The Chicago Blackhawks are in a time of transition. They’ve been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs now two years in a row. They have a very difficult cap situation. Many of their core players have hefty contracts with no movement clauses. On top of that, these same star players aren’t getting any younger, and are struggling to perform at the level of years past. It’s a tough spot to be in.
So what is a team to do in order to stay in the hunt and compete for another championship? After all, when you win three Stanley Cups in six years, it sets a precedent. Blackhawks fans have come to expect perfection every single season. It’s a tall order for the organization and its players.
Blackhawks’ Core Needs to Step Up
Let’s face it. We all know the core players need to step up. The pressure is on the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford. I submit that returnees Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp be included here as well. These guys have all won two, if not three, Cups. It’s expected of them to lead the way and come out firing on all cylinders for the 2017-18 season.
But they can’t do it alone. Per John Dietz of the Daily Herald, Toews made a very astute statement at this past weekend’s 10th annual Blackhawks convention.
“We all need to … have a little reality check and question what we can do better,” Toews said. “Last year there was so much talk of the veteran guys and the young guys, and it was almost like we were two separate teams.
“We need to get rid of that whole idea and … get everybody together and performing and working the same way.”
The Hawks must find a way to work as a team. Every player has a role to fill. But it can be argued that some might have more of an impact than others. Here are three players that need to step up and complement the core this coming season, and why.
Hartman proved he was ready to be an everyday player in his rookie season last year. He suited up for 76 games and contributed 19 goals and 12 assists (31 points). He far exceeded everyone’s expectations and set the bar high for this coming year.
Many considered Hartzy the replacement for Andrew Shaw when the Blackhawks traded Shaw to the Montreal Canadiens in June of 2016. Shaw was a feisty, in-your-face player, who was versatile and had enough skill to play on any line. Unfortunately, he was a restricted free agent who demanded more money than the Hawks could afford.
Enter Hartman, who cost the Hawks $863,000 instead of Shaw’s new deal of $3.9 million. To add insult to injury, Hartman beat Shaw’s stats of 12 goals and 17 assists (29 points). He also managed way fewer penalty minutes (70 versus Shaw’s 110). Shaw getting into penalty trouble was a major bone of contention against him, whereas Hartman managed to stay relatively disciplined this past season.
Hartzy has proven he can be the kind of energy player that Shaw was, as well as stay out of penalty trouble, and light the lamp. He too spent time on all four lines and showed he can be a utility player for the Hawks. This is a very important and much-needed role. Hartman should continue along this vein to provide support wherever it is needed next season.
Schmaltz is another player who showed good potential last year. Unfortunately, he wasn’t consistent. He struggled in the first half of the season, being tentative with the puck, and often not shooting when he had the opportunity. Consequently, he was sent down to the Rockford IceHogs for more seasoning.
But in January, the Blackhawks recalled Schmaltz to the NHL. It was obvious he had gained more confidence. He used his speed and skill to contribute as a top-six forward, ending up on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. This trio was on fire for most of February and did well together for the better part of the rest of the season. Schmaltz also spent time as a center on the second line for Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane when Artem Anisimov was injured late in the regular season.
Unfortunately, this success didn’t translate into the playoffs. Against Nashville, Schmaltz was in over his head. He returned to his tentative ways and wasn’t able to contribute in any meaningful way.
Now that centers Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen are both no longer members of the Chicago Blackhawks, the team is definitely hurting down the middle. Toews is the driving force on the dot, whereas second-line center Anisimov continues to struggle. Tanner Kero has proven to be a consistent fourth-line center option, but asking more of him would be a tall order.
As Schmaltz’s natural position is center, many believe he should step into that role for the Hawks. Now, who knows how coach Quenneville will juggle his lines this season. But it goes without saying that having Schmaltz as an option at center would certainly be helpful. He needs to find and keep his confidence to make an impact either at center or on the wing.
My final pick for a depth player that needs to step up next season is defenseman Connor Murphy. Murphy has some tough skates to fill, as he was traded in exchange for fan favorite and three-time Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Hjalmarsson was known for being an excellent shutdown defenseman. He was a warrior on the ice, especially when it came to his shot-blocking abilities. Hjammer held a spot on the top defensive pairing with Duncan Keith for the last two seasons. Unfortunately, he was one of the core players that didn’t have a no-movement clause. For that reason, he was much more easily expendable than some other defensemen (I’m talking about you, Brent Seabrook!). Being 30 years old didn’t help his cause either.
I could go on and on about Hjalmarsson. It’s obvious I’m not happy about this trade. But the long and the short of it remains that Murphy is now a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. As you can see from the video below, he was at their recent convention and had some fun with it. But it remains to be seen whether his potential can be tapped with his new team on the ice.
Satchel Price of Second City Hockey recently wrote about Connor Murphy joining the Blackhawks. He discusses Murphy’s last few seasons with his former team, the Arizona Coyotes. Murphy was on the ice for a lot of shots against and didn’t generate much on the offensive side to make up for it.
The argument can be made that he wasn’t playing for a very good team. “While Murphy’s 46.3 percent 5-on-5 Corsi last season wasn’t good, it actually led all Arizona defensemen,” says Price. Could playing on a better team and with better teammates boost his numbers? Let’s hope so. Perhaps the Blackhawks’ system can benefit his strengths.
The good news is that Murphy is younger and slightly cheaper than Hjammer, as well as being a much-needed right-handed shot. He’s also faster and more physical, which are both attributes the Hawks have been focusing on improving since their early playoff exit.
It’s unfair to compare Murphy to Hjalmarsson. Murphy’s not going to come in and replace everything that the veteran defenseman did for the Hawks. But he can find a way to benefit the team in a positive way. As there aren’t a lot of other right-handed options (Brent Seabrook, Jan Rutta, and Michal Rozsival), it’s safe to say Murphy will be one of the team’s top four defensemen. He needs to be up to the task.
The Hawks are in a very precarious spot to start the 2017-18 season. They still have enough talent to be a very good team, but many things must go well for them to be successful. They need their core to live up to their reputations and their contracts. But they also need their complementary players to step up and provide the support the core needs. It will be interesting to see if they can pull it off.
Is it October yet?!