The Blackhawks are looking to bounce back from last season’s playoff disappointment, but the cap crunch and roster changes will make topping the Central again much more difficult.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Stanley Cup odds: 22-1
Key additions: Lance Bouma, LW; Anton Forsberg, G; Connor Murphy, D; Jan Rutta, D; Brandon Saad, LW; Patrick Sharp, LW; Tommy Wingels, LW
Key departures: Brian Campbell, D; Scott Darling, G; Niklas Hjalmarsson, D; Marian Hossa, RW; Marcus Kruger, C; Johnny Oduya, D; Artemi Panarin, LW; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D
Has the window finally closed on this dynasty or can GM Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville keep it pried open for a little while longer by working their magic?
Much of the answer to this question lies in the defense corps. The Hawks lost four defensemen in the off-season that would be ahead of every one on their depth chart with the exception of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Much of the team’s core is still in place, a core that has been responsible for delivering three Stanley Cups and knows exactly what it takes to win – but the Hawks also have a radically different look about them. After two first-round exits – the latest of which a sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators – Bowman promised changes and he delivered on those. The Blackhawks have the potential to have two lethal scoring lines loaded with veteran talent. Keeping up to other teams offensively will not be a problem for this group unless some key veterans end up going into extended scoring funks. But the problem will be in keeping veteran goalie Corey Crawford from feeling under siege some nights. Without Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa in the lineup, the penalty-killing unit, which was already well in the bottom half of the league, will have a new look. This will be a group that could go one of two ways. Either it comes back this season full of fire in their bellies over the ignominy of being knocked out in the first round the past two years or it comes to the realization that the party is indeed over.
Bowman’s stroke of salary-cap escape genius has become an annual tradition. As usual, the Hawks enter the year with key contributors gone. This time it’s Hossa (equipment allergy), Artemi Panarin (trade), Niklas Hjalmarsson (trade), Johnny Oduya (free agency), Trevor van Riemsdyk (expansion), Brian Campbell (retirement) and Scott Darling (trade). But the GM has always done a great job finding replacement value, be it through shrewd acquisitions or promoting from within.
Is Connor Murphy, for example, a big downgrade from Hjalmarsson, or do fans just know less about Murphy because he was in Arizona? He’s six years younger and plays a similar gritty style. Chicago hopes to get a big rookie splash from OHL mega-scorer Alex DeBrincat. He has Panarin-like skills, which is good with Panarin out and Brandon Saad in. Saad was a Hawk the last time they won the Cup. He brings speed, defensive diligence and chemistry with Jonathan Toews. Patrick Sharp also returns, and if he can produce like a top-six winger again, he’ll be the NHL’s best bargain at $800,000.
Every empire crumbles eventually. It happened to the L.A. Kings in recent seasons. Toews and superstar Patrick Kane aren’t yet 30 and thus have prime years left, but workhorse blueliner Keith, usual partner Seabrook and goalie Crawford are exiting their prime years in their early 30s. A decline in their skills is inevitable. There’s a ton of pressure on Keith and Seabrook to play elite hockey, as they’ve never had less help behind them on the depth chart. Even if Murphy works out, making him the team’s de facto No. 3 is asking a lot for a guy who’s never seen a minute of playoff hockey. The rest of the blueline elicits shrugs: Michal Kempny? Jan Rutta? Michal Rozsival? Gustav Forsling? Each of them seems decent enough on a bottom pairing, but now at least one has to play in the top four.
Will Chicago also struggle to score in 2017-18? We can’t stress enough how important Panarin was to the offense. His first two NHL seasons each produced more points than Saad’s best two. It’s a bit scary just how much the Hawks need Sharp to show he has something left and for DeBrincat to make the team.
THN’s PREDICTION: 3rd in the Central. There’s not a team in the league that does a better job of pacing itself in the regular season the way the Blackhawks do, largely because of the man behind the bench. The Hawks should make the playoffs easily, but it will be in the post-season where their true success will be measured.
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