Things have been a little out of whack for the Chicago Blackhawks lately. As the 2019-20 season unfolds, a new era of Blackhawks history is upon us under the direction of new head coach Jeremy Colliton. After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive season in 2018-19, their longest drought since Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews joined the team over a decade ago, it became clear that some things needed to change and some major weaknesses needed to be addressed. After losing the season opener 4-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague, it’s also clear that some of those same questions still persist despite a very busy offseason.
One of the weaknesses Stan Bowman addressed was the goalie situation. Blackhawks mainstay Corey Crawford has battled injuries the last two seasons which caused some unfortunate results. Bowman signed Robin Lehner as an insurance policy, which should help elevate Crawford’s play as well as give the Blackhawks a high-level replacement should something happen to him again. While the goalie problem tries to place itself in the rear-view mirror, there are still other problems the Blackhawks will need to monitor and iron out throughout the season to ensure their road back to the playoffs isn’t a rocky one.
Recurring Defensive Woes
Much of the Blackhawks’ recent struggles have begun at the back end. The defense just hasn’t been very good, including the season opener in Prague. A lot of this can be attributed to the regression of defensive stars Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but Bowman also hasn’t brought in much blue-line talent to help fill the gaps. Often getting out-skated by the opposition, the Chicago defense hasn’t provided much of a challenge in front of the net which also exacerbated the goalie situation during Crawford’s absences. Here’s what Bowman said regarding improving the defense at the end of the 2018-19 season.
‘‘There’s no question that we have to cut down on how many goals we give up,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘If we can find a way to upgrade our defensemen, we will. Even with the current group of guys, we’re looking for them to improve and to take a step forward. We did see signs of that as the year went on. But we need to be better,’’from, ‘Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman eyes defense in critical offseason,’ Chicago Sun-Times – 4/7/2019.
This season, the defense features the returns of Keith, Seabrook, Erik Gustafsson, and Connor Murphy. In addition to those four, Bowman also went out and acquired defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta. Both players, known for their ability to clog the lane and play defense-first hockey, should help shore up some of the team’s defensive problems overall. Unfortunately, the group still lacks speed and athleticism, as neither acquisition helps improve those areas, but at least they were able to check a few boxes. It’s going to be a smarter defense, but we’ll see if that’s enough to help minimize the open looks and scoring.
Winning the Physical Game
Teams have found a way to consistently use their size and strength to bully the Blackhawks. In a season when Kane scored 110 points, Toews scored 81, and Alex DeBrincat fired off 41 goals, earning himself a nice little contract, the team still struggled to win because they were getting beaten up on both sides of the puck and putting themselves in negative situations, including having the league’s worst penalty kill.
With teams like the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues winning the physical game, it has been hard for the Blackhawks to compete. This offseason, a premium was put on adding more of that gritty, physical element with the additions of de Haan, Maatta, a stronger, more mature Andrew Shaw, and Ryan Carpenter and Zack Smith for some penalty kill relief. Management made an effort to enlist some help, but is it enough to step up to their bullies and push back?
There’s no denying the Blackhawks’ high-end talent. Beyond their top forwards, however, there are a lot of question marks concerning production on both sides of the puck. During their more successful runs, Chicago has had a lot of help from their depth players. Players like Dave Bolland, Andrew Desjardins, Brent Sopel, and Johnny Oduya were critical to the team’s success, as they were able to give the Blackhawks a boost when they needed it most. Elite talent is always great to have, but it’s the bottom-six forwards, especially the fourth line and the third defensive pairing, that really need to step up and produce to truly make a difference throughout the season.
The Blackhawks have a lot of options when it comes to mixing and matching their lines; it will be particularly interesting to see if Colliton can find some balance and stick with it. We know what players like Brandon Saad and Drake Caggiula are capable of on the top lines, now it will be important to see what they can do playing alongside David Kampf, Dominik Kubalik, Carpenter, and Smith.
As for the third defensive pairing, Dennis Gilbert and Slater Koekkoek, they had a rough start in Prague, although the defense as a whole struggled mightily. Luckily, the return of de Haan and Murphy should bolster the blue line and bring some more talent to the third pairing.
It may be a new era of Blackhawks hockey, but a lot of the same questions persist. The core will continue to produce and the goalie competition should be fun to track, but beyond that, there will be a lot of tinkering as the season goes on. Is there enough talent on the defensive end to take the load off of the offense and goalies? Did they add enough grit and toughness to alleviate some pressure? Can the depth make a difference in minimizing mistakes and doing the little things right? These are all questions that will be worth monitoring as the season plays out.