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Building off a breakthrough: Alex DeBrincat

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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.

With all that went wrong for Chicago in 2017-18, it’s easy to forget how very, very right things went for Alex DeBrincat.

The pint-sized rookie scored an impressive 28 goals and 52 points despite averaging less than 15 minutes (14:48) of ice time per night. If the 2017-18 season wasn’t absolutely jam-packed with fantastic rookies, DeBrincat would have at least been a finalist for the Calder.

Such a strong season shines a brighter spotlight on the 20-year-old, something he seems keenly aware of, as NBC Sports Chicago’s James Neveau reported in late July.

“It’s definitely different,” DeBrincat said. “It was low-key coming in as a rookie, and there weren’t many expectations for me. Now the expectations are there, but those aren’t something I’m looking at. I’m looking to improve in any way I can and just be a better player overall.”

So, can DeBrincat top his fabulous first year with an encore in 2018-19? There are reasons to expect more and also some arguments for a sophomore slump.

[Looking back on 2017-18]

Let’s get the half-empty out of the way, first: DeBrincat’s shooting percentage indicated that the small scorer received his fair share of positive bounces. While it’s not in the William Karlsson stratosphere, DeBrincat scored his 28 goals by riding a 15.5 shooting percentage. Less puck luck could bump him down a few notches.

The good news is that, well, there’s quite a bit of good news.

Again, DeBrincat didn’t get a ton of opportunities from an ice time perspective. At minimum, the Blackhawks would be wise to send the highly skilled player out on the power play more often. DeBrincat’s 2:02 PPTOI per night stood as a good start, but if you want more punch on the man advantage, wouldn’t you send him out more often than Artem Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz, and even maybe Brandon Saad?

(You could make a reasonable argument that DeBrincat should be right up there with Jonathan Toews, honestly.)

There’s a strong chance that Joel Quenneville will get more and more comfortable with the American forward after seeing him excel last season.

Such thoughts might also provide DeBrincat with better (and more stable) running mates.

Via Natural Stat Trick, DeBrincat’s forward partners were all over the place at even-strength. While DeBrincat enjoyed a decent chunk of shifts with Toews, he also spent comparable time with Patrick Sharp and Schmaltz. Echoing the points about power play possibilities, he was mainly on the second unit last season. Why not get him somewhere in that five-man group?

Whether DeBrincat makes a leap forward, a small step back, or basically stands in place, it sure seems like the Blackhawks unearthed another gem in this guy.

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.

What should Blackhawks do with cap space after Hossa trade?

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The most fun part of the Marian Hossa trade is pondering the possible future trades it opens up thanks to improved cap space for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Cap space estimates tend to be tenuous at best in July, but that’s especially true with Chicago, as the Blackhawks still have some roster spots to sort out. Still, Cap Friendly’s estimate of the Blackhawks having about $8.55 million in room seems fair enough.

It’s also plausible that the Blackhawks might find even more breathing room. Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if the return of Marcus Kruger may spur the Blackhawks to move Artem Anisimov, whose $4.55M cap hit runs through 2020-21.

Even if they don’t trade Anisimov to cut costs, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman gave himself opportunities to make a splashy move this summer. Considering that Chicago missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and eyes an aging, top-heavy core, landing a substantial asset could be huge for a “win-now” team.

(Especially since, as promising as Adam Boqvist is as the eighth pick of this past draft, he could be a bit of a project at just 17 years old.)

Here are some of the most enticing possible trade targets for the Blackhawks, keeping in mind that there aren’t any obvious difference-makers remaining on the free agent market.

Artemi Panarin We might as well get the most obvious name out of the way, considering how much Bowman loves bringing back former Blackhawks. (It’s quite fitting that Panarin was traded out of Chicago in such a move to land Brandon Saad.)

There’s probably a fascinating subplot to ponder from Columbus’ perspective. If they know Panarin’s gone, would they bet against Chicago rebounding by asking for significant draft assets for “The Bread Man?”

That’s a debate – maybe a post – for another day. Let’s focus on the Blackhawks’ side of an equation, instead.

Panarin remains in the meat of his prime at just 26, and he’s quite a value at $6M, though that cap hit expires after this coming season. It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility for Panarin to ink an extension at some point with Chicago, as “The Windy City” ranks as the sort of big market he’d prefer. (Though maybe he’d really want to go big and merely eye New York or Los Angeles?) With Kruger, Cam Ward, and others coming off the cap in summer 2019, the money would likely be there … although a pricey Panarin extension would make a top-heavy team even more imbalanced.

The longer term situation is already fascinating, but Panarin would be a great find even if Chicago only wanted to bet big on 2018-19.

The Russian winger generated a career-high 82 points last season, emphatically proving that he can score without Patrick Kane. It probably should have already been obvious that they enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, but Kane’s slight – but noteworthy – slippage in production cemented such notions.

Panarin’s game-breaking ability would make him a huge “get,” and his familiarity with Chicago and the Blackhawks organization couldn’t hurt.

He likely wouldn’t be too easy to pry from Columbus, though.

Max Pacioretty “Patches” doesn’t seem long for Montreal, considering the rumblings about a lack of contract extension negotiations and the team’s reported urgency in trading him.

Compared to Panarin, Pacioretty brings some advantages and disadvantages.

Pros

  • He’s cheaper, at least in 2018-19, as Pacioretty’s cap hit is $4.5M.
  • *cough* some might say that his GM might be, um, easier to swindle.
  • Pacioretty has a larger body of work in the NHL, generating 30+ goals five times, and playing 626 regular-season games.
  • “Patches” also literally has a larger body than Panarin. Perhaps the Blackhawks would perceive him as more attuned for the playoffs? (That’s a stretch, of course, if Bowman merely watched Panarin’s work against the Caps. Then again, NHL teams often march to the beat of their own drums …)

Cons

  • Pacioretty’s a little older at 29.
  • He’s coming off of a tough season. Pacioretty barely scored more points (37) in 2017-18 as he scored goals (35) the year before.
  • The American winger seems to be more focused on an extension than Panarin. If Chicago’s more interested in a rental, that could be a stumbling block.

Few players have scored more goals than Pacioretty since he broke through with 33 in 2011-12. One can dream of big things if he were paired with an elite center, or at least better linemates.

And that $4.5M cap hit would really keep other options open for the Blackhawks or other bidders.

Jeff Skinner and/or Justin Faulk – The Blackhawks and Hurricanes have done business before, including the Teuvo Teravainen – Bryan Bickell trade, not to mention Carolina paying big money for former Blackhawks backup Scott Darling.

The Hurricanes could feasibly move one or both of Skinner and Faulk, and by pulling some strings, it’s not even that outrageous to imagine Chicago landing each player. (Again, it would require some maneuvering.)

Like Panarin and Pacioretty, Skinner is entering the final year of his current contract. In his case, he carries a $5.725M cap hit.

With three 30+ goal campaigns and three additional 20+ goal seasons to his name (not to mention 579 regular-season games played), it’s kind of startling that Skinner is only 26. He’s only missed three games total in the last three seasons – he appeared in all 82 last season – putting most of his health fears to rest.

Skinner is a fantastic skater who’s rarely shy about firing the puck. One might downplay his strong possession stats thanks to sometimes-heavy offensive deployment, but those numbers don’t hurt either.

He’s never appeared in a playoff game during his NHL career, so Skinner would probably be even hungrier to reach the postseason than his would-be Blackhawks teammates.

Faulk, 26, could end up being the best consideration of them all, because he’s the sort of dynamic defenseman the Blackhawks generally lack beyond Duncan Keith.

Since 2014-15, Faulk’s scored 56 goals, the seventh-best total among NHL defensemen. Only Brent Burns (85), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (70), and Erik Karlsson (63) lead Faulk by a significant margin.

While he’s not considered an elite shutdown-type guy, his possession stats show promise, and he comes in at an affordable $4.833M cap hit. One nice perk is that Chicago would land extra cost certainty with Faulk compared to other options in this post, as Faulk’s cap hit runs for an additional season (through 2019-20).

Erik Karlsson – Look, it’s tough to imagine Chicago pulling off such a heist, considering that repeated bids to contend leave them with limited futures.

Still, it would be foolish not to at least mention Karlsson, particularly if the Senators realize they can only shop the superstar as a rental. With a $6.5M cap hit, Chicago could easily afford Karlsson … for a season, at least.

***

The Blackhawks would pop some champagne if they could merely land one of Panarin, Pacioretty, Skinner, Faulk, or even Karlsson. It remains to be seen if they can entice any of those sellers to take a deal.

Moving Hossa’s contract encourages imaginations to run as deep as Gino’s Pizza, though. If nothing else, few teams have more incentive to go all-in than the Blackhawks.

Who would you go after, if anyone, if you were in Bowman’s shoes?

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.

No change in Chicago: Blackhawks bringing Quenneville, Bowman back

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The Chicago Blackhawks won’t be overreacting to one bad season after a decade of success. On Thursday, team president John McDonough announced that both head coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman will return for the 2018-19 NHL season.

“I believe in continuity [and] they’ve had an incredible body of success,” McDonough said via the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re not tethered to the past. This has been a very disappointing year and our expectations are incredibly high. We’re not going to deviate from those expectations. But I believe both Stan and Joel are the guys that are going to bring this back.”

[Which NHL teams will make a coaching change after the season?]

The Blackhawks will finish last in the Central Division and miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The biggest blow to their hopes was losing Crawford, who has been out since December with an upper-body injury. “We expect him to be fine” was the line from Quenneville this week about the goaltender’s status.

Quenneville still has two years and $12 million left on his contract, and if he would have been canned his unemployment wouldn’t have lasted very long considering the number of potential coaching changes that could happen around the league. Bowman, meanwhile, will have a busy summer with plenty of decisions to make. Chicago doesn’t have many contracts to deal with in the off-season, but Bowman’s focus could be trying to find ways to get out from some heavy contracts to bring in some new faces and hope it’s a different outcome next season.

Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dylan Sikura and Nick Schmaltz represent some of the fresh blood that’s been productive this season, and the hope is they can be part of that next core in Chicago. In the meantime, the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brandon Saad and Crawford are taking up nearly $40 million cap space. Those seem like the safest bets to remain on the roster. So will Brent Seabrook and Artem Anisimov find themselves available? Are there any untouchables beyond Kane and Toews?

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis Blues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Wednesday night as the St. Louis Blues host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

St. Louis Blues
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennVladimir Tarasenko
Patrik BerglundKyle BrodziakAlex Steen
Dmitrij JaskinVladimir SobotkaTage Thompson
Ivan BarbashevOskar SundqvistChris Thorburn

Joel EdmundsonAlex Pietrangelo
Vince DunnColton Parayko
Chris Butler – Roberto Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

[NHL on NBCSN: Blues need to pick up valuable points against Blackhawks]

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET]

Chicago Blackhawks
Brandon SaadNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane
Dylan SikuraVictor EjdsellAlex DeBrincat
Tomas JurcoArtem AnisimovAndreas Martinsen
Patrick SharpDavid KampfVincent Hinostroza

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook
Erik GustafssonConnor Murphy
Jordan Oesterle – Blake Hillman

Starting goalie: J.F. Berube

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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.

Kane scores late winner as Blackhawks down Bruins 3-1

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For the Chicago Blackhawks to avoid a three-game losing skid, they’d have to beat a team that had just won six straight at home.

Luckily for the Blackhawks, the schedule lured the Boston Bruins away from the comfortable confines of TD Garden on Sunday and killed two birds with one stone, simultaneously ending both streaks in a 3-1 triumph at United Center in the Windy City.

The Blackhawks regrouped quickly, going 50-plus minutes without allowing a goal on Sunday, a day after allowing seven goals to the same Bruins team, including four unanswered en route to a 7-4 loss.

Chicago led from the 7:26 mark of the first period as Artem Anisimov deflected a point shot past Bruins netminder Anton Khudobin for a 1-0 lead.

Perhaps a little fatigue caught up with the Bruins and maybe the well ran a little dry.

Boston has had to make due without Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy, both nursing injuries, and David Backes, who is out due to suspension.

On Sunday, Brad Marchand‘s name was added to the list the walking wounded, after he was made a late scratch with an upper-body injury prior to the game.

It was a tad suspect after Marchand clotheslined Anthony Duclair on Saturday if the first game of the home-and-home, leading to an injury for the latter that’s ruled him out for 1-2 weeks. Perhaps the Bruins didn’t want to risk any retribution.

But even a Bruins team hampered by injury is still a good Bruins team as witnessed in Saturday’s win.

Despite all the scoring missing from the lineup, an old friend stepped up just after the mid-way mark of the third period.

Zdeno Chara let a wrist shot go that finally solved Anton Forsberg, who stopped 31-of-32 in the game.

Chara’s impact was felt again minutes later after an ill-advised high-sticking penalty gave the Blackhawks a four-minute power play.

Patrick Kane wasted no time snatching back the lead, firing a snapshot bar down past Khudobin for the go-ahead marker that would eventually be the game-winner.

Brent Seabrook would add the insurance marker with 1:05 left, putting the third goal past Khudobin, who negotiation 36-of-39 shots sent his way.

The Bruins trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning by six points heading into Sunday’s game, but owned three games in-hand. So chalk this one up as a missed opportunity to gain some ground against a team that won’t be playing in the playoffs this season.


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