Cam Ward

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Blackhawks goalie duo needs to be healthy, consistent

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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.

One of the main reasons the Blackhawks have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons is because starting netminder Corey Crawford has been limited to 28 and 39 games over the last two years. The veteran says he’s feeling 100 percent healthy, but his battle with concussions and vertigo can flare up at any minute.

“It’s hard to really think about,” Crawford said in April, per the Chicago Sun-Times. “When it lasted that long, I was just wondering when is it going to be over? How long is all the stuff going to last? Like the pressure in the head and that stuff … That was probably the worst.

“There’s blurred vision. And I didn’t really realize how bad it was until now where I’m [back to normal]. The pain wasn’t the worst pain in the world, but it was still kind of annoying day in, day out, 24 hours a day. After going through it and seeing how good I feel now, you realize, wow, that wasn’t fun.”

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

It’s nice to see that Crawford’s feeling healthy again, but the ‘Hawks couldn’t afford to take anymore chances. This offseason, general manager Stan Bowman decided to get himself a quality insurance policy, as he signed Robin Lehner to a one-year, $5 million deal.

When Crawford went out of the lineup the last two seasons, he was replaced by Cam Ward, Collin Delia, Anton Forsberg, J-F Berube and Jeff Glass. Clearly, that list of netminders wasn’t good enough to keep the Blackhawks afloat. They had other issues too, but goaltending was a problem.

Last season, they were ranked 30th in the NHL in goals against. Only the Ottawa Senators gave up more goals than Chicago did last season. That doesn’t all fall on the goaltender (their defense was brutal), but a big part of the struggles came from not having their veteran work-horse between the pipes.

The ‘Hawks would clearly prefer to see Crawford stay healthy, but if he can’t suit up as often as they hope, they have a capable goaltender to replace him. Lehner didn’t anticipate having to settle for a one-year deal, but he realizes that he has a unique opportunity here.

“I know there’s an opportunity if I perform that I probably can stay, but that’s not my mindset this year,” Lehner told the Chicago Tribune in July. “My mindset is to come in and play as good hockey as I can and contribute to this team for this year and see what happens.”

The Vezina Trophy finalist had a terrific year with the New York Islanders, as he had a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage last season. Of course, he posted those numbers in Barry Trotz’s air-tight defensive system, so he still has something to prove now that he’s on a new team.

Two of the things the Blackhawks need to improve can be helped by solid goaltending. First, they have to cut their goals against if they’re going to make it back to the playoffs. Again, that doesn’t all fall on the goalie but he can certainly make a difference in that area.

Second, the 31st ranked penalty-kill in the NHL needs to get better. They can’t be killing penalties at a 72 percent clip in 2019-20. That’s nowhere near good enough. Your goaltender can often be your best penalty-killer, which means that Crawford and Lehner have work to do when their team goes down a man.

Bowman has $11 million committed to their two goaltenders next season, but both players are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. If this season doesn’t go well, the Blackhawks’ crease could look a whole lot more different in 2020-21.

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.

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.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes 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 Carolina Hurricanes.

2018-19
46-29-7, 99 points (4th in Metropolitan Division, 7th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in the Eastern Conference Final in four games against Boston

IN
James Reimer
Erik Haula
Ryan Dzingel
Gustav Forsling
Anton Forsberg

OUT
Scott Darling
Curtis McElhinney
Calvin de Haan
Adam Fox
Nicolas Roy
Aleksi Saarela

RE-SIGNED
Sebastian Aho
Petr Mrazek
Brock McGinn
Haydn Fleury

2018-19 Season Summary

The past 18 months or so have been a bit of a whirlwind for the Carolina Hurricanes, who’ve gone about a massive shakeup from the top down.

A new owner (Tom Dundon), a new general manager (Don Waddell), a new head coach (Rod Brind’Amour) began the process early last year of re-vamping a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009.

By the time summer rolled around, it didn’t look promising that they’d break out of that funk during the coming season.

[MORE: X-factor: owner Tom Dundon | Three Questions | Hurricanes under pressure]

Losing names such as Cam Ward, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Jeff Skinner during the offseason didn’t inspire much confidence that the Hurricanes could reverse their playoff misfortunes.

Even moving up from 11th to second in the 2018 NHL Draft (taking Andrei Svechnikov with the pick) wasn’t supposed to put them over the playoff line, nevermind into the Eastern Conference Final.

Then again, not every team is ‘bunch of jerks.’

And so despite Don Cherry’s best efforts to get under their skin, and flying in the face of expectations that didn’t offer much hope of closing a 14-point gap from the previous year, the Hurricanes turned in one of the more exciting seasons and a deep playoff run no one really expected.

Goaltending certainly helped their cause. The team got a solid 1-2 punch in the crease from Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, the latter who was picked up on the eve of the season from the waiver wire — and a move that would play a pivotal role when Mrazek got injured in November (and then again in the playoffs.)

An in-season trade that brought in Nino Niederreiter at the expense of Victor Rask was a shrewd move that immediately paid off and the Hurricanes took the fight down the stretch and won, claiming a seventh-place finish and a date with the Washington Captials in Round 1.

You’d have forgiven the Hurricanes for crashing out after a hard-fought run-in. Instead, the team rallied around one another, used that playoff-style hockey they played in the final month to their advantage and eeked out a win against the defending Stanley Cup champs in seven games.

Those gale-force winds only intensified in Round 2, with the Hurricanes pulling off another shocking upset, this time in emphatic fashion with a 4-0 series win against the defensive-minded New York Islanders.

It’s only when the storm reached Boston did the winds fade into a near-still breeze. The Hurricanes forced their way into the Eastern Conference Final, only to be shown the door after four games.

On one hand, it was a disappointing end to a rollercoaster ride. On the other, it was a massive period of growth that Carolina could take into the offseason as they looked for continued growth.

And they’ve done so with the addition of Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel, who should provide a goal-scoring boost to a team in the middle of the pack in that department.

Mrazek will have to shoulder most of the load this season with McElhinney’s departure to Tampa Bay.

The Montreal Canadiens helped sort out Sebastian Aho’s contract with the first offer sheet since 2013. Other than the anxiety that brought, it’s been a good offseason for the Hurricanes, who will look to make it consecutive seasons in the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

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


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

One month into NHL free agency, who’s left on the market?

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The NHL free agent market opened one month ago today and there was plenty of cash thrown around and faces headed for new places. While there were 126 signings of different varieties on July 1 there have been 167 total in the 30 days since.

Even with all those contracts signed, there are still plenty of potentially helpful unrestricted free agents available on the market. We know how strong the restricted crop that’s left is, but that’s a different story altogether.

Let’s take a look at some of the UFAs still unsigned.

HOME OR RETIREMENT
Niklas Kronwall, 38
Patrick Marleau, 39
Joe Thornton, 39
Justin Williams, 37

Don’t expect any of these four to join new teams. In the case of Marleau, he’d be going home after a few years in Toronto and very quick stop as a member of the Hurricanes. Either these players will return to the teams they’re most identified with on one-year deals or they will hang up their skates.

HEADED FOR A PTO?
Scott Darling, 30
Ben Lovejoy, 35
Marc Methot, 34
Dion Phaneuf, 34
Cam Ward, 35

Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, all teams must dress at least eight “veterans” for any preseason game. A veteran is a in this sense is considered forward or defenseman who played 30 games in the previous season, a goaltender who dressed in 50 games or played in 30 the previous season, or any player who has 100 or more career NHL games under their belt. That’s why we see lot of veterans on tryout deals in training camp, so these five players, given their ages and on-ice struggles would be placed in the “possible PTO” folder. In some cases a team can bring them in to create competition at a position in order to get the most out of the players currently under contract before ultimately releasing them.

FORWARDS

Brian Boyle, 34 – The feel-good story from the 2017-18 season needs a new home and anyone looking for a bottom line center who can help your penalty kill could get a bargain here. Between the Devils and Predators last season he scored 18 goals and recorded 24 points.

Derick Brassard, 31 – It’s been a weird few years for Brassard after he scored 46 goals and recorded 118 points in his final two seasons with the Rangers. He was shipped to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and then moved to Pittsburgh before spending last season with the Penguins, Avalanche and Panthers. He’s shown he can still be productive at the NHL level, but this past season was one to forget.

Patrick Maroon, 31 – He took a discount to come home and helped St. Louis win its first Stanley Cup. It will be hard for Maroon to top what happened in 2018-19, but he showed that his physical style can make a difference on the right team. He may be hoping for a multi-year deal, which could be the reason for the delay in signing.

Jason Pominville, 36 – A solid depth addition, Pominville put up a second straight 16-goal season with Buffalo in 2018-19. He also averaged 1.68 points per game at even strength per 60 minutes over the last two seasons, according to Corsica.

Tobias Rieder, 26 – Like Boyle, Rieder can help your penalty kill, but he saw a sharp drop off in production last season with the Oilers. In 67 games, the forward went goalless and recorded 11 points. Before last season, he had reached double digits in goals in each of his four NHL seasons with the Coyotes and Kings. Rieder looks like a real bounce-back candidate in 2019-20.

DEFENSEMEN

Jake Gardiner, 28 – He may not win any Norris Trophies, but he can play 20 minutes a night, be a power play quarterback, and provide production from the blue line. And at this point in time, his contract demands have likely dropped, so there could be a potential bargain here. Gardiner scored three goals and record 30 points in only 62 games last season with the Maple Leafs. He won’t be any team’s No. 1 right now, but he would definitely bolster a blue line.

Ben Hutton, 26 – Hutton will help a team’s power play and penalty kill and be able to give a team over 20 minutes a night. He tied his career high in goals last season with the Canucks with five and tallied 20 points, the second-highest total of his young career

Other notables: Andrew MacDonald; Dan Girardi; Thomas Vanek, Val Nichushkin; Riley Sheahan; Dmitrij Jaskin; Devante Smith-Pelly; Chad Johnson; Troy Brouwer; Drew Stafford; Marko Dano; Matt Read; Zac Rinaldo.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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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.

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.