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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.

Trade: Hurricanes acquire Reimer, Darling headed to Florida to be bought out

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James Reimer is now a member of the Carolina Hurricanes and Scott Darling, now a member of the Florida Panthers, will be bought out by his new team after a trade was made on Sunday.

The Panthers also get a 2020 sixth-round pick in the deal and don’t retain any of Reimer’s $3.4 million cap hit. Darling has been put on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying out his contract. If unclaimed, that will become official tomorrow.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, get a goalie under contract with both Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney pending unrestricted free agents heading into tomorrow’s free agent frenzy. GM Don Waddell has an insurance policy if they can’t re-sign one or both of the tandem that helped lead the team to the Eastern Conference Final last year.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The deal seems to include some creative finagling between both clubs. As Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports, the Panthers had struggled to move Reimer due to a signing bonus of $2.25 million owed to the goalie next year.

This way, the Panthers won’t owe that cash to Reimer, a move that will net them just over $3 million in savings, according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli. They would have spent more buying out Reimer, so it works out.

For Florida, the move appears to pave the way for Sergei Bobrovsky to join the team as early as Monday when the free agency window opens. Roberto Luongo retired last week and with Reimer gone, the Panthers are in need of a starting netminder.

Darling’s buyout, meanwhile, looks like this, per CapFriendly:

2019-20 $1.233M
2020-21 $2.333M
2021-22 $1.183M
2022-23 $1.183M

Darling has been anything by his namesake since joining the Hurricanes from the Chicago Blackhawks on a four-year, $16.6 million deal two summers ago.

His numbers as a backup were outstanding, but as a starter in Carolina, he never finished a season above a .890 save percentage. Things didn’t get much better when he was sent down to the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League this past season. The Hurricanes were desperate for a successor to Cam Ward at the time and they took the gamble and lost hard.

Being able to trade him, however, should be looked at as a good thing, especially since they retained none of his salary in the deal.

The Hurricanes have $22 million and a bit of change to head into the free agency window with but that is an artificial figure as they still have to re-sign Sebastian Aho and Gustav Forsling.

As TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports, the Hurricanes are still trying to re-sign Mrazek and have cast a line into Semyon Varlamov‘s camp, as well. Reimer isn’t starting material, but he can be a serviceable backup, with emphasis on the can part.

The Panthers have $25 million to work with some lower-priced restricted free agents to sign to deals. As mentioned above, there’s more than enough room to bring Bob into the fold. Maybe Artemi Panarin too, if they’re lucky.

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.

Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Game 7 by the numbers

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It all comes down to one game.

Somebody is going to win the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night in Boston when the St. Louis Blues visit the Bruins in a winner-take-all Game 7 (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream) that will either produce a historic night for St. Louis (first Stanley Cup) or be a continuation of Boston’s recent professional sports dominance.

Here are some numbers and facts to help get you ready for the big night.

Game 7 Historical Numbers

• This will be the first Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final since the Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks during the 2010-11 postseason. It is only the fourth Game 7 in the salary cap era (starting with the 2005-06 season) and will join 2006 in Carolina, 2009 in Detroit, and 2011. The road team has won two of the previous three games. This will be the 17th Game 7 in Stanley Cup Final history. The home team has a 12-4 record in the previous 16 games.

• Wednesday’s game will be the first time the Bruins have ever hosted Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, and it is one of the most expensive tickets the city has ever seen for a sporting event.

• This is the sixth Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, making it the seventh time that the NHL has had that many Game 7s in a single year.

This will be the second time the Bruins have had to play at least two Game 7s in a single postseason, joining their 2011 championship season when they played in — and won — three different Game 7s.

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara will set an NHL record on Wednesday by playing in his 14th career Game 7, snapping a tie between him, Scott Stevens, and Patrick Roy.

Of the previous 16 Game 7s in Stanley Cup Final history, only two of them have required overtime. Pete Babando scored for the Detroit Red Wings to lift them over the New York Rangers in 1950. Four years later Tony Leswick scored again for the Red Wings to beat the Montreal Canadiens.

This will be the 28th Game 7 in Bruins history (most all time) where they own a 15-12 record. The Blues will be playing in their 18th Game 7 and are 9-8 in their previous games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

How They Got Here This Postseason

• If the Blues are going to win the Stanley Cup they are going to have to win another game on the road, something they have been great at this postseason. So great, in fact, that they have been better on the road than they have at home. They enter Wednesday’s game with a 9-3 away record. They finished the postseason with a losing record (6-7) on home ice.

The biggest key for the Blues will be maintaining their discipline and staying out of the penalty box due to the strength of the Bruins’ power play. Boston enters Game 7 having converted on 32.9 percent of its power plays this postseason. No team in NHL history with a minimum of 20 playoff games has ever had a higher power play percentage in a single postseason. The next best team was the 2017-18 Washington Capitals who finished at 29.3 percent. After them no other team has had a mark higher than 27 percent.

One of the biggest factors in that power play success: Patrice Bergeron and his seven power play goals. Before this season he had scored just six postseason power play goals in his entire career.

Among goalies with at least 20 games played in a single postseason, Tuukka Rask‘s .938 save percentage is currently the sixth highest of all time. Jordan Binnington‘s mark of .912 is 44th.

With one point in Game 7 Ryan O'Reilly will set a new franchise record for most points in a single postseason. He enters the game tied with Bernie Federko, Doug Gilmour, and Brett Hull at the top of the list.

If Binnington and the Blues get the win on Wednesday he will become the first rookie goalie to ever win 16 games in a single postseason. He is currently tied with Patrick Roy, Cam Ward, Ron Hextall, and Matt Murray with 15 wins. Three of the other four (Roy, Ward, Murray) won the Stanley Cup in their seasons.

During 5-on-5 play the series has been mostly even, with the two teams separated by just a single goal. The Blues still have a slight edge in the shot attempts and scoring chance metrics, but it is very fitting that this series has required seven games given that the Blues and Bruins were two of the NHL’s best teams since the beginning of January. Since Jan. 1 they were second and third in points percentage (both trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning) and were both in the top-seven in shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential.

More Blues-Bruins Game 7
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys for Game 7
The Wraparound: It is all on line for Blues-Bruins 
Which Blues, Bruins player will get Stanley Cup handoff?
Conn Smythe watch
Stanley Cup roundtable discussion

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.

Blues’ Binnington on the verge of playoff history

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The scenario is rather simple.

If Jordan Binnington can find one win in the next two games, he’ll give the St. Louis Blues their first Stanley Cup in their 51st season in the NHL and, by virtue, will become the only rookie goaltender to ever win 16 games in as single postseason, eclipsing names like Patrick Roy, Ron Hextall Cam Ward and Matt Murray — names Binnington sits level with right now.

“Nothing really surprises us now,” Jay Bouwmeester said Friday. “He’s been with us for a long time. He’s a big part of our team, and any team at this point, the goaltending is huge in the playoffs.”

Of the four that came before Binnington, three — Roy, Ward and Murray — won the Cup on their first try. Binnington is sitting on 15 wins, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage and can become the fourth as early as Game 6 vs. Boston on Sunday (8 p.m. ET on NBC).

How does that compare to the three other folks?

Roy
Wins: 15
Goals-against average: 1.93
Save percentage: .923

It’s hard to believe that Roy was just 20 when he won the Conn Smythe in 1986. The Canadiens weren’t supposed to win the Cup. Roy wasn’t supposed to lead them there. Instead, we watched the origins of one of the greatest goalies of all time.

Ward
Wins: 15
Goals-against average: 2.14
Save percentage: .920

Ward replaced Martin Gerber after the latter dropped the first two games against the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1 in 2006. The Hurricanes were a differnet team after that and Ward became the first rookie goalie since Roy to hoist the Cup. Like Binnington, Ward wasn’t the starter at the beginning on the season.

Murray
Wins: 15
Goals-against average: 2.08
Save percentage: .923

Murray usurped Jeff Zatkoff in Round 1 against the New York Rangers in 2016 and would only see the bench once the rest of the way as the Penguins rode Murray to their first of two straight Stanley Cups.

Binnington’s story will be just as interesting as the other three that came before him, if not more so.

The savior, Binnington entered the Blues crease on Jan. 7 with the Blues stuck in the basement of the NHL. His first start would be a 25-save shutout, and the beginning of one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NHL history.

To really cement that, Binnington needs just one win in the next two games to write the last chapter in what’s been anything but a fictional novel for himself and his team.

MORE BLUES – BRUINS COVERAGE


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