On paper, the Chicago Blackhawks filled in the gaps that kept them out of the playoffs for a second straight season in 2018-19. Led by career-high output from Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and a breakthrough season from Alex DeBrincat, the Blackhawks rarely had problems scoring. Keeping the puck out of their net was another matter. Only Ottawa allowed more goals than Chicago’s 291.
Blame some of the defensive shortcomings on players adjusting to coach Jeremy Colliton’s systems. Colliton took over when Joel Quenneville was sacked on Nov. 6 after Chicago got off to a 6-6-3 start and amid a “power struggle” that GM Stan Bowman claimed never existed. After settling in with Colliton, Chicago rolled to a 20-10-3 finish, six points shy of a wild-card spot.
Bowman has delivered on promised changes. Experienced defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta arrived via trade. Artem Anisimov was dealt for hardnosed center Zack Smith in a cap-friendly move. UFA goalie Robin Lehner signed a one-year deal. Pesky winger Andrew Shaw returned via trade from Montreal, and checking center Ryan Carpenter was signed from Vegas.
The 30-year-old Kane and 31-year-old Toews are coming off career-bests in points.DeBrincat sniped 41 goals as a 21-year-old. Dylan Strome, reunited with his former OHL linemate DeBrincat, turned it on with 51 points in 58 games after arriving with Brendan Perlini via trade from Arizona. Chicago’s top two lines are potent, even if “power forward” Brandon Saad’s inability to assert himself consistently remains a mystery.
Erik Gustafsson had a breakout season offensively with 17 goals and 60 points. Duncan Keith, 36, quietly notched 40 points.
defense While Gustafsson is slick when the Blackhawks are on the attack, he can look like a deer in the headlights when it comes to reading rushes and defensive coverage. And he wasn’t the only Blackhawks defender with those problems. Enter de Haan and Maatta, both responsible, stay-at-home types who will help shore up the group.
While de Haan and Maatta close gaps on the ice, they also bridge one on Chicago’s roster. Keith and Brent Seabrook, mainstays from the Blackhawks’ 2010, 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup teams, can be expected to slow down. Bowman has loaded his organization with promising young D-men, but none should be counted on to emerge this year.
With Corey Crawford and Lehner, Bowman says his team has the best one-two punch in the league. Crawford, 34, missed more than two months last season after suffering his second concussion in less than a year following a collision in December. He rebounded down the stretch. Lehner helped backstop the New York Islanders to the NHL’s best defensive record last season, overcoming mental illness and addiction. The 28-year-old agreed to a one-year, $5-million deal in July, after talks with the Isles broke down.
The Hawks were a middle-tier power-play team with the personnel to be far more effective. They were sixth at home and 27th on the road. Chicago ranked last in the league on the penalty kill, so changes are coming. Maatta and de Haan will help, as should a forward like Carpenter.
The 34-year-old Colliton will be in charge from the start, which is a decided advantage over last year. There’s a sense of optimism, given Chicago’s strong finish last season and how Bowman directly addressed the team’s needs though trade and free agency without giving up a top player.
In a swap of first-round picks, Bowman traded top defense prospect Henri Jokiharju to Buffalo for winger Alexander Nylander in July. It seemed like the Blackhawks got less upside in the deal, but expect the 21-year old Nylander to be given a healthy chance to make the lineup. Another young Swedish hopeful, Adam Boqvist, is an electric offensive defenseman who made strides with OHL London last season after being drafted eighth overall in 2018.
The Hawks have been patched and retooled. Let’s see if the energy and execution levels follow consistently. If they do, Chicago will at least battle for a playoff spot in the ultra-tough Central.
The low-key Colliton has a chance to prove himself with a roster capable of qualifying for the post-season. If the Blackhawks bomb, don’t expect owner Rocky Wirtz and president-CEO John McDonough to be patient with anyone, including Bowman.
– Matt Carlson
Stanley Cup Odds: 56/1
Projection: 6th in the Central
Chicago’s strength will be on the back end in the coming years, with a deep cohort led by – but not limited to – Adam Boqvist, Nicolas Beaudin and Ian Mitchell. It was thus not surprising that, with the third-overall selection in the 2019 draft, the Hawks went with Kirby Dach. He’s the big, potential No. 1 center the Hawks need for the future. He has size, skating skill and a great pedigree. Recently acquired winger Alex Nylander is a big wild card
1. Kirby Dach, C
Age 18 TeamSaskatoon (WHL)
He has a dangerous combination of size and skill, with underrated skating stride. Needs to fill out his frame.
Acquired 3rd overall, 2019 NHL ’20-21
2. Adam Boqvist, D
Age 19 Team London (OHL)
Quick-moving blueliner handles puck well and creates offense. Adding strength on to-do list.
Acquired 8th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
3. Nicolas Beaudin, D
Age 19 TeamDrummondville (QMJHL)
Good hockey sense, skating ability. Defensive game will get good test in AHL this season.
Acquired 27th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
4. Alexander Nylander, RW
Age 21 TeamRochester (AHL)
Defense and effort need work, but the talent is there. Change of scenery provides a new start.
Acquired From Buf, July, 2019 NHL ’19-20
5. Ian Mitchell, D
Age 20 TeamDenver (NCHC)
Now the captain of his team, he has posted two productive NCAA seasons. Good all around.
Acquired 57th overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23
6. Lucas Carlsson, D
Age 22 TeamRockford (AHL)
Strong defender has a nasty disposition and plays physical style. Able to eat up big minutes.
Acquired 110th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
7. John Quenneville, LW
Age 23 TeamBinghamton (AHL)
Three productive AHL seasons shows he’s ready for next level. Big booming shot is his calling card.
Acquired From NJ, June, 2019 NHL ’19-20
8. Tim Soderlund, LW
Age 21 team Skelleftea (Swe.)
Small frame, but he’s not afraid to play hard and battle in dirty areas. Uses his quickness well.
Acquired 112th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
9. Chad Krys, D
Age 21 team Boston University (HE)
Fantastic puck-mover built up strength in three NCAA seasons. Needs to hone defense in AHL.
Acquired 45th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
10. Aleksi Saarela, C
Age 22 team Charlotte (AHL)
Has elite speed and a lethal shot, but he still has to find the consistency to make the final jump.
Acquired From Car, June, 2019 NHL ’20-21