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Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another season.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: ‘No easy fix’ for emergency backup goalie situations like Ayres’

David Ayers NHL tries to fix emergency backup goalie situations EBUGS
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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.

• Bill Daly told reporters that there “are no easy fixes” for the NHL regarding emergency backup goalie situations like David Ayres suiting up for the Hurricanes. Ah yes, the league definitely must do something about the scourge that is getting a feel-good story that landed on outlets such as “Today Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Why would any league want scores of cheap attention if it comes with even an ounce of embarrassment? Preposterous! (Sportsnet)

• You’d think hockey people didn’t need to hear this, but stories like Ayres’ is why we love sports. (The Portage Citizen)

• Great stuff from William Douglas on memorable former NHL player Mike Grier, who ranks among four black assistant coaches in the NHL. Grier explains that his father Bobby Grier inspires his work ethic, as the elder Grier once was an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. (NHL.com celebrates Black History Month)

• Plenty of big names for the U.S. roster heading into the women’s world championship, including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Brianna Decker. If a familiar face isn’t there, it might be due to them having children. (Olympic Talk)

• Great news for the Blues, and really for hockey: Vladimir Tarasenko may return sooner than expected. As in, before the end of the regular season. (NHL.com)

• Blues GM Doug Armstrong explains why the team was quiet at the trade deadline. Frankly, Armstrong’s made enough splashes over the years that it’s understandable to sit one out. Plus, the Blues can make people roll their eyes by saying Tarasenko is their “trade deadline acquisition.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• If you only look at points, John Carlson ranks as the next Erik Karlsson when it comes to seemingly easy Norris Trophy calls. That said, the Capitals experienced a high-scoring blueliner getting downgraded before when Mike Green was at his fauxhawk’d peak. Could it happen again? Kevin Klein went into deep, fascinating detail on that question. (Japers Rink)

• Speaking of Capitals-related no-brainers, what about Alex Ovechkin playing a game in front of a Russian crowd? Daly says the league is working on it. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Adam Gretz argues that Conor Sheary can score enough to stick with Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ top line. Pittsburgh showed off its new look in a narrow loss to the Kings on Wednesday. (Pensburgh)

• When Viktor Arvidsson is rolling, the Predators often roll with him. Amid a turbulent season, it seems like Arvidsson is finding his way. That’s extremely promising for Nashville’s chances. (A to Z Sports Nashville)

• Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman lays out his plan, explaining that the draft and young players are “the lifeblood of your team.” (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Senators fans waved goodbye to key players in multiple trades now, from Karlsson to Mark Stone to now Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Could Pageau be the end of that line? (TSN)

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: Fleury’s shutout helps Golden Knights win 7th in a row

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury is starting to get on a roll for the Golden Knights and continued that on Wednesday night with his fifth shutout of the season in a big 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers. The win extend stheir lead in the Pacific Division. Fleury has now won each of his past five starts and is starting to get back on track after a mid-season slump. Vegas acquired Robin Lehner just before the NHL trade deadline to give the team some goaltending depth, and with Fleury playing the way he has lately they should have one of the best duos in the league going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Golden Knights’ winning streak now sits at seven consecutive games.

2. Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings. Petersen was the difference in the Kings’ 2-1 win over the Penguins on Wednesday, extending their losing streak to four games. He stopped 35 shots in the win including some great scoring chances in the closing seconds to secure the win. With Jack Campbell now in Toronto, Petersen is going to get an opportunity to be the primary backup for the Kings and he put on a great show against the Penguins. Read more about the Kings’ win right here.

3. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. With the Avalanche’s current injury situation they need their depth to come through. It did so again on Wednesday night in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, and it was Compher making the biggest impact with a goal and an assist. His goal late in the third period ended up being the game-winner to help the Avalanche extend their winning streak. Read more about their win right here.

Highlight of the Night

Avalanche rookie Martin Kaut scored his first NHL goal in their win over the Sabres.

Blooper of the Night

Dustin Brown accidentally crushed his own teammate.

Suit of the Night

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar really got into the spirit of military night in Denver. This camo, though, seems more suited for duck hunting night.

Factoid of the Night

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, Buffalo Sabres 2
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Edmonton Oilers 0
Los Angeles Kings 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

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.

Kings hold on to extend Penguins’ losing streak to 4 games

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The Los Angeles Kings played the role of spoiler on Wednesday night by stealing a 2-1 decision from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Blake Lizotte and Trevor Lewis provided the offense for the Kings, while goalie Cal Petersen was sensational in net by turning aside 35 out of 36 shots, including two great chances by the Penguins in the final seconds.

The Kings have won only four games since the start of February, but all four have been against teams either in a playoff spot or in direction competition for a playoff spot — Colorado, Calgary, Florida, and now Pittsburgh.

Los Angeles got off to a fast start on Wednesday by capitalizing on an early power play to jump out to a 1-0 lead with Lizotte’s goal, and then added some insurance in the closing seconds of the second period.

They also got a little bit of help from the goal post, including late in the first period when Penguins forward Sidney Crosby thought he had tied the game only to have a review overturn it because the puck did not completely cross the goal line.

It has to be a frustrating result for the Penguins. Not only because it is their fourth loss in a row and prevented them from gaining ground on the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race, but also because it is the second game in a row during that streak that they probably played well enough to win only to have nothing to show for it. They outshot the Kings 36-22 on Wednesday and dominated every possession category.

Bryan Rust finally got them on the scoreboard midway through the third period to cut the deficit in half, but the Kings did a really good job locking the game down after that. It was not until the Penguins pulled goalie Tristan Jarry in the final minute for an extra attacker that they started to tilt the ice again, and it was then that Petersen stood tall and made a couple of huge saves to preserve the win.

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.

Avalanche stay hot with win over Sabres

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The injury situation is not slowing down the Colorado Avalanche.

Their 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night was their fourth in a row and improved them to 12-3-1 in their past 16 games to help them keep pace in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

What makes this current run so impressive is the number of players they have out of the lineup, currently playing without Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. It is a testament to the way general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche front office has improved the team’s depth over the past year.

That depth was on display on Wednesday night.

J.T. Compher scored the game-winning goal with just under nine minutes to play on Wednesday night, while 20-year-old Martin Kaut scored his first career goal earlier in the night.

The big star of the game for the Avalanche, though, had to be goaltender Pavel Francouz. He continued his outstanding season by stopping 31 out of 33 shots. He helped keep the Avalanche in the game early in the first period, and then made a handful of highlight reel saves late in the third period with the Avalanche trying to protect their one-goal lead. The 29-year-old has been a great find for the Avalanche and earned a two-year contract extension earlier this month.

As for the Sabres, this was their first game after a busy trade deadline that saw them add Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in an effort to play meaningful games down the stretch, and maybe hang around in the Atlantic Division playoff race. While their recent hot streak has helped bring them closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs for that third spot, they still have almost no margin for error the rest of the way. By failing to gain a point on Wednesday they remain eight points behind the Maple Leafs.

 

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.