After a nine-day hiatus due to the 2019 NHL All-Star break and their bye week, the Chicago Blackhawks will get back to work this Friday against the Buffalo Sabres. They’ve played 51 games thus far, with a record of 18-24-9 for 45 points. This is good for last in the Central Division and 27th place in the league. With any playoff hopes slim-to-none, what should be the Blackhawks’ objectives for the final 31 games? Let’s discuss.
Set up the Stars
There are three forwards doing the majority of the scoring for the Blackhawks. But we can’t complain, because they’re all on-pace to beat or tie career high statistics.
Current pace for a few #Blackhawks players (I did not round up):
Patrick Kane: 46 G, 68 AST, 114 PTS (would set career high)
Jonathan Toews: 35 G, 41 AST, 76 PTS (would tie career high)
Alex DeBrincat: 40 G, 28 AST, 68 PTS (would set career high)
— Slavko Bekovic (@SBekovic) January 23, 2019
Slavko Bekovic of NBC Sports Chicago is referring to overall points in this tweet. But as it turns out, if these players can continue with this pace, they would all surpass their career high in goals and assists as well (with the exception on Patrick Kane’s goals, which would tie).
Jonathan Toews and Kane are both 30 years old. We don’t want to think this way, but this could potentially be their last hoorah. They might not be able to sustain top performance for much longer. Recently these two faces of the franchise have been playing on the top line together, building on old chemistry. I’ve never been a big fan of playing them together; it seems more logical to separate the two to provide balance. But right now they’re scoring and leading the way. It appears to be working for the team and for them. Carry on.
Alex DeBrincat, on the other hand, is only in his second season. He’s the most likely to surpass his career highs. He only needs four more goals, seven more assists and 10 more points to better his previous records. The sky is the limit for him, and it’s going to be fun to watch him now and in the future. His performance has earned him the right to play among the top-six forwards, and to continue as a major contributor on the top power-play unit.
The point here is these guys are all having great seasons. It’s a no-brainer. Let the boys play so they can attain their numbers!
Find Some Answers on Defense
Ah, the dreaded defense. This has been the problem child for the Blackhawks since they traded top-four defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson in June 2017. The loss of Hjalmarsson has coincided with the steady regressions of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Both blueliners have huge contracts with no-movement clauses, making them difficult to trade and a strain on the salary cap.
The Blackhawks also obtained defenseman Connor Murphy as part of the Hjalmarsson trade. To be fair, Murphy’s had a bounceback season after being mostly a disappointment in his first as a Hawk. This has a lot to do with Murphy being utilized where he fits best, as a third-pairing defenseman. He and partner Carl Dahlstrom have formed a solid shutdown pairing, which is nice to see.
But that doesn’t exactly solve the problem. The Hawks need four top-four defensemen. Right now they’re hard-pressed to say they have one. Rookie Henri Jokiharju could fit the bill here. He showed at the beginning of the season that he complemented Keith quite well on the top pairing. Yet head coach Jeremy Colliton is taking a more cautious approach with Jokiharju, giving him less ice time and playing him farther down in the lineup. He’s even been a frequent healthy scratch of late. Update: The Blackhawks took it a step further and demoted Jokiharju to the Rockford IceHogs Thursday morning.
In the meantime, Slater Koekkoek was recently acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Gustav Forsling is expected back from injured reserve. The general consensus is the Blackhawks moved Jokiharju to showcase their other defensemen in preparation for the trade deadline.
So who will be traded? And for goodness sake, why can’t Keith and Seabrook “rest” a few games instead of stunting Jokiharju’s growth? And let’s not forget prospects such as Adam Boqvist, Nicolas Beaudin and Ian Mitchell who all might (or might not) be NHL-ready next season.
Needless to say, the Hawks have some big decisions to make regarding the direction of their defense. It will be interesting to see what path they take, and what answers they find.
Keep Progressing Delia
We all know Corey Crawford missed the last half of the 2017-18 season due to concussion issues. And unfortunately he’s been sidelined since mid-December this season with yet another concussion. Crawford’s long-term health should be of primary concern here, and there is no timeline for his return.
My colleague Stephen Ground recently ranked all 31 starting goaltenders up to the All-Star break. Crawford’s initial backup Cam Ward ranked last. But the silver lining in all this has been the emergence of Collin Delia. Delia’s 10 starts is a small sample size, but here are his numbers compared to Ward’s (slightly updated since Stephen’s post). For further reference, I listed Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne in here as well, who was ranked sixth in the article.
Save Percentage: Ward (.888) Delia (.923) Rinne (.915)
Goals Against Average: Ward (3.87) Delia (3.00) Rinne (2.47)
Goals Saved Above Average: Ward (-13.91) Delia (5.62) Rinne (6.98)
Quality Start Percentage: Ward (.474) Delia (.556) Rinne (.514)
As you can see, Delia actually has a few higher stats than Rinne. And that’s not even taking into consideration Rinne has a much better defense in front of him. Delia’s numbers truly impress.
Let’s see if he can keep it up. Ward isn’t the future. And regardless of whether Crawford can make a return or not, he probably isn’t a big part of the future either. But Delia could be. Play him as much as possible for the remainder of the season. This will allow him to learn, progress and be ready when the Hawks truly need him.
Build a Winning Culture
Nobody likes to lose. And the Blackhawks have lost a lot this season. 33 times if you count overtime losses. That’s 65 percent of their games. But they’re still managing to focus on the positives.
This has a lot to do with the veterans leading the way by setting a good example. Instead of pouting, they’re working hard in practice and giving full effort during games. The younger players see this and follow suit, thinking, “Heck, these are the guys that have won three Stanley Cups; they probably know what they’re doing.”
And credit Colliton for getting everybody to buy in. He has them all believing they can improve. I’m sure that’s not an easy thing to do, especially considering all the losing. Here’s a quote from the head coach after his first three games, all losses:
…the only thing that gets in the way from us turning the ship around and having a lot of success is if there’s doubt in what we’re doing, if guys stop believing we’re on the right track. So that’s our job of the staff and leadership group to make sure we continue to believe we’re on the right path. All we’ve got to do is show them the clips, show them the video. It’s pretty clear. We will get it going here.
And they have improved. And their confidence is growing. These final 31 games should be about building on that. Because the Hawks have some momentum going. If they continue to trust the process and work hard, more winning will naturally come. It would be nice to see them end on a high note.