Getty

Three questions facing Chicago Blackhawks

3 Comments

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.

Canadiens clobber flat Flyers in Game 2, First Round playoff series now tied 1-1

Canadiens Flyers Habs Game 2 series tied 1-1
Getty Images
Leave a comment

If you’re compiling a list of the most one-sided periods from the NHL return, you can’t ignore how thoroughly the Canadiens dominated the Flyers to open Game 2. From there, the Flyers never really took off, and the Canadiens cruised to a dominant 5-0 Game 2 win to tie the series 1-1.

Chalk it up to a “Win it for Claude” attitude as head coach Claude Julien was hospitalized before Game 2, or any number of motivational factors, but this was a lopsided affair.

It took almost the entire first period for the Flyers to merely earn a shot on goal. By then, the Canadiens were already up 2-0, and then opened the second period on a power play following a controversial penalty whistled on Shayne Gostisbehere defending a breaking Max Domi.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Let’s be honest, though: the Flyers might strain something trying to reach for that moment as an excuse. This was almost a baffling affair, and it was far from Carter Hart‘s fault, as the young goalie got the hook for Brian Elliott after the 4-0 goal.

Carey Price needed to make some nice saves to keep the score the way it was, but this was a sound Game 2 win for Montreal. Price generated his seventh career playoff shutout, stopping all 30 shots. While his performance won’t be the main focus, Price helped stop the Flyers on some power-play opportunities that might have made Game 2 more competitive.

Max Domi ranked among the other standout Canadiens, collecting three assists in Game 2. Also, Jesperi Kotkaniemi continues to look more like the beyond-his-years rookie version of himself, rather than the Kotkaniemi who struggled enough to get demoted to the AHL in 2019-20. Both Kotkaniemi and Tomas Tatar enjoyed two-goal performances against the flummoxed Flyers in Game 2.

Flyers might just want to burn the tape from Game 2 beatdown vs. Canadiens

For the Flyers, there are some questions. Is Travis Konecny OK after leaving the contest with an injury? Could some of this boil down to overconfidence for a team that’s been red-hot really since before the pause (they won nine of their last 10 regular season games).

On one hand, there’s likely less heartache when you just experience a dud of a game. On the other hand, it’s important to do some soul-searching after a game like this. Especially since, as usual, the Habs dealt most of their damage at even-strength.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Philadelphia 2, Montreal 1 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal 5, Philadelphia 0
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Canucks-Blues stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

Canucks-Blues stream
Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s First Round matchup between the Canucks and Blues. Coverage begins at 630 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Blues stream at 6:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Canucks beat the defending Stanley Cup champs 5-2 in Game 1 on Wednesday. The game was tied 2-2 going into the third period before Vancouver scored three goals in the final 20 minutes to seal the win.

Vancouver lost its first game of the qualifying round vs Minnesota, being shut out in a 3-0 loss. Since then, they have won four
straight games, scoring three-plus goals in every game.

After leading the Blues to a Stanley Cup as a rookie last season, Jordan Binnington has struggled to regain that form in this year’s playoffs. He has lost all three of his starts and allowed five goals on 22 shots in Game 1 against Vancouver, his second straight
game allowing five-plus goals. He allowed a soft goal in the third period from Troy Stecher, which head coach Craig Berube said “He probably wants that one back for sure. But it is what it is.”

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, August 14, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver 5, St. Louis 2
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Avalanche take 2-0 series lead, but Coyotes tested Avs in Game 2

Leave a comment

The Coyotes almost looked like a different team from the passive group the Avalanche handled in Game 1, but the Avs still won Game 2. Thanks to a late game-winning goal by Andre Burakovsky, the Avalanche beat the Coyotes 3-2 in Game 2, taking a 2-0 series lead.

Top Avs make a difference (but so do Avalanche supporting cast members) vs. Coyotes in Game 2

Sometimes, in close games, it boils down to top players like Nathan MacKinnon simply making plays. In a flash, MacKinnon seized an opportunity for … well, a very MacKinnon-like goal. Even a red-hot goalie like Darcy Kuemper can only do so much on chances like these:

The Desert Dogs wouldn’t just roll over in this one, though.

While Taylor Hall wasn’t credited with an assist, he made a nice pass to help set up a Clayton Keller 1-1 goal. Throughout Game 2, the Avalanche and Coyotes traded hard hits and chances aplenty. In particular, Nikita Zadorov threw some questionable checks, including one that prompted an elbowing penalty when he hit Conor Garland, a hidden gem for the Coyotes.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Again, this was a much better effort from the Coyotes. Arizona generated more shots on goal during the second period (15) of Game 2 than the Coyotes did in all of Game 1 (14). Philipp Grubauer wouldn’t ease into a shutout in this one, but he helped the Avs hold on and hang in there.

Nazem Kadri and other supporting cast members seem poised to continue giving the Avalanche a boost when there were times before when it felt like it was MacKinnon’s line or bust. Kadri set up a very nice Andre Burakovsky game-winner, and that was enough for the Avalanche.

The Avalanche hold quite an edge with this 2-0 series lead, but if the Coyotes can stay focused as the two teams turn around for Game 3 on Saturday, this could end up being a lot more interesting than Game 1 indicated.

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes (COL leads 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Colorado 3, Arizona 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Colorado 3, Arizona 2
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien receives stent, heads home

Claude Julien Montreal stent heart
Getty Images
1 Comment

TORONTO — Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien is returning home to Montreal a day after a stent was placed in a coronary artery. The team said doctors expect a full recovery.

Julien was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto overnight Wednesday with chest pain. He had surgery Thursday.

“Coach Julien would like to convey his most sincere thanks to everyone at St. Michael’s Hospital for the wonderful care he received during his stay,” the Canadiens said in a statement Friday. “He also wishes to personally and sincerely thank everyone who has sent their well wishes during this time.”

Since Julien left the NHL bubble in Toronto, he will have to follow quarantine protocol if he wishes to re-enter it.

Team members wanting to return to the bubble must provide four consecutive negative COVID-19 tests carried out over four days. They will be quarantined for at least that time period, and possibly up to 14 days depending on risk of exposure while outside the bubble.

Kirk Muller will serve as interim head coach for the rest of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers led the series 1-0 entering Game 2 on Friday.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule