Jonathan Toews

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Stan Bowman’s big bet on Blackhawks’ core

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With no postseason series wins in four years, no postseason appearances in two years, and a veteran team with big contracts it would not have been a huge shock if the Chicago Blackhawks decided to tear things down a little this offseason in an effort to start a new chapter for the organization.

Sure, some of the contracts remaining on the team are ugly in terms of the commitment and dollars still owed, and they are loaded with no-trade clauses, but there are always ways around all of that that. No contract is so bad that it can not be moved, clauses can be waived, deals can be bought out.

But instead of tearing down the core or making drastic changes to the foundation of the team, Bowman has instead doubled down on his championship core and worked to try and fix the flaws that existed around it.

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

  • He signed Robin Lehner for one year to give the team a safety net in case Corey Crawford is limited by injuries or poor performance.
  • He acquired veteran defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan.
  • He re-acquired Andrew Shaw from the Montreal Canadiens, continuing his longstanding trend of bringing back players he previously traded or lost to free agency.
  • He made the bold and controversial decision to trade one the team’s top prospects — defender Henri Jokiharju — for what is probably a lesser prospect in Alexander Nylander.

By doing all of this, and by going after the type of players he did (mostly established veterans built to win now), he is pretty much telling the hockey world he still believes this Blackhawks team is good enough to compete and win this season. Maybe there is some reason for him to believe that. As long as a team has high-end players in its lineup the window will always remain cracked open and you never want to truly punt on a season as long as you still have that. And the Blackhawks certainly still have some of that element with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Duncan Keith at the top.

But it is still a big bet that is going to depend largely on what happens with the Crawford-Lehner duo in net, how much they can get out of their top-returning defenders, and if he acquired the right players to improve what has been one of the league’s worst defensive teams.

The issue for Bowman is going to come if he is wrong on these bets.

The Blackhawks have not come close to reaching the standard they set for themselves between 2010 and 2015 and have won just three total playoff games over the past four years (all coming in a Round 1 loss to the St. Louis Blues during the 2015-16 playoffs).

Given that the team has already fired a three-time Stanley Cup winning, future Hall of Fame coach within the past year we have probably reached the point where any continued lack of success is going to start falling on Bowman. He is the one that chose the direction of the team, he is the one that brought in the players that are supposed to help fix the problems, and it’s not like his recent track record of deals and moves is beyond reproach.

Everything about the Blackhawks’ offseason points to a team that thinks it can win this season.

If it doesn’t, it could be costly for the general manager.

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.

Strome’s development will be huge factor for 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

One of the few bright spots for the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks had to be the emergence of Dylan Strome following his mid-season acquisition from the Arizona Coyotes.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Strome was a talented young player that had performed and produced at an incredibly high level at every stop in his development. He was a dominant junior player and a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League, but never really had much of a chance to shine with the Coyotes at the NHL level.

They were patient and methodical in his development, wanting him to grow as a two-way center before throwing him into the deep-end of the NHL pool. He would never get a chance to take that step in Arizona having been traded to Chicago for Nick Schmaltz. At the time, it seemed like a great gamble for the Blackhawks to take. They needed young, cheap players that still had big-time potential to help restock their cupboards, and the cost to get him was not fair.

The early returns have been great.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

He recorded 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists) in his first 58 games with the team. Only three players on the Blackhawks (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat) recorded more points after his arrival.

One of the biggest keys for the Blackhawks in 2019-20 will be whether or not Strome’s initial success in Chicago was something that he can build on, or if it was just simply a giant mirage.

The promising part for Strome is that the talent and potential for him to be an impact player has never been an issue. It has always just been a matter of him getting an opportunity and actually putting everything together.

With the Blackhawks he demonstrated top-line playmaking ability (his 1.02 primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play were second on the team, trailing only Patrick Kane) and scored at a 25-goal pace over 82 games.

That is all outstanding.

But there were still some serious red flags that came with that production.

While he seemed to find a goal-scoring touch, he was not a player that created a lot of shots on his own. That is a problem because the biggest part of consistently scoring goals is consistently creating shots.

He averaged under two shots on goal per game and was one of the team’s worst players at generating shot attempts during 5-on-5 play. A lot his new goal-scoring success was driven by a 16.2 percent shooting percentage. And while that is not an outrageously high number (he was a 12 percent shooter in Arizona) it is still a mystery as to whether or not he can maintain such a level.

The Blackhawks were also badly outshot and outchanced when he was on the ice, a trend that remained consistent no matter who his linemates were.

None of this is to suggest he can not improve in these areas. He does not turn 23 years old until March, only has 106 games of NHL experience on his resume, and has a track record of producing at an All-Star level offensively throughout his development. It is just to point out that he is far from a finished product and a huge X-factor for the Blackhawks.

If he improves his two-way play and generates more shot volume he has a chance to be an important of the next wave of talent to go through Chicago alongside Debrincat and 2019 first-round pick Kirby Dach.

But if he keeps getting stuck in his own end of the ice while opponents pump shots on the Blackhawks’ net and he has to rely on shooting percentage to score goals, some of his scoring luck might soon run out.

The direction his career takes this season will play a big role in the direction the Blackhawks’ season takes.

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.

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.

Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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