The Chicago Blackhawks are once again the defending Stanley Cup champions. Though while they may sit atop the league as a result of such a title, they are not so unlike other teams in that they, too will have their surprises. These surprises are sure to come both in pleasant and unpleasant forms. Every year, it’s an invariable truth that some players fail to meet their expectations while others go above and beyond and shatter them completely. If everybody did exactly what was expected of them all the time, hockey would get rather boring pretty quickly, wouldn’t you agree?
So with all that being said, here are three players on the Blackhawks’ roster that I think are the most likely to either impress or disappoint the fans following Chicago’s third league championship in the past six years.
1. Marko Dano Will Top 50 Points
I wrote about how much I like the fit in Chicago for Dano shortly after his acquisition in the deal that sent Brandon Saad to Columbus. There’s so much to like here in my mind. There are two holes in Chicago’s top six, both are on the left wing, a position which Dano is fully capable of playing.
If Dano winds up in the top six, he’s either going to be playing with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on the first line or with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov on the second line. I don’t think I need to write too much to convince you that those lines are going to be fantastic offensively, but there’s precedent for lesser players who play with those elite guys doing rather well for the Blackhawks.
The aforementioned Saad, for whom Dano was acquired, is coming off a season in which he put up 52 points playing with Toews and Hossa on Chicago’s top line. For me, there isn’t much in Saad’s offensive skill set that isn’t also true of Dano’s. I think the separation between the two players comes on the defensive side of the puck. Because of that, I see no reason whatsoever why Dano can’t at least match Saad’s production assuming he is a regular on one of the top two lines.
2. Patrick Kane Will Win the Art Ross
In today’s NHL with scoring in its current low state, guessing at who will lead the league in points in a given year is likely a fruitless exercise. Who would have predicted that Jamie Benn would win the league’s scoring title last July? In my mind, the consensus favorite should still be Sidney Crosby, but allow me to explain why I believe that Chicago’s #88 will be the one to lay claim to the title next season.
First and foremost, there’s already precedence for this. Kane was well on his way to contending for the league lead in points before he went down with injury in the second half of the season. If he can stay healthy, Kane is certainly more than capable of outscoring anyone else in the entire NHL if the cookie crumbles his way. I think he’s in a good position for that to happen this season.
Artem Anisimov will be the best fit Kane has had as his center in his entire career outside of his stints with Toews. Brad Richards was an upgrade last season from Michal Handzus, and I believe that Anisimov will be a similar step up for Kane. Anisimov is above average in all three zones, which is something that could be said of neither Handzus nor Richards. His ability in the defensive and neutral zones will allow Kane to worry a bit less about his defensive responsibilities (not that he can slack off really), while his all-around competency in the offensive zone (above average shooting and passing ability) will help Kane’s production improve.
Kane’s skill set is a rare one in that he is elite as both a playmaker and a sniper. If he has capable finishers on his line, his assists will go up. If he has capable playmakers on his line, his goal totals will increase. Anisimov is both, and the other part of that equation is who fits in on their left wing. With the addition of the abundantly talented Artemi Panarin and the aforementioned Dano, it seems likely that the duo will be joined by another skilled forward on their left side.
As a result, if Kane stays healthy, he will be playing on a truly elite second line while his team’s first line takes the toughest match-ups. Playing with good teammates and against lesser competition is a combination that could easily see Kane winning his first career Art Ross Trophy.
3. Duncan Keith Will Underperform
Put down the pitchforks. When I say that Keith will “underperform”, I’m in no way saying that he won’t be a great defenseman next season. What I mean is that maybe instead of being a clear-cut top five defenseman, he plays more like a top 15 defender in the league next year. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the result of where his career is at and the inevitable regression that most players at the same point in their careers face.
It’s pretty hard to believe that Duncan Keith is already 32 years of age. He’s by no means young, and unfortunately, being an elite NHL defenseman is a young man’s game. As of today, the best defensemen in the league outside of Keith are roughly as follows: Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Weber, Aaron Ekblad, Kris Letang, Mark Giordano, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Roman Josi, Justin Faulk, John Carlson, and Kevin Shattenkirk. There are more I could list, but for now that should suffice. Of those listed, all of them are younger than Keith, and only Giordano has celebrated his 30th birthday.
While it’s true that Keith is in better physical condition than the average 32-year-old NHL defenseman, it’s also important to note that he has far, far more mileage on him than the average 32-year-old defender. He just went through an absolute grind of a postseason playing the best hockey of his life and carrying his team to the Stanley Cup Final. Sadly, that’s not something he’ll be able to do forever. He has played 882 NHL games including both regular season and playoffs. For whatever reason, NHL.com will not allow regular season and playoff stats to combine, but Keith has played more regular season games than guys like Paul Martin, John-Michael Liles, Dion Phaneuf, and Ron Hainsey.
Keith is a special player, and I’m not even remotely denying that. I still consider him an elite defenseman until he gives me a reason not to. I just believe that this year is the year he starts to become less elite than Blackhawks fans are used to him being, and that isn’t necessarily the end of the world. He is a human being, after all.