Blackhawks are back in playoff race, but are they a serious threat?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It was barely one month ago that the Chicago Blackhawks had the worst record in the NHL. Not just one of the worst, but the absolute worst. Dead last and sitting in the basement all by themselves.

They had just 41 points in their first 49 games, their season looked lost even in the lackluster and historically weak Western Conference, and it was time to start looking at what veterans could — or would — be shipped out before the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline in an effort to clear future salary cap space off the books. A second-consecutive non-playoff season seemed to be a given.

Truthfully, that is probably the position they should still be in. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings (6:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) they have won just 25 of their first 60 games and are only on pace for 80 points this season. But because of the incompetence of everyone else in the West to secure the two wild card spots, as well as an 11-game stretch where they have won nine games, the Blackhawks once again find themselves firmly in the playoff race just one point back.

They also have an opportunity to keep that stretch rolling as only three of their next nine games are against teams currently in a playoff spot, and two of those three games are against a Dallas Stars team that is right there on the playoff bubble with the Blackhawks. All of it is a great opportunity to come back from the basement and salvage what looked to be a complete failure of a season.

While acknowledging that the biggest factor in their place in the race is the current state of the West, the Blackhawks do deserve some credit for turning their season around over the past month.

They still had to win those games, and they have put themselves in a position to make a serious run at a playoff spot.

How have they done it, and is it something the rest of the Western Conference should be worried about?

Their stars have carried the offense

On Wednesday morning, our Joey Alfieri wrote about the resurgence of Jonathan Toews this season after several years of decline, and he has been outstanding over the past 11 games with a team-leading 10 goals and eight assists during the Blackhawks’ climb up the standings.

He is not the only one that has leading the charge.

Patrick Kane has been arguably the hottest player in the entire league over the past month with 26 points since Jan. 17. That run has helped him climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard and has him in second place with 90 points. Overall, this has been by far the best offensive season of his career — even better than the 2015-16 season when he won the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy. His current point pace has him on track for 125 points this season.

Then there is Alex DeBrincat. The second-year standout has taken a massive leap forward this year and has already blown away all of his rookie year totals with still 22 games remaining on the schedule. He continues to look like the steal of his draft class and another reminder as to why teams should never overlook the skillful, undersized player that has shown an ability to fill the net.

There is no replacement for high-end talent, and for all of the flaws the Blackhawks have they still have plenty of impact players sprinkled throughout their roster and they are shining for them right now.

Dylan Strome has been a home run

In a lot of ways he has looked like the players thought the Arizona Coyotes were getting when they selected him with the No. 3 overall pick a few years ago.

The 22-year-old Strome has made the most of his opportunity in Chicago and enters play on Wednesday night with 35 points in 36 games, including 19 points over his past 11 games. This was always a great gamble for the Blackhawks because they needed to find young, cheap players that might be able to make an impact around their core of aging, high-priced veterans. They still have him for one more full year at an entry-level price of $863,000. If they can get this sort of production out of him over a full season at that cost he could be a game-changing presence in the Blackhawks’ lineup.

Simply put, they’ve been lucky

This can not be overlooked because it is probably the biggest factor in the turnaround.

They have been lucky in the sense that the bottom half of the West is a raging inferno of a dumpster fire. Even with this most recent stretch of strong play they are still, again, on pace for only 80 points. That point total in the West a year ago would have been 15 points short of a playoff spot. Eighty-seven points is the low-end total for a playoff team in the salary cap era, and it seems to be a given that floor is going to be shattered this season with one of these teams sneaking in.

Even with the recent hot streak and the great offensive performances from their top players the Blackhawks still aren’t playing all that great as a team in some very key areas.

Their possession and scoring chance numbers during 5-on-5 play are among the worst in the league since Jan. 17, while they are giving up 3.34 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play which is the absolute worst mark in the league during that stretch.

What has saved them has been the scoring from their top players, but even that seems like a hot streak that’s going to cool off.

As a team the Blackhawks have scored on more than 10 percent of their 5-on-5 shots during this stretch, the second highest mark in the league. When you break it down to an individual level it’s simply a lot of great players that have all hit a hot streak at the same time. They currently have five players that are carrying shooting percentage of 17.6 percent or higher over the past month, including four that are over 22 percent and three that are over 24 percent.

Nobody consistently scores on a quarter of their shots over an extended period of time, no matter how talented they are.

That should be the concern here.

Once some of that shooting luck dries up (and it will) there is not much else going on here to bail the Blackhawks out.

They are not good defensively, their goaltending is a huge question mark, and they don’t really dominate possession the way they did in their glory years. This has the look of a team that simply got on a hot run with the schedule falling in their favor a little bit. Had it not been for the circumstances of the Western Conference playoff field we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. Keep in mind, this recent stretch isn’t even as good as what the Philadelphia Flyers have done over the past month-and-a-half (13-3-1 over their past 17 games!) and they’re not even within serious striking distance of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Because of the competition (or lack thereof) around them, as well as the their upcoming schedule, the Blackhawks have a pretty good shot to actually pull this off and get in the playoffs. Once you get in there is always a chance that something crazy could happen in a seven-game series, and given that both potential top seeds in the West (San Jose and Calgary) have pretty big question marks in goal right now the potential for an upset could be there, especially if the Blackhawks’ shooters could get hot again. Where the Blackhawks have to be careful is thinking that this dramatically changes the big picture outlook for the team.

Getting in the playoffs this season, in this manner, with this roster doesn’t mean their championship window is opening back up. This is still a top-heavy team with some bad contracts and big holes that is, for the time being, taking advantage of the circumstances around it.

For the first time in his career, Mike Tirico will call play-by-play for an NHL game on Wednesday when the Red Wings host the Blackhawks. He’ll be joined in the booth by Eddie Olczyk and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.