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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.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

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.