Alex DeBrincat

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Price of success finally catching up to Blackhawks

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The Chicago Blackhawks have made the playoffs in each of the last nine seasons, but that streak looks like it’s in some trouble.

After last night’s 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, the ‘Hawks find themselves eight points behind Minnesota for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Both teams have played 54 games.

If you’re rooting for them to make the playoffs, you’ll likely be disappointed by what general manager Stan Bowman said yesterday.

“I don’t expect us to be a buyer this year,” Bowman said, per The Athletic’s Scott Powers. “It has nothing to do with where we are in the standings. It’s just that each season is a little bit different. Your team is different.

“I think the strength of our team is we’re trying to build some young players we’re going to have. We have a lot of new players this year relative to last year. I think it’s hard when you bring in 11, 12 new players every year.”

The price of success

Obviously, Bowman has a point. Being successful in today’s NHL comes at a price. Eventually, your best players have to get paid. And since you can’t pay everybody, you’re bound to lose players either via trade or in free agency.

Last summer, for example, they were forced to trade Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa had to stop playing because of an allergy and Scott Darling‘s rights were dealt to Carolina. Those are three pretty signifiant pieces of the puzzle to lose in one offseason.

On top of losing those players, the Blackhawks have also been without starting goalie Corey Crawford for a good chunk of the year (having Darling would’ve helped). They’ve watched as “new” acquisitions like Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad have struggled and to make matters worse, long-time ‘Hawks Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith don’t appear to be as effective as they once were.

Thankfully for them, they have young players that have made progress in 2017-18. Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz lead the way in that department. Both players have have shown that they have a bright future ahead of them. The problem is that Chicago doesn’t have a ton of young assets to work with. That’s another down side to winning, you draft late and you have to work harder to find quality prospects.

Heading into this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Bowman is already without his second and fourth round draft picks, but he does have two selections in round five. So using picks to help improve the roster right now shouldn’t be an option.

Fixing the cap situation

Bowman shouldn’t be in a hurry to offload big names either, but if Chicago is going to turn this thing around quickly they’ll have to get their salary cap situation in order, which won’t be easy considering Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Saad and Patrick Kane combine to make almost $39.5 million per season. All five of them are also signed for at least three more years.

We’ve heard that scoring wingers like Rick Nash, Evander Kane, Max Pacioretty and Mike Hoffman are all available, but it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Hawks are willing to unload Saad after a mediocre season. They could certainly use the $6 million in cap space, but getting rid of him when his value is at its lowest probably isn’t a great idea, either.

It would be surprising to see them try to unload Keith and/or Toews, so that’s likely not an option and there’s no way they’re moving Kane. The biggest challenge will be to find a way for someone to take Seabrook off their hands. If they could get rid of his $6.875 million cap hit (signed through 2023-24), that would change the game. Unfortunately for them, his play and no-move clause make that nearly impossible.Bowman will have to continue being creative with the bottom of his roster, if he’s going to help his team make it back to the postseason soon.

It’s clear that the roster isn’t in good shape, but it’s important to remember that this core won three Stanley Cups together. But a lot of teams would sign up for a few years of salary cap hell if it meant taking home three championships.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

WATCH LIVE: Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators

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WATCH LIVE AT 8 P.M. ET

Projected lineups

Chicago Blackhawks

Alex DeBrincatJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair

Brandon SaadNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Ryan HartmanArtem AnisimovTommy Wingels

Vinnie HinostrozaDavid KampfTomas Jurco

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Erik GustafssonBrent Seabrook

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Anton Forsberg

NHL on NBCSN: Preds look to deliver blow to Blackhawks’ playoff chances

Nashville Predators

Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson

Scott HartnellKyle TurrisCraig Smith

Kevin FialaNick BoninoCalle Jarnkrok

Miikka SalomakiColton SissonsAustin Watson

Roman JosiRyan Ellis

Alexei EmelinP.K. Subban

Mattias EkholmMatt Irwin

Starting goalie: Juuse Saros

PHT Midseason Report Card: Central Division

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Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Chicago Blackhawks

Season Review: They’ve dealt with Corey Crawford being injured twice and Jeff Glass has been one of the heartwarming stories this season. But sitting last in a notoriously tough Central Division is unfamiliar territory for the Blackhawks. They’ve simply underperformed given the talent they possess. Grade: D-

Biggest Surprise: Alex DeBrincat. The second-round pick in 2016 has been sensational in his rookie season with 17 goals and 32 points in 49 games played. His 17.2 percent shooting percentage is stellar, and he’s defying the (perceived) odds at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds.

Biggest Disappointment: Brent Seabrook has been a healthy scratch and Jonathan Toews is well off point-per-game production and Duncan Keith hasn’t scored a goal since last March. But Chicago’s biggest disappointment is a team effort. They’re simply too inconsistent. Scoring droughts have plagued this team this season and their power play is fourth-worst in the league.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Blackhawks won’t have to worry about a disappointing first-round exit this year as they’re unlikely to get into the playoffs as it stands. It might be time to give that roster a small detonation. Stan Bowman has worked his genius to keep his team’s competitive in the past. Now he may have to work that genius to get his team back to that.

Second half outlook: The Blackhawks have all the talent to work their way out of the basement in the Central. They’re only four points adrift of a playoff spot, but that can seem like 10 in a division that is as stacked as it is. That success hinges on the health of Corey Crawford, who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. Until he’s able to return, things don’t look great.

  • Colorado Avalanche

Season Review: Early on, the Avs season seemed to go as expected. They hit the lowest of lows last season, so some improvement was expected, but to be in a playoff spot at the All-Star break was something anyone would have thought. Of course, 10-game winning streaks are helpful, as is the ridiculous play of Nathan MacKinnon. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Mikko Rantanen is a point-per-game player. Nathan MacKinnon is having that breakout season many had been waiting for (and should be up for the Hart Trophy). Alex Kerfoot has had a great rookie campaign. Sam Girard is turning bona fide NHL defenseman. But Jonathan Bernier has been integral to the team’s recent success, highlighted during their 10-game winning streak where Bernier collected nine straight wins. He’s sitting with a .919 save percentage and is looking like the Bernier that played for the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Biggest Disappointment: Matt Duchene is gone, and thus, so is the easy pick here. Some might point to Tyson Jost, but he’s been injured and thus is a little behind where some might have pegged him at the mid-way point. Nail Yakupov’s name could work here, but his career has been a disappointment.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Colorado is a young team that’s still rebuilding. They got a king’s ransom for Matt Duchene. If the Avs keep climbing up in the Division, it’s conceivable that Joe Sakic looks for some depth, but staying the course with a team that’s showing some positive signs should be the focus. The Avs aren’t winning the Cup this year.

Second Half Outlook: This team has found some much-needed chemistry and is gelling as a young squad. That bodes well for a good second half of the season if they can continue. But young teams can have young-team problems. Consistency down the stretch could be an issue and the Avs are by no means a lock for a playoff spot. A 10-game winning streak only got them to the second wildcard spot. The tough part now will be keeping it.

  • Dallas Stars

Season Review: The Stars have been a great home team this season, but have only begun to get things in order on the road, where they stumbled during the first two months of the season. Still, the Stars have worked their way into the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference thanks to improvements in team defense and goaltending.  Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: John Klingberg is a good defenseman. We knew this coming into the season. But to be in the running for the Norris might have been a stretch back in September. But that’s where Klingberg is at the moment, leading NHL defenseman in points (and sitting second on the Stars, behind Alexander Radulov and ahead of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin).

Biggest Disappointment: This one is easy: Jason Spezza. Spezza is forging a path to a career-worst year in terms of production. Early this month, he was made a healthy scratch, a coach’s decision by Ken Hitchcock stemming then from a five-game spell with no points and low ice time. Factor in that he’s counting $7.5 million toward the cap and the picture becomes even more clear.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy if it makes sense, but don’t sell assets. The Stars have a goalie in Ben Bishop and other talents they can build around going forward.

Second half outlook: The Stars play 11 games (including a six-game road trip) away from American Airlines arena in March and April. Given their position at the moment and coupled with their away record, it would appear that will be their biggest test in the second half if they can maintain where they are at the moment.

  • Minnesota Wild

Season Review: Spinning the tires. The Wild could be given a pass after some of the injuries they’ve dealt with – Devan Dubnyk and Zach Parise come to mind. It is a team that finished second in the division with, largely, the same roster, so the talent is there. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: Matt Dumba makes some bone-headed plays. And then he makes some plays that leave you scratching your head, in a good way. He sits only behind Ryan Suter in terms of points and he’s averaging nearly 23 minutes per night. If he keeps it up, he’ll record a career-year in goals and assists.

Biggest disappointment: Marcus Foligno. He’s played better as of late, but that doesn’t excuse a rocky first half that saw him in the press box in December. The 26-year-old was supposed to bring depth to the lineup when the Wild acquired him in a four-player deal on the eve of free agency last year.

Trade Deadline Strategy: So many teams on the cusp of a playoff spot in this division that it’s hard to sort out which teams should buy and which should sell. The Wild have the talent to be much better than they are. We saw that last season. Perhaps a depth player or two on the cheap would help.

Second half outlook: Getting better away would certainly help. The Wild are one of four teams tied on 57 points and tied for the second wildcard spot, with Colorado holding the tiebreaker at the moment). The Wild have eight home games in February, which bodes well given their 17-4-4 record at Xcel Energy Center. But they have two big road games to start the month in Dallas and St. Louis and play Colorado twice in March. Those will be pivotal. The Wild are getting healthy and that could spell trouble for other teams around them on the bubble.

  • Nashville Predators

Season Review: The Stanley Cup finalists from last year have picked up where they left off, currently trailing the Winnipeg Jets by one point for tops in the division. They’re playing great at home (16-4-3) and have picked up points in 17 of 24 road games (13-7-4), a drastic change from this team a year ago. They have Pekka Rinne playing great along with the litany of talent in front of him, which is scoring at a better pace than last season. Grade: A-

Biggest Surprise: Kevin Fiala had 16 points in his rookie season last year. This year, he’s nearly doubled that in eight fewer games. The addition of Kyle Turris has certainly helped, making that line (with Craig Smith) a potent option that’s providing a secondary scoring threat. Fiala’s season including a nine-game point streak in December.

Biggest Disappointment: Perhaps the only disappointment on this Preds team is that Ryan Ellis has only been limited to nine games after offseason knee surgery. He returned earlier this month.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Bolster. The Preds Stanley Cup window is still wide open. Perhaps another player for bottom six depth. Not much needed on a team this good.

Second half outlook: More of the same. The Preds have been solid against their own division with a 10-3-2 record and just need to stay the course.

  • St. Louis Blues

Season Review: Man, did this team every navigate some tough injury problems to start the season, something that speaks to the depth in St. Louis.  Grade: B-.

Biggest Surprise: Brayden Schenn has been nothing short of spectacular since getting traded last year. Schenn, currently at the NHL All-Star Game, leads the Blues with 50 points and is tied for the team lead with 21 goals. Schenn hit 59 points in 80 games a couple years back. He looks set to smash that career-high.

Biggest Disappointment: The team waived Magnus Paajarvi this week, so scratch that idea. Jake Allen deserves a mention. Carter Hutton is sitting on a .943 save percentage this season while Allen is only sporting a .909. Hutton is the backup and producing numbers that Blues’ fans hoped Allen would. Also, where is Alexander Steen?

Trade Deadline Strategy: With all their injury problems, a couple of depth players wouldn’t hurt just in case.

Second half outlook: Jaden Schwartz’s return after missing two months is a huge boon for the Blues. Schwartz had 35 points in 30 games before busting his ankle. Now, with the line of Schenn, Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko back together, domination could ensue once again.

  • Winnipeg Jets

Season Review: The best team heading in the to All-Star break. Yes, the Winnipeg Jets. What’s got them there? Great goaltending, for starters. A season worthy of a Hart Trophy nod for Blake Wheeler as well. And they’re just finding ways to win games, especially ones that, in the past, they would find ways to lose. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Undoubtedly Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets went out and got what they thought would be their No. 1 netminder in Steve Mason during free agency. Yeah. Not in Hellebuyck’s house. The second-year starter is in the Vezina conversation and is at the NHL All-Star Game along with Pekka Rinne. Who in Winnipeg thought the former would be the same conversation as the latter at the end of last season?

Biggest Disappointment: Dustin Byfuglien. It took him nearly half the season to score his first goal and has just two at the All-Star break. Couple that with some interesting defensive decisions and you have the makings of one of his worst seasons of his career, statistically speaking and otherwise.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy. The Jets have a legitimate shot at making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They seemingly have all the tools: a rededication to team defense, a high-scoring offense, great netminding and one of the best power plays in the league. They could probably use some depth on their fourth line and perhaps a seventh defenseman with playoff experience.

Second half outlook: Keep on keeping on. The Jets haven’t strung together a big losing streak this season, something that’s derailed them in the past. They basically play all of February at home at Bell MTS Place, which has become a fortress for them this season. The Jets just need to keep doing what got them to the summit of the division in the second half. Oh, and they’ll get Mark Scheifele back sometime next month. 

Previous: Atlantic Division / Metropolitan Division

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: A throwback night for Ryans

Players of the Night:

Highlight of the Night: Ryan Callahan turns back the clock.

Seriously, Callahan did this … in 2018.

Chris Neil honored: So many black eyes and bruises.

Factoids

Read about Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin reaching milestones here.

A quirky stat stemming from John Gibson‘s troubling injury, and Ryan Miller coming in relief:

Speaking of Miller …

… and speaking of Miller, again:

And speaking of a team that once tormented Miller, at least when Milan Lucic was around:

Scores

Predators 3, Devils 0
Lightning 5, Flyers 1
Penguins 6, Wild 3
Hurricanes 6, Canadiens 5
Bruins 3, Senators 2
Blackhawks 5, Red Wings 1
Capitals 4, Panthers 2
Blues 3, Avalanche 1
Maple Leafs 4, Stars 1
Oilers 4, Flames 3 (SO)
Blue Jackets 2, Coyotes 1
Sabres 4, Canucks 0
Islanders 2, Golden Knights 1
Ducks 4, Jets 3 (SO)
Rangers 6, Sharks 5

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

DeBrincat’s hat trick boosts Blackhawks over Red Wings

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With the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings at risk of both missing the playoffs for the same time for the first time since 1968, it’s tough not to ruminate on the past.

The Blackhawks have to be delighted, on the other hand, to note that potential future pieces played a big role in a convincing 5-1 win on Thursday.

After collecting an empty-netter in the closing moments, Alex DeBrincat collected a hat trick, likely inspiring a lot of “DeBrinhat” jokes. Forty-nine games into his career, the 20-year-old already owns two hat tricks and now has 17 goals and 32 points (DeBrincat also had an assist tonight). That’s not Calder Trophy material in a year like this, but it’s evidence that Chicago was justified in being excited when they selected him in the second round (39th overall) back in 2016.

DeBrincat wasn’t the only young player to show promise.

Anthony Duclair‘s start in Chicago has been quite, as he’s hovering around the 13 minutes per game that drew some complaints in Arizona. After only generating an assist in his first five games with the Blackhawks, Duclair scored a goal and two assists in just 4:46 of ice time in the first period. Maybe this outburst will earn a few more reps from Coach Q?

Even with this win, the Blackhawks are in a tough spot. They’re likely going to need other wild card hopefuls to stumble while really going on a tear to make the playoffs. We’ve seen glimpses of the once-dominant team many have grown to expect, but Chicago hasn’t been able to put it together often enough to keep up with a competitive Central Division and Western Conference.

Perhaps the Blackhawks need to roll the dice by depending more upon youngsters like DeBrincat and Duclair, as Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane might not be able to carry them as much as they have in the past? A diversified attack might be what they need with Corey Crawford‘s health still in question.

Those are thoughts that linger over the Blackhawks heading into the All-Star break, but at least they didn’t carry a losing streak into it, too. Instead, they snapped that four-game skid in a big way, maybe providing some optimism for what will need to be a blistering push.

You know, assuming that those days aren’t already in the past.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.