this summer and you’d have to think he’s close to being ready for full-time NHL duty, if he isn’t already. Then, you have 2017 1st round pick, Henri Jokiharju. Jokiharju had a MONSTER season with the WHL and had a really nice tournament for Finland in the WJC. He might play for Finland in the Worlds this summer too. Its a BIG jump to go from Canadian Major Junior to the NHL, but Jokiharju is the epitome of the modern NHL defenseman. Great skater, really good vision, and highly skilled. If nothing else, Jokiharju would help the PP. I’m not saying Jokiharju is absolutely ready, he’s probably not, BUT…as it stands right now its not even really an option to have him on the team even if he is one of the Hawks 6 best defensemen. More and more young D are playing in the modern NHL. Samuel Girard for the Avs, Sergachev for Tampa, etc etc. The Blackhawks have also signed Blake Hillman who looked very comfortable in the NHL at the end of the season, and Dennis Gilbert who was a defensive standout for Notre Dame. Bowman also said that they plan to sign Ian Mitchell out of Denver after his sophomore season and insert him into the lineup. They’ll probably do the same thing with Chad Krys at BU. They also have two first round picks so I’d assume they’d pick a Dman with at least one of those picks. The cavalry is coming on defense. If they can find two truly impact players out of the Hillman, Jokiharju, Gilbert, Mitchell, Forsling, and Krys group then they’ll be in good shape. The problem is that it’s likely none of them are ready for major duty next season. Having said that, you at least need to have the option to let Jokijarju, Hillman, and Forsling win NHL jobs if they’re the best options to help you win.
So…my point is that I think Stan will find a dance partner for either Murphy, Rutta, or Gustafsson. If I could only take one of the 3 it would be Murphy. I think every NHL team needs a guy like him and nobody else on the Hawks or even really in the system(save for Gilbert) plays like him. I think in year 2 in this system, a summer working on some puck skills, and security of having Crawford in net will reall benefit Murphy.
3. Further Development of Forwards
The Hawks got younger in a hurry this past season and the future looks bright up front. Alex DeBrincat led the team in goals with 28 and you can probably pencil him in for 30+ goals a year for the rest of his life. Schmaltz had a nice year. He has star potential if he matures a bit and plays through the middle with speed more consistently. Hinostroza is a dynamic player with the puck because of his speed and quickness. As he continues to get stronger and get more ice he will be a player. Then you’ve got Dylan Sikura who looks like he was born to play with DeBrincat, and John Hayden who brings that physicality which has been missing from the team. Its a really good young core of players which could get even better if the Hawks add someone like Tkachuk or Wahlstrom in the draft(Wahlstrom ETA would probably be 2019-20 though). There’s a lot to like with this group. One thing that needs to change though…these guys need to become leaders of the team. With the past Cup winning teams, the role players like Ladd, Versteeg, Byfuglien, Brouwer, Bickell, etc…those guys took ownership of the team. There was a level of accountability with those guys. They weren’t wallflowers. Most of the guys I listed above aren’t going to be rookies anymore. They don’t need to defer to the veterans. It’s just as much their team as it is anyone else’s and they need to prepare, play, and act as such. That’s something that will take this team back to where it wants to be. We’ve seen it in Boston with DeBrusk, McAvoy, Carlo, Heinen, etc. They’re a big part of the team dynamic in more ways than just on the ice. It’s time for this young Hawks core to do the same.
4. Bounce-Back Years From “The Core”
When the Blackhawks have been great they’ve been a deep team that gets production up and down their lineup. The past several seasons they’ve been a two line team at best, and most of the time it’s really just been the Kane line producing with any level of consistency. There’s hope for an increase of secondary scoring coming from the likes of DeBrincat, Schmaltz, Hinostroza, Sikura, and Hayden as I said above, but the Hawks need 19 and 20 to produce like we have seen in the past if they’re going to be an elite team again.
I’m getting a little tired of people, Stan Bowman included, pointing out that Brandon Saad’s “underlying data” was actually very good and he just had an unlucky year. Saad does somethings very well. Powerful skater, responsible defensively, and he’s good on the wall. Saad ranked 12th in scoring chances per 60. That’s better than Connor McDavid who ranked 13th. It also makes me question the definition of scoring chances or high danger chances. There were very few times this year where Saad felt like he was an impact player. There is an element of puck-luck involved and his shooting% was a career-low 7.6%. Is his shooting% low because he was unlucky or was it low because he took more low-percentage shots than in previous years. The other factor with these “scoring chances per 60″ are created equal because Saad simply isn’t as skilled or as dangerous with the puck in those “scoring areas” as those guys. In fact, in all situations Saad ranked 43rd in slot-shot attempts, 42nd in slot shots on net, and 33rd in inner slot shots on net”. Not terrible, but that definitely sheds a little light on the whole 12th in scoring chances per 60 stat. Brandon Saad needs to live in between the dots. He doesn’t have an elite shot. He’s paid to go to the net and create space and chaos for others. I’d like to see him do that more. Put your shoulder down, use that speed and strength to carry the puck to the net. And if he does then I think he will be rewarded with more goals, and a higher shooting percentage and he won’t have to worry about being on the wrong side of one of the more lopsided trades we’ve seen in sometime.
And if Saad does that, it’ll obviously have an impact on Jonathan Toews. His numbers will also look better, but Toews needs to be better on his own as well. When he was at his peak he really carried the mail, created for others, and dominated over the entire 200 ft. He’s more or less an after-thought offensively now and sometimes it seems like the fire just isn’t there. It’ll be interesting to see how Toews comes back next season. He no longer carries that “Captain Serious” tag and doesn’t seem to drag his teammates to victory like he would in the past. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your values. I can’t imagine Toews has liked the way he’s played the past 2-3 years. Maybe he will reexamine what he does now vs what he did back when he was considered a top 5 player in the world. If he can rediscover himself then the Blackhawks can win another Cup. We’ve seen Kopitar and Eric Staal return to elite form after down years in their late 20s. Toews is capable of doing the same.
5. Special Teams
Corey Crawford coming back is probably enough to lift the penalty kill from being ranked 20th to atleast being in the top 15. The Power-play stinks, the 1-3-1 stinks, and the Blackhawks stink at running the 131. How a team with Kane, Schmaltz, DeBrincat, Toews, Saad, etc can have a powerplay that’s ranked 28th in the league is beyond me. My thoughts on the PP are essentially the same as they were when I wrote this blog
So after 2300 words…can the Blackhawks get back in the playoffs? Ummm I don’t know. They need a lot of things to go right this summer and they absolutely need Crawford to come back and be himself. My gut says many of the issues I outlined above will be corrected. I think the Hawks can make the playoffs, but they’re a long way away from being a true contender because of their problems on defense. If they can’t correct that by the time Kane and Toews are officially passed their prime and when they start having to pay guys like Schmaltz and DeBrincat, then the window is officially closed on a 4th Cup. I’m still holding out hope that this will all come together in the next 24 months and the Blackhawks will make one last deep Stanley Cup run and the Dynasty will Reign.