Earlier this week, as the paint was applied to the ice at the United Center, anticipation for a fresh start was in the air for Chicago Blackhawks fans who had to suffer through last season’s early woes.
But can their late-season surge last spring carry into this new season? Head coach Jeremy Colliton enters camp for the first time at the helm of the Blackhawks bench. He assumed the role midway through last season after the firing of three-time Stanley Cup mastermind Joel Quenneville.
The Hawks surged at the end of last season, playing at a 96-point pace through their final 41 games. With some offseason moves to shore up the dismal defensive effort and the addition of a solid goalkeeper to join Corey Crawford, there is plenty of optimism that a flicker of a return to the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane era glory days could be in the cards.
The Blackhawks defense was abysmal last season, allowing the second-most goals in the NHL, succeeding only in effectively canceling out a 40-goal season from Alex DeBrincat and Kane’s most productive season of his career.
General manager Stan Bowman was aggressive in fixing the defense over the summer, and while credit is due, the question of whether it was enough still looms.
An injured Calvin de Haan came to Chicago from the Carolina Hurricanes in a four-player deal in June. While nursing a groin strain and recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, he will miss the opening of camp but is hopeful to be ready for ice time come the Blackhawks opener against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 4 in Prague, Czech Republic.
Along with de Haan, Bowman added defenseman Olli Maatta and his two Stanley Cups to the back line. While Maatta isn’t known for his speed, he’s strong defensively, having blocked 116 shots last season.
The big move over the summer came with the July 1 signing of Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal. While with the New York Islanders, he had the benefit of playing behind one of the league’s stingiest defenses, so his work with the Blackhawks will certainly be a test. But the combination in net with Crawford could prove to solidify action in the crease.
A familiar face will be back on the ice at the United Center when Andrew Shaw dons the Blackhawks sweater once again. Shaw is coming off a stellar season with the Montreal Canadiens and should add some experience to the young Hawks front-liners.
The obvious starting point for discussing the Blackhawks scoring prowess has to be Kane. With his second 40-goal season of his career, he had four more points than he did in his Hart Trophy-winning 2015-16 season, and his 35 even-strength goals set a career high.
The duo of Kane and DeBrincat is one which few teams can match, and having them both in their top-six makes the Blackhawks a legitimate contender for a postseason appearance. Even with the defensive difficulties last season, they were just six points shy of a playoff berth.
Now entering a contract year, DeBrincat is coming off the first 40-goal season of his career, setting career highs with 35 assists and 76 points. Look for another huge showing from him this season.
Jonathan Toews – enough said.
Toews, 31, is coming off his best season statistically. However, if the 2012-13 season had played out the full 82 games, he likely would have had around 90 points at the pace he was playing.
Bouncing back from a sub-par 2017-18 season, he followed with an 81-point showing (35 goals, 46 assist), setting career highs in both goals and assists in 2018-19. He also posted five game-winning goals in the 36 Blackhawks wins last season.
Related: Jonathan Toews – Beyond the Glory
The Blackhawks captain since the age of 20, Toews’ leadership experience will be vital for a Chicago resurgence. The “little things” that typically go unnoticed by the casual fan are what lead to success – faceoff wins at the dot in big moments, killing penalties, playing extra minutes and just doing whatever is needed. All are typical of the captain.
With the tandem of Lehner and Crawford in net, should the defense even manage to step up its game marginally, the goals-against number should drop dramatically this season. Lehner finished fourth in goals saved above average (GSAA) last season, and Crawford has been one of the most consistent netminders over the past five seasons. Over that period, Crawford ranks second in GSAA, trailing only John Gibson.
Last season’s 20.17% power play conversion ranked 15th in the NHL. However, after Jan. 1 the Blackhawks’ power play was the third-most efficient in the league. Expect them to be even better this season with the new additions to the defense.
Even with the moves made in the offseason, and some improved play, the Blackhawks defense was horrible last season and will likely remain to be their biggest weakness.
Erik Gustafasson was terrific last season and is easily the best defenseman on the Blackhawks roster. With 60 points last season, and converting on 10.6% of his shots on goal, he’s the best they have out there right now. The additions of de Haan and Maatta will definitely help, but how much remains to be seen.
On paper, the Blackhawks’ third and fourth lines appear very weak. David Kampf hasn’t shown the improvement that was hoped for and is expected to compete for the third-line center spot. Zack Smith has been heading in the wrong direction and should the Blackhawks overload their top-six, their bottom-six will be in for some rough ice time.
The Blackhawks should be a competitive team. There is plenty of talent to warrant that being a realistic expectation. However, being in a competitive Central Division, finishing in the top five will be a struggle.
That being said, never discount a team that is led by two future Hall-of-Famers — any team with Toews and Kane has to be taken seriously.
Add to that the level that DeBrincat is capable of playing along with the Crawford/Lehner duo in net, it all could be enough to get this storied franchise back into the postseason.
Scott brings several years of local hockey coverage with the Kankakee Daily Journal to the Hockey Writers, along with coverage of NCAA Hockey, Softball, Basketball, and Soccer with HEROSports. He is also a regular contributor to FloSoftball and Coach & Athletic Director Magazine.