At the recent 12th annual Chicago Blackhawks’ Convention, captain Jonathan Toews posed a question to the fans. “What do you say we make the playoffs next season and see what happens from there?!”
Well, that certainly sounds like a good plan.
After two consecutive seasons without a playoff berth, the Blackhawks appear to finally be headed in the right direction. According to Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Hawks have made more offseason trades than any other team in the league this summer (from ‘Entering second year with Blackhawks, understated Jeremy Colliton is sticking to his message – and himself’, The Chicago Sun Times – 7/27/19).
On paper, they’re a much-improved team from last season.
General manager Stan Bowman didn’t make any big splashes, but he pulled off several small, savvy moves that could make a big difference. Add that to the momentum the team has been building from last season, and there’s a good chance Chicago makes the playoffs come April.
But, we get ahead of ourselves. The season hasn’t even started yet! Although Toews and the Blackhawks are warranted in their optimism. Here are five reasons the Blackhawks will rebound this season.
1. Colliton From Day One
Head coach Jeremy Colliton was placed in a very difficult position last year when he took over in November. He was forced to implement a new system on the fly, when the points mattered. The Blackhawks lost a lot of games before things started to click. But the team played at a 100-point pace the last 50 games of the season, resulting in an unexpected playoff push.
This upcoming campaign will be different. Colliton already has a head start from working with all the players last season. He’s had input on the offseason acquisitions. He’s assembled his preferred coaching staff. And most importantly, he’ll have a full training camp and preseason to work with before the games start counting. This gives him plenty of time to continue implementing his system to returning players, as well as integrating new players.
All things considered, the Blackhawks and Colliton are starting off with a much bigger advantage than they had in the 2018-19 season.
2. Blackhawks’ Shrewd Forward Acquisitions
Here’s a brief overview of who the Blackhawks have gained at the forward position this offseason:
Anton Wedin, LW, May 16
Dominik Kubalik, LW, May 29
John Quenneville, LW, Jun. 22
Andrew Shaw, RW, Jun. 30
Ryan Carpenter, LW, Jul. 1
Alexander Nylander, RW, Jul. 9
Zack Smith, LW, Jul. 16
Shaw is perhaps the most prominent of the Blackhawks’ acquisitions at forward, as he won two Stanley Cups with the team during his previous stint from 2011 to 2016. Shaw is a fan favorite for his affable personality, a locker room favorite for his energy and pranks, and an on-ice favorite for his gritty style of play.
Both Wedin and Kubalik come over from Europe, where the Blackhawks have had lots of success finding solid players with cheap price tags (Artemi Panarin, Erik Gustafsson, Dominik Kahun).
Related – Meet the New Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
Carpenter and Smith bring some NHL experience with them, although neither lit the world on fire with their previous teams (the Vegas Golden Knights and Ottawa Senators, respectively).
And while Quenneville and Nylander have both spent most of their time in the AHL, they hope to find more success in Chicago.
Then there’s Drake Caggiula, Dylan Sikura, and Brandan Perlini (not signed yet but attended the Blackhawks’ Convention) who all played more minimal roles last season. They look to be in the mix. Oh, and third overall draft pick Kirby Dach could potentially make a push for a spot.
Lots of longshots, but that’s kind of the point. There are lots of them. All hungry and all wanting to contribute. One or two of these guys are bound to work out. Maybe more! It’ll be fun to see who becomes the breakout players from this bunch.
3. More Depth at Center
Toews has been the Blackhawks’ No. 1 center for quite some time. Last season, Dylan Strome established himself as the No. 2 center, pushing Artem Anisimov down the depth chart. Now Anisimov is no longer with the team. And Colliton is a huge fan of David Kampf, who shored up the fourth line during most of the 2018-19 campaign. He essentially made Marcus Kruger expendable.
So who will be the third line center (or fourth line if Kampf pushes for that spot)? I’m glad you asked! As you can see from the link above, none of the new acquisitions are listed as true centers. But the Blackhawks’ website puts a different spin on things.
The Hawks have Carpenter and Smith as centers. Shaw has filled in at center in the past. Of the three, the 31-year-old Smith looks the best on paper. Last season, he took 820 draws which he won at a 49.1% rate. Carpenter won a higher percentage of faceoffs (52.6%) but he only took 306 draws. Shaw’s 384 draws were won at a 47.1% clip. As a comparison, Kampf won 45.3% of 609 draws. Oh, and there’s potentially that Dach guy.
Of course, being a successful center isn’t all about winning faceoffs. It’s about catering to your wingers, scoring points, and keeping the opponent from scoring. So chemistry will certainly be a factor. But hey, Colliton certainly has some enticing options.
4. Blackhawks’ Defensive Improvements
Considering the Blackhawks were 30th in the league in goals-against last season, and worst in the league short-handed, some upgrades were due on the defensive end. But did they do enough?
Bowman started by adding Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Maatta won two Stanley Cups with the Pens in 2016 and 2017, so he brings a championship pedigree to the table. He’s a stay-at-home defenseman, which is exactly what the Blackhawks need to help keep the puck out of their net.
Maatta blocked 116 shots in only 60 games last season, which would have been third on the Blackhawks’ behind Brent Seabrook (180), and Duncan Keith (144). He also averaged over two minutes a contest on the penalty kill. I’m sure the Hawks will look to utilize him on that unit.
Calvin de Haan became the next new Blackhawk blueliner on Jun. 24. Like Maatta, de Haan is a defensive defenseman with a physical presence. His stats last season included 187 hits (63 more than team-leading Seabrook), 106 blocked shots, and just under two minutes a night on the penalty kill.
I presume the Blackhawks are hoping these two smaller additions will make up for not signing a high-end free agent for too much money. But the health of these players could also factor in. As mentioned earlier, Maatta only dressed for 60 games last season because he dealt with numerous minor injuries. Let’s hope he got them all out of the way. De Haan is currently questionable for opening night as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
In the meantime, Carl Dahlstrom and Slater Koekkoek are waiting in the wings, leaving the Blackhawks with eight defensemen signed for the season. And let’s not forget prospect Adam Boqvist impressed at development camp. Competition will be fierce to determine who earns the starting roles.
It’s highly unlikely Seabrook will be the odd man out, but even he is feeling the pressure.
The blue line and the penalty kill could be the biggest question marks moving forward for this team. Has there been enough improvement for the Hawks to be competitive in the super-strong Central Division?
5. Strong Goalie Tandem
Corey Crawford has been the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goaltender since the 2010-11 season, a total of nine years. Unfortunately, he only played in 28 tilts in 2017-18, and then 39 contests in 2018-19 due to concussion issues.
Although he appears set to start the 2019-20 campaign, it’s understandable the organization is concerned about Crawford’s long-term health. Which is why they jumped on the opportunity to sign Robin Lehner from the New York Islanders.
The Vezina Trophy finalist thought he was staying with the Islanders, but negotiations fell through when they wanted to sign him for a shorter term and then less money than Lehner was asking. Once it was all said and done, he ended up agreeing to a one-year, $5 million deal with the Blackhawks. Crawford, meanwhile, is on the last season of his six-year contract, with a $6 million yearly cap hit.
Many were critical the Hawks were spending a combined $11 million on the netminder position. But the pain is assuaged a bit as both goalies are only signed for one year. This gives the Blackhawks more flexibility moving forward.
As for this upcoming season, it’s a brilliant move. The Hawks will now have two top NHL goalies to choose from. The fact that their contracts expire at the end of the season will provide some healthy competition as they both try to earn a new deal.
But don’t expect this to be an issue between Crawford and Lehner. Crawford, for one, has been extremely supportive of whomever his fellow goaltender is, be it Scott Darling a few years back, or Cam Ward and Collin Delia more recently.
Lehner has been very open about his mental health issues. Crawford has struggled with his concussion issues. The two will likely forge an excellent relationship. And the team will benefit from having two excellent goaltenders.
As far as utilization of this tandem, expect it to be a 50-50 split. I think Colliton will let each man perform in streaks, riding the hot goalie until he starts to slump. This should mostly benefit Crawford, who will then have more time to rest and recover in order to stay on top of his game. And come playoff time, neither netminder will be fatigued from being the workhorse all season long.
As you can see, there are lots of reasons for excitement in the Blackhawks’ upcoming 2019-20 campaign. They have done their best in the offseason to address their weaknesses. Now it’s time to get to work and see if things will pay off on the ice.
Is it October yet?!