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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.

Crosby boosts Penguins to unlikely 14-goal weekend

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If someone told you that the Pittsburgh Penguins exploded for 14 goals in just two games on back-to-back nights, you might have assumed that key players like Evgeni Malkin returned to action. Failing that, maybe you’d ask if Sidney Crosby had been superhuman.

While Crosby was indeed fantastic during Saturday’s 7-4 win against the Wild (good enough to be one of the three stars on a busy day) and Sunday’s stunning 7-2 drubbing of the Jets, it wasn’t all him. Instead, it was a combination of a red-hot Crosby and a seemingly ragtag group of players coming together.

You can see the highlights of Sunday’s win in the video above, and check out Saturday’s score-fest against Minnesota here:

Pittsburgh’s games against the Jets seem to be all about subverting expectations. Earlier this season, Winnipeg won despite a ton of injuries to their defense; this time around, expectations were that Pittsburgh’s list of ailments would mean bad things, but instead the Pens won. In each case, the results were remarkably lopsided, too.

87 is on fire

Crosby’s strong play should not go unnoticed.

With two assists against Winnipeg, Crosby now has a three-game multi-point streak going, generating two goals and four assists for six points during that streak. The 32-year-old’s also scored at least one point during his first six games of 2019-20, collecting three goals and seven assists to total 10 points.

If the star center is slowing down with age, you have to really strain your eyes to see where he’s in heavy decline.

Not just Crosby

That said, 10 of those 14 goals didn’t involve Crosby points, so obviously it’s not just 87.

Sam Lafferty’s arguably had an even better weekend than Crosby. The 24-year-old is rapidly becoming more than a relative unknown who was a fourth-rounder (113th overall) from 2014. Lafferty scored two goals on Sunday after generating a three-point night (his first NHL goal, plus two assists) against the Wild on Saturday. So, yes, Lafferty generated five points to Crosby’s four on the weekend.

Managing five points in less than 27 minutes of total ice time is just kind of ridiculous, and ventures an argument that the Penguins should give Lafferty more opportunities to prove himself, particularly as injuries linger for more prominent players.

Zach Aston-Reese made an argument for player of the game on Sunday, though, generating a three-point night against the Jets (two goals, one assist).

It’s a testament to the Penguins’ knack for finding the occasional gems in the draft or in free agency, as for all we know, all of those injuries might open the door for someone to be a more regular contributor. Such a thing happened for Matt Murray, and to some extent, Jake Guentzel.

Speaking of finding ways to win, judging from this Natural Stat Trick heat map, you wonder if the Penguins might have scouted out a weak spot for Laurent Brossoit, attacked an especially weak spot of Winnipeg’s defense, or maybe it was just a coincidence that so many chances and goals came from the same general area?

via Natural Stat Trick

One wouldn’t expect the lesser-known Penguins to stay so hot for too long, but little bursts like these can make a difference between missing or making the playoffs, or for a team with greater ambitions like Pittsburgh, maybe earning a round or two of home-ice advantage. Piling up points in games that look like losses on paper may also help the Penguins gain enough breathing room to give Crosby some rest down the line. As great as Crosby was in 2018-19 (with his underlying stats inspiring some to wonder if he deserved more Hart buzz), there were signs that he was wearing down for a Pittsburgh team that needed to battle to make the postseason. In an era of sports where teams are more interested in “load management,” the Penguins might want to work a little harder to earn that luxury for Crosby and others.

Either way, the Penguins are showing some moxy, so don’t count them out when they face the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday (a game you can watch on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET).

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Kings are covering up Taylor Swift banner despite risk of bad blood

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Sometimes you come across things so silly, it’s honestly tough to shake them off. The Los Angeles Kings accomplished that recently, as they’ve announced that they will cover up a Taylor Swift banner for sold-out performances during Kings home games.

For all the talk of eyesores, don’t you think it’s weird that they’re forcing a blank space over the pop star’s already-goofy banner?

Before we ridicule the Kings too much, let’s let them finish. It seems that this is a response to fans’ general disdain, as the Los Angeles Times’ Arash Markazi reported.

“The connection to our fans is our highest priority and through our engagement they have made it clear that the banner shouldn’t be part of their Kings game experience,” Kings/AEG Sports executive Michael Altieri said. “We didn’t see an issue in covering it for our games and in fact see it as an opportunity to show our fans that we hear them.”

Because hockey fans are involved, this isn’t a purely aesthetic argument, as extremely silly superstitions also seem to be involved.

Yes, some Kings fans think that the team’s colossal plummet down the standings isn’t about a bunch of players hitting the aging curve beyond their wildest dreams; instead, it’s about Taylor Swift.

Riiiight.

There’s just something about Swift that brings out the illogical and petty in people, from Kanye West to the Kings. If nothing else, this goofy update draws some attention away from the Kings’ evergreen gloating about Jonathan Quick, who might just be losing his starting job to Jack Campbell.

This situation actually brings up some other interesting details.

Before reading about this, I personally hadn’t realized that the Los Angeles Clippers cover up Los Angeles Lakers banners during their games at Staples Center, which is such a profound gesture of insecurity that I find it kind of charming. It would be like covering up a sibling’s trophy chest during a high school date, or something. But it’s a reminder that the Kings aren’t the only sports team being weird about banners — even in their own building.

Then again, considering Ye’s journey to the deep end after crossing T-Swizzle, I’m not sure if the Kings should really encourage such bad blood.

(Also: Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames need to get on this by aligning with Swift. Maybe bring 1989 throwbacks full circle? Perhaps the Flames could play a bunch of Swift songs, like a happy version of the Miami Dolphins passive aggressively playing Jay Z songs to mock Kenny Stills?)

Anyway, hopefully you enjoyed this extremely hockey story, and it begs the question: what other NHL team – pop star feuds would you like to see? Prediction: the New Jersey Devils will not take on Bruce Springsteen … or even Bon Jovi.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Petr Cech marks hockey debut with winning shootout save

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Legendary soccer goalkeeper Petr Cech traded in soccer cleats for ice skates this week after joining up with the Guildford Phoenix of the United Kingdom’s National Ice Hockey League.

The 37-year-old made his debut on Sunday, leading the Phoenix to a 3-2 win over the Swindon Wildcats after a shootout. Sporting a mask designed by the great Dave Gunnarsson which featured a tribute to fellow Czech Dominik Hasek and the logos of Arsenal and Chelsea, the two Premier League soccer teams he played for (and in Chelsea’s case, his current employer).

With the score tied at two, the Phoenix and Wildcats entered the shootout and Cech made two stops, including the final one of the game in front of a record crowd of 909.

For his part, Cech was named man of the match.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said afterward. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”

Now, it’s back to work for Cech at Chelsea as the club’s technical and performance advisor until his next appearance in net for the Phoenix.

MORE: Petr Cech trades soccer goal for hockey net, signs with Guildford Phoenix

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Namestnikov’s revenge game; Crosby keeps dominating

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Three Stars

1. Vladislav Namestnikov, Ottawa Senators. Two years ago Namestnikov was skating on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line alongside Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. After boosting his value, he was then used as a trade chip for the team to land defender Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before the 2017-18 trade deadline. After a mostly disappointing stay on Broadway, he was traded to Ottawa this past week for another fresh start. So far, so good, and it came at the Lightning’s expense. Namestnikov scored two goals — including the game-winner — for the Senators on Saturday to help his new team get its first win of the season. On paper, this game should have been a mismatch, but the Senators drastically outplayed the Lightning in what was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. After scoring 50 goals and 100 points a year ago and finishing in the top-four of the league in both categories, Draisaitl is picking up where he left and is once again looking like a superstar. He finished with three points on Saturday afternoon — including two goals — to help the Oilers improve to 5-0 on the season. He and Connor McDavid (two more points on Saturday) are carrying the offense again.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Penguins’ forward lineup dealing with a ton of injuries they are going to need their captain and his line to dominate for them to have a chance to win. Right now, they are dominating. Crosby was great once again on Saturday night, picking up two more points in a 7-4 win over the Minnesota Wild, including a highlight reel backhand goal off the rush. He has recorded at least one point in every game this season and already has eight in the Penguins’ first five games. The Penguins also received some surprising production from their recent call-ups with Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty both recording their first NHL goals.

Other notable performances on Saturday

  • Brendan Gallagher finished with three points for the Montreal Canadiens as they handed the St. Louis Blues their first regulation loss of the season.
  • Rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov was amazing again for the Washington Capitals as they defeated the Dallas Stars. In his first two NHL starts Samsonov has allowed a total of two goals. He is the future of the position in The District.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his strong start with another goal in the Kings’ 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • The Winnipeg Jets overcame an early 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks to win in overtime on Mark Scheifele‘s second goal of the season. The Blackhawks remain winless.
  • Mark Stone, Will Carrier, and Max Pacioretty all had two points for the Vegas Golden Knights in their big 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Semyon Varlamov picked up his first win as a member of the New York Islanders by stopping all three shootout shots against the Florida Panthers. He also made 35 saves through regulation and overtime.
  • Tanner Pearson scored a goal in regulation and then added the game-winning goal in the shootout for the Vancouver Canucks in their win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • The Boston Bruins’ top line was once again dominant as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron both scored goals in a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils to keep them winless. Tuukka Rask was also brilliant again and has stopped 90 of the first 94 shots he has faced this season.

Highlights of the Night

It may have come in a losing effort but Kaapo Kakko‘s first NHL goal for the New York Rangers was a beautiful play.

Jacob De La Rose had one of the few highlights of the night for the Detroit Red Wings with this nice looking goal.

The Columbus Blue Jackets handed the Carolina Hurricanes their first loss of the season thanks to this great effort from Pierre-Luc Dubois.

The Colorado Avalanche improved to 4-0-0 on the season and it was new addition Andre Burakovsky scoring the game-winning goal for the second game in a row.

Blooper of the Night

There is really no other choice here, it has to be Jimmy Howard‘s gamble in Detroit that turned into a rather easy goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Rest in Peace

Factoids

  • The Capitals’ win against the Stars was their first regulation win in Dallas since the 1995 season. [NHL PR]
  • Phil Kessel played in his 1,000th NHL game on Saturday night, making him the third youngest active player to play in 1,000 games. [NHL PR]
  • Penguins goalie Matt Murray recorded his 100th career win on Saturday night, making him just the eight goalie since the 1966-67 season record 100 wins in 166 games or less. [NHL PR]
  • The Los Angeles Kings set a franchise record for fasted three goals, scoring three goals in 30 seconds during their win over the Nashville Predators. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers are the first team in NHL history to come-from-behind to win each of their first five games of the season. [NHL PR]

Scores
Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Rangers 1
Ottawa Senators 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Los Angeles Kings 7, Nashville Predators 4
Winnipeg Jets 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Boston Bruins 3, New Jersey Devils 0
Montreal Canadiens 6, St. Louis Blues 3
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Detroit Red Wings 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 2 (SO)
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Washington Capitals 4, Dallas Stars 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Minnesota Wild 4
Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (OT)
Vegas Golden Knights 6, Calgary Flames 2
Vancouver Canucks 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (SO)

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.