Brent Seabrook

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Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s Chicago Blackhawks Day at PHT

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

2018-19
36-34-12, 84 points (6th in the Central Division, 10th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Olli Maatta
John Quenneville
Calvin de Haan
Andrew Shaw
Robin Lehner
Alex Nylander
Zack Smith

OUT
Dominik Kahun
John Hayden
Anton Forsberg
Gustav Forsling
Chris Kunitz
Cam Ward
Marcus Kruger
Henri Jokiharju
Artem Anisimov

RE-SIGNED
Slater Koekkoek

2018-19 Season Summary

For the second year in a row, the Blackhawks missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After years of consistent winning, the ‘Hawks have had to pay their star players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook some big money. All those big contracts have forced them to move some other key players like Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp, Artemi Panarin and so many others.

These forced moves have chipped away at the Blackhawks’ depth and have made them weaker and weaker every year. Injuries also haven’t helped their situation either.

Over the last two seasons, starting goalie Corey Crawford has been limited to just 67 games. In 2018-19, he played in just 39 contests and the Blackhawks were never able to get themselves on track with the tandem of Cam Ward and Collin Delia in goal.

The team’s struggles led to them firing head coach Joel Quenneville on Nov. 6. He was eventually replaced by Rockford head coach Jeremy Colliton. Although his tenure as head coach didn’t get off to the greatest start, things eventually got a little better for Colliton. A lot of Chicago’s success was thanks to franchise forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat. All three players surpassed the 76-point mark (Kane had 110, Toews had 81 and DeBrincat had 76).

[MORE: On Blackhawks’ goalie duo | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, the offensive output from their three offensive leaders wasn’t enough to put them back into the playoff picture. One of the other big things that held them back was their abysmal penalty kill, which ranked dead last in the NHL at 72.7 percent. The other big issue was their lack of quality depth on defense and the inability to keep the puck out of their own net. Of all the teams in the league, only the Ottawa Senators allowed more goals (301) than Chicago (291).

So with all those issues, it’s only normal that general manager Stan Bowman made several changes to his roster. He brought back Shaw, who was a heart-and-soul piece for the Blackhawks during their successful years, he added Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to his blue line, and he added Robin Lehner as an insurance policy to Crawford. Youngsters Alex Nylander and John Quenneville will add some more depth up front to a team that needs scoring beyond their top contributors.

Will all these changes be enough to get them back into the playoffs? Colliton has a lot of work to do to make that happen. The youngest head coach in the NHL has to find a way to integrate these new players into the lineup while making the chemistry work with a lot of the veterans that are still on the roster. Improving the special teams would also go a long way.

Thankfully for the Blackhawks, Colliton can lean on Kane, Toews and DeBrincat to lead the way offensively. Many coaches on re-tooling teams don’t have that luxury.

MORE:
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Blackhawks, fans welcome back ever-pesky Andrew Shaw

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CHICAGO — Andrew Shaw is back in Chicago following a trade with Montreal last month, and the ever-chirping 28-year-old has been the toast of the team’s annual fan convention this weekend.

The convention crowd erupted when Shaw – part of the Blackhawks’ 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup championship teams – was introduced at opening ceremonies Friday. On Saturday, he got a standing ovation as he arrived for his own ”welcome back” session on the event’s main stage.

”I have a lot of good memories here, but you want to make more,” Shaw said. ”I never wanted to leave. I always dreamt of coming back.”

Shaw is generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds, but Blackhawks management and players believe his grit and scrappiness will help return the retooled Blackhawks to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

”He’s one of the great guys in the game,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. ”He’s one of those guys that always brings energy, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice. You know you need those guys around to spark things.

”The season gets long. The season gets dragged out. You’re in some dark cities, you know, snow and weather and all that kind of stuff, and then a guy like Shawzy really brings that energy, that fire.”

As part of lowering their fat 3.55 goals-against average – second worst in the NHL last season – the Blackhawks want to be tougher to play against in 2019-20.

”We felt were missing maybe some sandpaper and little more of a north-south game where we finished hits more often,” said Al MacIsaac, senior vice president of hockey operations. ”Andrew Shaw, as we all know, has that personality on and off the ice.”

Shaw had 16 goals and 19 assists in 67 postseason games during his previous five-year stint with Chicago, including one of the most memorable plays in franchise history. He was credited with a goal in the third overtime of Game 1 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals against Boston when the puck went off his right shin pad and into the net.

During the celebration, Shaw hollered ”I love shin pads,” a line that sticks with him and epitomizes his style.

”(Former teammate) Bryan Bickell used to give me a hard time,” Shaw said. ”He said I never scored a goal with my stick. It was always off my body.”

Shaw jumped in a goalmouth scramble and knocked the puck into the net with a soccer-style header in a game at Anaheim in the Western Conference Final 2015. The goal was disallowed, although Shaw celebrated in an attempt to sell it.

The Blackhawks sent Shaw to the Canadiens in June 2016 for a second-round, 39th overall draft pick used to select 21-year-old sniper and budding star Alex DeBrincat.

DeBrincat had 41 goals in his second NHL season in 2018-19. Shaw has never scored more than 20, and last year had 19 as he notched a career-high 47 points with Montreal.

”I feel like I still have a lot to give,” Shaw said. ”I came off a pretty good year and I’m excited. I’m feeling healthy. I’m feeling energized.

”To come back to a city that’s given me so much love and help me grow into who I am, it’s nothing but smiles.”

Shaw promised fans he’ll be as annoying as possible and maybe a little dirty to opponents.

”For sure,” he said. ”I’m not dead. I’m still here.”

And he’ll save his best for the Central Division rival and Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, even if Blues goalie Jordan Binnington is a friend.

”I can’t wait to beat up on the Blues,” Shaw said.

HE SAID IT: Owner Rocky Wirtz also got a standing ovation when introduced on stage at a session on Saturday. By contrast his late father, Bill, was booed loudly whenever he made a public appearance.

”Everywhere he goes, he gets a standing ovation,” team president John McDonough said.

”Even in the washroom,” Wirtz quipped.

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.

Marleau-lites: How Red Wings, Senators can boost rebuilds

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If you’re a fan of both hockey and team-building, the last few weeks have been Christmas in July. It might not be the most wonderful time of year if you demand smart team-building, though.

Plenty of teams have spent their money poorly lately, but at least two teams have really dropped the ball on boosting their rebuilds: the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators. Instead of seeing a blueprint in the Hurricanes creatively getting a first-round pick out of a Patrick Marleau trade and buyout, the Red Wings and Senators instead wasted their money on veterans who are unlikely to make much of a difference for their futures (Valtteri Filppula and Ron Hainsey, respectively).

The bad news is that Steve Yzerman and Pierre Dorion missed the boat at the most robust time. Jake Gardiner stands as a strong free agent option, yet the frenzy is now a dull rumble.

The good news is that there’s still time, as both teams have some space to take on Marleau-lite contracts, and there are contenders who need to make space. Before I list off some Marleau-lite contracts Detroit or Ottawa should consider absorbing, let’s summarize each team’s situations.

Bumpy road in Motor City

Filppula joins a bloated list of veteran supporting cast members who are clogging up Detroit’s cap, so it’s worth noting that the Red Wings only have about $5.284M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly.

The Red Wings have their normal array of picks for the next three years, along with an extra second in 2020, and also extra third-rounders in both 2020 and 2021. That’s decent, but why not buy more dart throws?

Senators’ situation

Ottawa has a whopping $22.84M in cap space, but of course, the real question is how much owner Eugene Melnyk would be willing to move above the floor of $60.2M. The Senators are currently at $58.6M, and RFA Colin White could eat up the difference and more. It’s plausible that Pierre Dorion is mostly closing down shop, at least beyond sorting out RFAs like White and Christian Wolanin.

The Senators have a ton of picks, as you can see from Cap Friendly’s guide, but only one extra first-rounder. That first-rounder could be very weak, too, being that it’s the San Jose Sharks’ 2020 first-rounder.

The one bit of promising news is that Melnyk’s already sent a message about this team being in rebuild mode. Why not make like the Rangers and take advantage of the situation by going all-out to land as many assets as you can, then?

Expiring deals contenders might want to trade away

  • Cody Eakin and other Vegas Golden Knights: Despite purging Colin Miller and Erik Haula, the Golden Knights are still in a tight situation, and that might mean losing out on intriguing RFA Nikita Gusev. Eakin seems like an excessive luxury at $3.85M. The 28-year-old could be very appealing as a rental at the trade deadline, so Ottawa/Detroit could gain assets in both trading for Eakin, then trading him away. Ryan Reaves ($2.755M) could make plenty of sense too — you may just need to distract fans with fights this season — but Vegas seems infatuated with the powerful pugilist.
  • Martin Hanzal: The Stars are primed to put the 32-year-old’s $4.75M on LTIR, but maybe they’d give up a little something to just get rid of the issue?
  • Sam Gagner: The Oilers are in tight. Maybe they’d want to use that $3.15M to, say, target Jake Gardiner on a hopeful one-year (relative) discount deal, or something? If there’s any way this ends in Ottawa or Detroit landing Jesse Puljujarvi, things get really interesting.
  • Patrick Eaves: Some scary health issues have cropped up for Eaves, who might be OK waiving his NMC, relieving the Ducks of $3.15M in cap concerns. Anaheim’s in a weird place between rebuilding and competing, which could make them pretty vulnerable.
  • Cody Ceci: Dare I wonder if the Red Wings might take on Ceci from Toronto for a price, allowing Toronto to focus on Mitch Marner and Alex Kerfoot? Ceci’s an RFA without a deal, so he probably fits in a different category, but worth mentioning if we’re going outside the box.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Longer deals, higher rates

  • David Backes: At $6M per year, Backes’ contract is as painful as his borderline hits often can be. That expires after 2020-21, though, making his term very interesting: it’s brutal for Boston (who have to tend to Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug), while it would be digestible for Detroit and especially Ottawa. How much would Boston be willing to fork over to gain some flexibility? If I’m Dorion or Yzerman, I’m blowing up Don Sweeney’s phone to find out.
  • Artem Anisimov: The Blackhawks have a slew of bad deals. They also seem like they’re living in the past, which means that an even bolder Brent Seabrook salary dump seems unlikely. A smart team would want to get rid of Anisimov’s contract ($4.55M AAV for two more years), and a savvy rebuilding team would extract assets to take on that burden.
  • Jack Johnson: It’s been a year, and I still can’t believe the Penguins gave Johnson $3.25M AAV for a single season, let alone for a mind-blowing term through 2022-23. Considering that contract, the Penguins probably still think too highly of Johnson, so they probably wouldn’t cough up the bounty I’d personally need to take on this mega-blunder of a deal. It’s worth delving into a discussion, though. If the Penguins hit a Kings-style wall, who knows how valuable their upcoming picks might end up being?
  • James Neal: Woof, the 31-year-old’s carrying $5.75M through 2022-23. That would be a lot to stomach, but Calgary’s in a win-now state, and might be convinced to fork over quite a bit here. The dream scenario of Neal getting his game back, and either becoming easier to trade down the line, or a contributor to a rebuild, isn’t that outrageous, though it is unlikely. Much like with Johnson, I’d want a significant haul to take this problem off of the Flames’ hands, but I’d also be curious.
  • Loui Eriksson: Much like with Johnson in Pittsburgh, the key here would be Jim Benning admitted that he made an enormous gaffe in Eriksson’s $6M AAV, which runs through 2021-22. That’s questionable, as the Canucks are making it a tradition to immediately ruin draft weekend optimism with free agent armageddon.

That said, if Vancouver admits that Eriksson is an albatross, and decides to pay up to rid themselves of that issue … at least this only lasts through 2021-22. That term might just work out for Ottawa, if Vancouver threw in enough sweeteners to appease The Beastie Boys.

  • Kyle Turris: What if the Senators brought back a beloved community figure, while charging the Predators an exorbitant rate to absorb his an exorbitant contract? It’s possible that Turris could enjoy a rebound of sorts, and Nashville made an already-expensive center group close to outlandish with Matt Duchene. Turris’ deal runs through 2023-24, and he’s already 29, so I’d honestly probably not do it … unless the return was huge. Nashville and these rebuilding teams should at least have multiple conversations on the subject.

***

Overall, my favorite ideas revolve around landing someone like Eakin or Backes. The urgency should be there for contending teams in cap crunches, while their deals aren’t the type to interfere with rebuilds.

(Sorry, but Detroit and Ottawa both have a lot of work to do, and should probably assume that work extends beyond 2020-21.)

Now, do the Senators and Red Wings have the imagination, hunger, and leeway from ownership to make the sort of deals discussed in this post? I’m not overly optimistic about that, but the good news for them is that there are likely to be opportunities, if they seek them out.

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.