Three questions facing Chicago Blackhawks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

Sadly, Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita died at age 78. Read more about Mikita here.

For more on the Blackhawks’ outlook for 2018-19…

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off breakthrough | Toews’ place]

1. What’s going on with Corey Crawford?

In late-July, Crawford addressed questions about his health, expressing some vague optimism about possibly being ready for Blackhawks training camp. At the same time, he also admitted that he hasn’t resumed skating. Yikes.

It really must be said just how great Crawford’s been, and for quite some time. Since 2014-15, he’s tied for the second-best save percentage (.923) among goalies who’ve played at least 70 games.

Crawford’s done so behind an increasingly suspect Blackhawks defense, and after years of providing great backups, the drop-off from Crawford to everyone else was extremely steep in 2017-18.

If money, “experience,” and happy memories were enough to stop pucks, then Cam Ward could be the knight in shining armor for Chicago. After all, they paid the veteran goalie $3 million to back up Crawford, possibly penciling Ward in for something closer to platoon role if Crawford’s limited by injuries.

The Cam Ward Experience didn’t exactly work out so great for the Hurricanes, at least during the last decade. Since 2012-13, Ward’s been at a .910 save percentage or lower. In 668 career regular-season games, Ward’s save percentage is .909. It’s tough to imagine Ward getting the job done if pressed into anything close to starter duty.

There are two potential ideal scenarios: 1) Crawford ends up being fine, or close to fine, health-wise and/or 2) Cam Ward ends up flourishing in Chicago, because goalies are incredibly difficult to predict. Even ones who’ve been mediocre-to-bad for a decade.

Most realistically, this is an area of great risk and concern.

2. Can they really contend?

The Blackhawks decided to bring GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville back for 2018-19, and to some extent, it’s easy to see why.

As we covered earlier with Coach Q, he’s one of the NHL’s best bench bosses, if not the best one. He’s won three Stanley Cups and pressed a lot of the right buttons for Chicago even during “close but no cigar” years. That said, the Blackhawks didn’t even sniff that cigar in missing the postseason entirely last season.

Bowman’s had his slip ups as GM, especially lately, yet there have also been plenty of shrewd moments. He’s made his mistakes regarding who to keep and who to let go during the team’s many cap crunches, yet Bowman also has been willing to make the correct – but also painful – calls where dimmer executives would load Chicago up with even more albatross deals.

It would be petulant to deny what Bowman and Quenneville have accomplished, and similarly foolish to assume that the game’s totally passed them by.

There are some ways this could work out and Chicago could be very much in the mix once again. That’s especially true if Crawford is healthy and on point, key scorers – not just Kane and Toews, but Brandon Saad – bounce back, and other things come together.

It’s easy to forget that, while the Blackhawks were humbled by a first-round sweep by the Predators during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they also won their division in 2016-17. (And hey, they lost to the team that came within two wins of winning it all.)

If enough things go right, a playoff berth is feasible. Even their critics would probably admit that.

On the other hand, what’s the best Chicago can expected against an absolutely brutal Central Division? They could overachieve in every area and still land in a wild-card position, at best. This front office needs to take a long look in the mirror.

3. Is it instead time for a rebuild, or at least a “soft reboot?”

One disadvantage of keeping Bowman and Quenneville around is that they’re probably less likely to pull off the Band-Aid and acknowledge that, maybe, the Blackhawks need to take a step back before they really push forward.

Honestly, some serious soul searching is necessary to determine if this team has the ceiling to truly contend. If not, Chicago could risk falling into the sort of purgatory the Red Wings are becoming uncomfortably familiar with: too good to get a high-end prospect, too bad to be relevant.

The Blackhawks might look to Sharks GM Doug Wilson, as annoying as his offer sheeting once was, as a good example of trying to pivot. (Depending upon how things go with the Rangers, they might serve as a beacon, too.)

As you may remember, Wilson somewhat boldly traded Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus, and Ryane Clowe for a bucket of picks around the 2013 trade deadline (with Handzus doing very little for Chicago). The Sharks piled up futures, got rid of dead weight contracts, and still made the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even winning a round.

Such a triumph isn’t necessarily likely, although it’s not outrageous.

The point is that the Blackhawks might be better off punting 2018-19 in hopes of loading up for a few bigger swings with at least a chunk of Toews’ and Kane’s primes remaining.

For all we know, the smart move for Chicago might be to wait out the Panarin sweepstakes in hopes of not giving up a single asset and merely signing him as a UFA next summer. There’s a possibility that the Blackhawks would add another high draft pick after landing Adam Boqvist, who likely needs at least a year or two of seasoning before making an NHL impact, anyway.

Ideally, the Blackhawks would also gain more insight regarding Crawford’s future, among other questions hovering over their heads.

It wouldn’t be pretty, but tanking might eventually help them win the war to contend once again.

How would Jack Hughes look in a Blackhawks sweater?

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.