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The Hockey News' 2018-19 Season Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

After missing the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, the Blackhawks have their sights set on rebounding, but they'll do so with a thinner roster and potentially without starting netminder Corey Crawford, at least to begin the campaign.

The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.

Stanley Cup odds: 78-1

Key Additions: Cam Ward, G; Brandon Manning, D; Chris Kunitz, LW; Marcus Kruger, C; Dominik Kahun, C

Key Departures: Patrick Sharp, LW; Cody Franson, D; Jeff Glass, G; Lance Bouma, LW; Anthony Duclair, LW; Tomas Jurco, LW; Vinnie Hinostroza, C; Jordan Oesterle, D

CHI

BEST-CASE SCENARIO
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons under coach Joel Quenneville. It was a disastrous year, but this team isn’t devoid of talent. Goalie Corey Crawford was on track for his best numbers ever and maybe even a Vezina Trophy before concussion symptoms ended his year. Chicago was a respectable 17-13-5 on Dec. 23, which turned out to be Crawford’s last game of the season. Without him, they went 16-26-5. If he’s healthy, the Hawks look better than the sorry group that finished 2017-18. If Crawford isn’t ready or needs more rest than normal, Cam Ward provides the veteran insurance the team lacked last season.

Most of Chicago’s key players from their Stanley Cup wins in 2010, 2013 and 2015 have exited their primes, including Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith on defense and Jonathan Toews at center, but Keith and Toews remain plenty skilled and capable, and Patrick Kane hasn’t lost his touch as an elite scorer. A few key offensive cogs up front are ascending, too. Alex DeBrincat led Chicago in goals with 28 as a rookie, while Nick Schmaltz broke out for 52 points. Even Brandon Saad, coming off a terrible year, is just 25 and capable of bouncing back.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO
Crawford will help if he’s back, but concussions are tricky and he’s more likely to miss time than have a healthy year. Ward, 34, was one of the league’s worst regulars last year, so Chicago’s goaltending might not be fixed after all. The Blackhawks’ scoring also isn’t a lock to rebound. They averaged their second-fewest goals per game since Kane’s rookie season of 2007-08, the power play was one of the worst and they made no impactful roster moves up front. Soon-to-be 39-year-old Chris Kunitz doesn’t cut it.

The blueline is Chicago’s biggest weakness by far. Keith is 35 and overworked as the team’s No. 1 D-man, especially given how much Seabrook’s game has declined. The Hawks lack depth on defense and it didn’t help when they dealt Jordan Oesterle in the off-season. The 2017-18 team allowed the most shots and goals of the Quenneville era. That trend could continue since Chicago shares a division with two powerhouses in Winnipeg and Nashville. Unless GM Stan Bowman trades for a top-four defenseman – or a prospect such as Adam Boqvist or Henri Jokiharju makes the club – this team will keep bleeding chances, and it’ll be another long year in the Windy City.

BURNING QUESTION
How long does ‘Coach Q’ last if Blackhawks get off to a shaky start?
Here’s some ominous news for Quenneville as he prepares to begin his second decade coaching the Blackhawks: Crawford, who has only seen the ice for personal training sessions, is looking doubtful at best for the start of the season. That means Ward will likely start the campaign as Chicago’s No. 1 netminder. That’s not the ideal scenario for a club that looked lost without Crawford last season, and it’s most certainly not the most reassuring situation for Quenneville, who is sitting on one of the hottest seats in the NHL.

The threat of change has loomed large in Chicago for the past couple of seasons, beginning around the time the Blackhawks were ousted from the 2017 post-season in four games at the hands of the Predators. But add to it last season’s post-season miss and the ever-increasing potential for a rocky start with Crawford on the shelf and one has to wonder how many games Quenneville will get to prove he can still guide this team to victory. Of course, he can’t shoulder all of the blame for the lack of success given the roster is full of holes, but the first change made to shake up a struggling team often occurs behind the bench.

THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 7th in the Central Division. The uncertainty surrounding Crawford makes the Blackhawks a bad bet in a contender-laden division. Chicago should hope for growth from their youngsters and a high pick that can rejuvenate this lineup sooner rather than later.

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