The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is underway, but the Chicago Blackhawks once again are not in the mix. After winning three Stanley Cups in six years, the Hawks haven’t made the postseason in two years. It’s been disheartening for everyone.
After an uneventful offseason last summer and after firing future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville, 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton took the helm in November. Things got even uglier as the new coach tried to implement a new system on the fly.
But then something happened. The Hawks slowly started to get better. The players bought into what Colliton was preaching. Sure, there were dips in the road, but the Blackhawks never gave up. They were resolved and showed character, and ultimately almost clawed their way into the postseason.
It’s going to be another long offseason for sure. But this summer is a little different. Because in many ways, the organization is finally on the right track. Here are nine reasons for optimism as we look towards the 2019-20 season.
1. Third Overall Draft Pick!
That’s right! Luck was on their side and the Blackhawks moved from 12th to the third overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft lottery on April 9. That’s huge! The last time the Hawks had the No. 3 pick they drafted Jonathan Toews.
As general manager Stan Bowman stated regarding their high pick:
You’re in a different pool of players there, no question. This is a very good first round, so we were very optimistic that we would be getting a good player even if we were staying at 12. But this just is a game-changer because you don’t often get a chance to get these players in the top couple picks of the draft. That’s where the elite players usually come from. Of course there’s some outliers year to year but if you look back at those early picks of the draft you get a chance to get a difference-maker and that’s what we expect this year as well.
The Hawks likely won’t be getting Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, who are expected to go first and second in the draft, respectively. But there are a few top prospect options after the top two. The elite talent in this draft class are mostly forwards and it would be helpful for the Hawks to add to their center depth. Someone like Dylan Cozens could potentially step right in next season.
Of course, there’s the alternative viewpoint, which has Bowman seeing what other teams would offer him for his third overall pick. Perhaps he could land a top-four defenseman to complement his current group? The blue line could use some help and I’m sure Bowman will reach out and do his due diligence. But chances are he would benefit more from keeping his No. 3 pick.
2. More Money to Spend in the Offseason
The Blackhawks didn’t make any transactions at the February trade deadline because they weren’t really buyers or sellers. Bowman smartly stood pat, saving his moves for the offseason. The Hawks will have more money to spend on free agents and trades this summer than they’ve had in a long time. Scott Powers of The Athletic estimates they should have upwards of $16 million to spend (from ‘Answering five major questions about the Blackhawks’ offseason’, The AthleticCHI – 4/8/19).
As mentioned, the Blackhawks need more center and/or defensive depth and it will be interesting to see how the draft, trades, and free agency play out given their extra cap room.
3. Toews & Kane Still Producing Big
The two faces of the franchise, Toews and Patrick Kane, aren’t getting any younger but they’re not done yet. At 30 years of age, both players posted career-high numbers despite the team not making the playoffs.
Toews scored 35 goals and 46 assists, both career-highs. Kane’s 66 assists and 110 points surpassed his previous career-highs and his 44 goals was just two shy of his record (46) scored in the 2015-16 season. Not bad for a couple of old-timers.
They are sending a message to management: Send reinforcements now, before it’s too late!
Related – Blackhawks Go out Fighting in Final Week
4. DeBrincat and Strome
Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome could be the faces of the future. These two have incredible chemistry from their time together with the OHL’s Erie Otters, and they picked up right where they left off when Strome was acquired by the Blackhawks in November of 2018.
DeBrincat avoided any kind of sophomore slump, posting a record 41 goals and 35 assists in only his second season in the league. His goals were second only to Kane, and his points were third behind Kane and Toews. His assists were actually a “measly” fourth on the team. The Cat, as fans love to call him, appears to have a bright future in the NHL.
Meanwhile, Strome has benefited from his change of scenery. After posting only three goals and three assists in 20 games in Arizona, he recorded 17 goals and 34 assists in 58 games with the Blackhawks. He established himself as the second line center behind Toews, and is often on the ice with DeBrincat. The two are also part of the first power play unit. Look for this duo to make some waves in the future.
5. Erik Gustafsson
Defenseman Erik Gustafsson may not be the most reliable in his own zone but he has a huge offensive upside, and he capitalized on it this season. The 27-year-old blueliner has developed great chemistry with superstar veteran Kane, which is never a bad thing. He posted a whopping 17 goals and 43 assists and his goals ranked third, his assists eighth (and third on the Blackhawks), and his points sixth in the NHL. Not bad for his first full season in the league.
The good news is he has looked more solid in the last half dozen or so games of the 2018-19 season. If he can balance his offensive abilities with defensive responsibility, he could be an enormous asset for the Blackhawks moving forward.
6. Free Jokiharju
Remember when the 19-year-old Henri Jokiharju played big minutes on the top defensive pairing at the beginning of the season? Quenneville was well-known for not trusting his younger players but not in this case. He put Jokiharju alongside Duncan Keith, and the two developed a good partnership.
And Keith wasn’t babysitting the young rookie either. The defenseman looked like he belonged. As a matter of fact, he was usually one of the best Blackhawks blueliners on the ice. In 32 games, he was consistent, responsible in his own end and even contributed 11 assists.
Then he was loaned to Finland for the 2019 World Junior Championships. When he came back after a successful tournament where he led his team to a gold medal, he saw his ice time dip. At the end of January, he was assigned to the Rockford IceHogs. Colliton said it had nothing to do with Jokiharju’s performance, but that they wanted him to play more in all situations and further round out his game in the minors.
Jokiharju has done just that. In 30 games with the IceHogs, he contributed two goals and 15 assists. He logged big minutes and was a regular member of the power play. He worked on the little things, like being more physical and winning puck battles. He even became a bit of a leader in the locker room. Said IceHogs’ head coach Derek King:
He’s actually a pretty thick kid for being that young. He’s mature that way. I think the big thing for Henri is playing in the gray areas and being a little harder on pucks, not relying on his skill as much. Sometimes you’ve got to work hard.
Jokiharju has used his time wisely, and it appears he’s polished his game in Rockford. Now that he’s paid his dues, I fully expect to see him back on the blue line with Keith out of training camp next season.
7. The Crawford Effect
Some believe that Corey Crawford should hang up his skates considering his history of concussions. But the only person who has a right to make that decision is Crawford, and apparently he’s not ready.
Nobody knows the extent of what Crawford dealt with but we do know he successfully returned from two extended absences and “successfully” is an understatement. He returned to the crease like he never left. It’s incredibly difficult to re-establish one’s consistency and timing, especially as a goalie. But Crawford rose to the occasion and jumped right back in.
Let’s face it, the Blackhawks are a stronger team with Crow in net. His presence elicits calm and confidence from the rest of the team. He covers for a lot of flaws by being square and solid in net and making high-danger saves. Always doing his part to give the team a chance to win. If Crawford can remain healthy and playing at his best, the Blackhawks will be better for it.
8. Colliton’s Time
It’s hard to rate Colliton’s first season with the Blackhawks. He was put in a very difficult position, having to replace a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach with over 20 years of NHL experience. When Colliton took over, the Blackhawks were already 15 games into the season, so he had to implement his system and get to know most of the players on the fly. Plus try to win, with no NHL coaching experience.
But he stuck to his approach and system despite the losses before things turned around. But turn around they did. The Blackhawks still didn’t always win but they improved and almost always showed their fight and effort which means everyone believed in the process.
In other words, Colliton is just getting started. He has a lot of work to do, but he will have a full preseason and all 82 games this upcoming season to do that work. This will be his defining season and we will have a better idea if he will be a successful coach in the NHL for the long term. I am betting on him.
9. Depth Players Stepping Up
There could be more, but a few depth players made contributions this season and are a good fit with the team moving forward.
- Drake Caggiula was acquired by the Blackhawks from the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 31. In 26 games with the Hawks, he recorded five goals and seven assists. The most important thing about Caggiula is his energy. While he can slot in anywhere in the lineup, Colliton plugged him in on the top line with Toews and Kane. He adds an element of grit and physicality that was a great complement to their skill.
- Dominik Kahun was also utilized throughout the lineup. The German winger recorded 13 goals and 24 assists in 82 games with the Blackhawks. He was a relatively unknown addition to the team out of training camp, but he made up for that with his tenacious play.
- Defenseman Connor Murphy rejoined the Blackhawks in early December after sitting out the beginning of the season with a back injury. His presence immediately stabilized a struggling blue line. Murphy became a solid shutdown defenseman and he contributed five goals and eight assists in 52 games.
What do you think Blackhawks fans? Do you agree with my nine reasons for optimism? Do you have any more to add? Stay tuned, because there are some reasons for concern as well. It behooves us to explore that as we wait out another long offseason.
But negativity doesn’t get a team to the playoffs. Pessimism doesn’t win championships. For now, let’s bask in the positives. Here’s to a fruitful 2019-20 season.