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PHT Power Rankings: 10 NHL people that need to be better in 2018-19

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It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look at 10 people around the NHL that need to have a better season in 2018-19.

A lot of general managers, coaches, and players had great performances during the 2017-18 season to help their teams.

Many of them were expected, some of them were not.

This week’s power rankings are not about them.

This week we look at 10 people around the NHL that, for one reason or another, really need to have a better performance during the 2018-19 season.

To the rankings!

1. Eugene Melynk, Ottawa Senators — It is almost remarkable the roller coaster of emotions Ottawa Senators fans have been on over the past two years, and sadly, just how hopeless the entire operation feels entering the 2018-19 season.

After coming out of nowhere to go on an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 — where they were in double overtime of Game 7, one shot away from the Stanley Cup Final — the entire organization completely imploded on itself over the year that followed.

On the eve of what should have been the biggest day of celebration for the team during the 2017-18 season — their outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens — team owner Eugene Melnyk threw the relocation threat out there, while also adding “I’m not going to blow a lifetime of working hard to support a hockey team.”

Erik Karlsson, the team’s best player, has been on the verge of being traded for a year now while Melnyk reportedly wanted to tie Bobby Ryan‘s contract to the trade, a decision that would no doubt lessen the return for the best player the franchise has ever seen all in the name of saving the owner some money.

The locker room was ripped apart after the fiance of former forward Mike Hoffman was accused of harassing the Karlssons following the death of their son, resulting in Hoffman, one of their two best forwards, being traded for some magic beans.

Assistant general manager Randy Lee resigned after he was charged with two counts of harassment at the scouting combine in Buffalo.

Even if Melnyk himself wasn’t responsible for all of this individually, it is a total dysfunctional mess of a franchise from the top on down (with an emphasis on the “top” part) and the owner has to take responsibility for that. All of it has resulted in Melnyk becoming the most loathed owner in any of the NHL’s 31 markets with fans consistently taking to social media to urge him to sell the team. What could he do to make things better for Senators fans in 2018-19? Selling the team might be a good start, but that doesn’t seem to be something that is in the cards. So maybe he could just … you know … try to be better in some small way? Anything, really. Maybe don’t threaten to move the team the night before the biggest game of the season? Start small, build up from that.

2. Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers — This spot could easily be filled McLellan or general manager Peter Chiarelli, but in fairness to Chilarelli, he has already showed signs that he might be doing better this year. For example, he hasn’t traded a core player in a lopsided one-for-one, he resisted the urge to sell defenseman Oscar Klefbom at his lowest value, he held on to the No. 10 overall pick and hopefully strengthened the defense long-term, and he didn’t sign any ridiculous contracts in free agency. Progress is progress.

That leaves McLellan who will no doubt be on the hot seat if things don’t improve dramatically in Edmonton this season, because you don’t get the luxury of missing the playoffs very often when you have the best player in hockey on your roster.

The most shocking development in Edmonton last season was probably the way the special teams completely sunk the team, finishing 31st on the power play and 26th on the penalty kill. McLellan assumed more responsibility over the PK in the second half of the season (where it did improve … a little) and he has an entirely new set of assistants around him, including former Swift Current Broncos coach Emanuel Viveiros, who comes with a reputation for being a strong offensive coach, and defensive specialist Trent Yawney. There won’t be any excuses for McLellan this season if things go south again.

3. Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens — Earlier this offseason I took an in-depth look at how Bergevin’s tenure has slowly but surely made the Canadiens franchise worse. Nothing has really changed since then. If anything, things seem to be on the verge of getting worse as the Max Pacioretty drama continues to rage on with a trade seemingly being a matter of when, and not if. Once it gets completed that means the Canadiens will have wasted the prime years of one of the league’s best goal scorers that has been playing for them on a laughably cheap, team friendly, bargain contract.

All Bergevin has done over the past few years is saddle the team with bad contracts, a suddenly aging core, and most recently gambled that Max Domi can be better than Alex Galchenyuk. He has fumbled some of his biggest trades and has one more massive one to make at some point over the next few months (Pacioretty). If he messes that one up it will set the Canadiens franchise back even further than it’s already been set back under his watch.

Good luck, everybody!

4. Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes — In an effort to solve their long-standing issues in net the Hurricanes traded for Darling before the 2017-18 season and committed to him with a four-year, $16.6 million contract to be their starting goalie. Year one of the deal was a disaster as Darling, one of the league’s best backups in Chicago over the previous three years, turned in one of the least productive performances from a starter in recent NHL history. Despite that performance, the Hurricanes seemingly doubled down on their commitment to Darling as their starter by letting Cam Ward leave in free agency and only signing Petr Mrazek (coming off a down year of his own in Detroit and Philadelphia) to a one-year contract to push him.

For the time being it seems to be Darling’s net and if the Hurricanes are going to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season he is going to have to be significantly bette than he was last season. The Hurricanes have definitely given him some help by assembling what should one of the league’s best defenses around him (they have been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league in recent years) and adding to it this summer with the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan.

5. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks run of consecutive playoff appearances came to a sudden end this past season with one of the worst records in the NHL. It was a staggering fall for a team that is not that far removed from winning three Stanley Cups in six years, and just one year earlier finished with the third best record in the league and the best record in the Western Conference.

There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Blackhawks in 2017-18, from the injury to starting goalie Corey Crawford, to the fact that Jonathan Toews is now a $10 million per year second-line center (Sorry folks, it is true — at least based on his production).

One of the other big issues: General manager Stan Bowman’s quest to put the championship band back together backfired in a massive way. Along with re-acquiring Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks’ big move was trading Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Saad, just two years after the Blackhawks traded him away in a salary cap-clearing move. The latest trade was a disaster for the Blackhawks. Panarin not only showed that he could carry a line on his own without having Patrick Kane on the other side of the ice, but Saad struggled through the worst season of his career and was a colossal disappointment in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He managed just 17 goals and 35 points in 82 games, and somehow recorded just a single point in 174 minutes of power play time. It was, for lack of a better word, bad.

Given the Blackhawks’ lack of scoring depth and the fact their No. 1 center is now a 50-point player they are going to need a lot more from Saad in 2018-19 if they have any hope of returning to the playoffs in a suddenly competitive Central Division. The good news is that his underlying numbers (dominant possession numbers, a low shooting percentage for himself) point to a player that should be capable of bouncing back. Now he just has to do it.

6. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins — When Letang is on his game and at his best he is one of the most impactful defenders in the league. We saw him at his best during the 2015-16 season when he was a dominant force on the Penguins’ blue line on their run to winning the Stanley Cup, playing more than 28 minutes per night throughout the playoffs and scoring the Stanley Cup clinching goal, capping off a brilliant shift where he was a a one-man wrecking crew.

Unfortunately for Letang another significant injury during the following year robbed him of half of the season (including the entire postseason, where the Penguins would win another Stanley Cup) and didn’t allow him to get back on the ice until the start of the 2017-18 season. He was never quite the same player and struggled through one of the most inconsistent seasons of his career, highlighted by flashes of the dominance we’ve come to know from Letang, and stretches of play where he just didn’t seem to be himself. Harsh as it is to say, if he was one of the biggest reasons they won the Stanley Cup in 2016 (and he was), his performance was perhaps one of the biggest reasons they didn’t win it in 2018. Despite speculation that the Penguins could consider moving him in the offseason, he remains in Pittsburgh where the team is banking on his performance from this past season being a fluke that he can bounce back from. It is a smart bet to make because he is better than he showed this past season. If he bounces back the Penguins will once again be a force in the Eastern Conference and one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

7. Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers — A lot of general managers around the NHL were responsible for the immediate success of the first-year Vegas Golden Knights. None of them played a bigger role than Dale Tallon of the Florida Panthers when he sent Reilly Smith to Vegas in exchange for a draft pick and then allowing the Golden Knights to take Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft, while protecting the likes of Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on defense (the Panthers opted to protect four forwards and four defenders instead of five forwards and three defenders).

It was a head-scratching move at the time it was made (Marchessault was the team’s top offensive player the year before, and while Smith had a down year and carried a big contract, he was still a productive player with a decent track record in the NHL) and became even worse when Marchessault and Smith helped lead Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Panthers ended up missing the playoffs by a single point following a late-season surge up the standings. Even with the addition of Evgenii Dadonov (a very good move) that one series of roster transactions probably kept the Panthers out of a playoff spot. This offseason the Panthers acquired Mike Hoffman after his ugly exit from Ottawa and signed Troy Brouwer to fill a bottom-six role. Will those be enough to get the Panthers back in the playoffs?

8. The Travis HamonicT.J. Brodie pairing — Okay maybe this is cheating to include two players in here as one entry, but hear me out on this.

On paper the Calgary Flames were supposed to have one of the best top-four defensive pairings in the NHL last season after adding Hamonic to a group that already included the perpetually underrated Mark Giordano, Brodie, and young star Dougie Hamilton.

It did not go as planned, especially when it came to the second pairing of Hamonic and Brodie, a duo that badly struggled during the season. They spent more than 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together where the Flames were outscored by seven goals (33-40) and controlled just a little more than 50 percent of the total shot attempts. When neither player was on the ice the Flames were a 55 percent shot attempt team were only outscored by a pair of goals (90-92).

Now Hamilton is gone (traded as part of a package for Noah Hanifan), Giordano is a year older, and the Flames are going to need these two to be significantly better to make up for all of that.

(H/T Todd Cordell and Natural Stat Trick for those numbers)

9. Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers — With Claude Giroux back to being an elite scorer, an impressive young core of forwards and defenders starting to make their presence felt in the NHL, and the return of James van Riemsdyk, one of the league’s top goal scoring wingers, the Philadelphia Flyers are now back to the point where their roster looks really, really impressive with one very large exception.

Stop me if you have heard this before, but … goaltending might be the only thing that holds the Flyers back from taking another big step this season.

Elliott’s career has been as unpredictable as any other goalie in the league (which is really saying something at a position that is largely defined by its unpredictability) as he has gone from leading the league in save percentage at times, to being benched and traded away. He was okay at times last season, and he is ideally just a placeholder until Carter Hart is ready to take over the job, but the Flyers have a chance to be something more than the mediocre team they have been for the past six years if they can get something that resembles even average goaltending.

10. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins — As an outsider, watching the city of Boston collectively eat itself alive over the performance of Tuukka Rask is a remarkably entertaining thing to watch. As an observer of the game of hockey it is also a little maddening. Honestly I wasn’t even sure if I should include Rask on this ranking because he’s still a pretty darn good goalie that a great team can win with.

He didn’t even have a bad season a year ago.

Is he as good as he was five or six years ago? Probably not, and his personal numbers illustrate that. He is, however, still good. Really good.

But every time he doesn’t single handedly win the Bruins a big game the sky falls in around him and a city of spoiled rotten sports fans and media that think it is their god-given right to win every championship, in every sport, every year lose their minds and need to find a scapegoat. Lately, that scapegoat for the Bruins is almost always Tuukka Rask. For that reason alone Rask could use a better season, just to save himself from that madness and to salvage his reputation in Boston. It is unfair, but so are sports.

Now there is even offseason talk that the addition of Jaroslav Halak could challenge Rask for playing time, or perhaps even push Rask out of town.

Which is just … you know what? Maybe Boston deserves that.

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.

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.

Under Pressure: Joel Quenneville

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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.

You don’t hear it mentioned often enough, but since becoming the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville’s been one of the best in the NHL. Maybe the best head coach.

He doesn’t always have the same recognition to show for it. Much like Phil Jackson in the NBA and other coaches of perennial contenders, Coach Q isn’t piling up coach of the year awards. His lone Jack Adams came (wait for it) with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000.

Yes, that really happened. Indeed, it’s kind of hard to believe in 2018.

Thanks to Mike Babcock, Coach Q hasn’t been “the guy” for Team Canada, not on the same level, nor did he draw a bidding war for his services.

Walking the tight rope

Of course, there’s never been a bidding war because the Blackhawks and Quenneville managed to stick together through thick and thin. With three Stanley Cups and plenty of other impressive runs, you’d think that would be a no-brainer, yet there have been rumblings about possible changes during drier periods.

Elliotte Friedman referenced rumors in “31 Thoughts” back in January, there were reports about Coach Q being quite upset about moves such as trading Niklas Hjalmarsson in the 2017 off-season, and he admitted publicly that he wasn’t happy about assistants getting fired.

There was a fair share of drama when the Blackhawks were pumping out their best work, while sometimes falling short of the mark, but missing the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs really revved up those concerns. You could make an argument, even, for an amicable split; after all, the Blackhawks also haven’t won a playoff series since winning it all in 2014-15.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Where does Toews rank? | Building Off a Breakthrough]

It was no surprise, then, that the team needed to address such questions after deciding to bring both Bowman and Quenneville back for 2018-19. Team president John McDonough did just that in early April.

“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.”

To put things mildly, Quenneville faces an uphill battle when it comes to squeezing another run or two out of this declining crew.

Cooking with ingredients beyond their expiration date?

One of the biggest concerns comes in net, as Corey Crawford‘s health is a mystery for 2018-19. The Blackhawks claim they addressed that by adding Cam Ward. There’s no denying that Ward is “experienced,” yet you nearly need to observe the last decade of “experiences” for the Carolina Hurricanes to understand why people question if he can hold down the fort.

Coach Q will be asked to support whoever’s in net with his system, which won’t exactly be propped up by stellar defensive talent.

Brent Seabrook ranks as the latest Blackhawks contract that stands as a burden for the team, while as great as Duncan Keith is, you wonder if a big nosedive is looming considering his age (35) and the massive minutes he’s accrued between these NHL runs and international competition. The support beyond those guys is, erm, limited, and it probably doesn’t help that Chicago sent a decent depth defenseman in Jordan Oesterle to Arizona as a sweetener in the Marian Hossa trade.

(Sorry, but Brandon Manning probably isn’t the answer.)

You have to think that Q looks at that roster and hopes that Bowman has a trick up his sleeve, as Cap Friendly does show that Chicago boasts about $5.5 million in cap space.

Getting some sort of talent would certainly make Quenneville’s life a little easier. Could they swing a deal for a much-needed defenseman in Justin Faulk? Getting Artemi Panarin back is plausible considering his manageable cap hit ($6M), although it would be interesting to see how Chicago would entice Columbus. Heck, the Blackhawks could do worse than to gamble on a rental (who might stick around) such as Erik Karlsson or Max Pacioretty.

Even if there aren’t major improvements, there are some things that could go better.

Not all bad

As much of a concern as Crawford is, there’s always the chance that he can be fine and play in more games than he did last season. He’s been a huge reason why it took longer than some expected for the Blackhawks to hit the wall.

Chicago also boasts some nice offensive talent. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine things going better for Toews and Brandon Saad (who, in “NBA Jam” parlance, couldn’t buy a bucket last season), and Patrick Kane might return to Art Ross contention if the Blackhawks landed a gem or maybe elevated Alex DeBrincat.

It’s up to Quenneville to make the most of whatever Bowman gets him. Generally speaking, Coach Q’s done that. Can the coach with a cop-friendly mustache get any more jelly out of that donut, though? It won’t be easy.

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.

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.