Alex DeBrincat

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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.

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.

DeBrincat scores twice as U.S. routs Denmark 7-1 at worlds

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Alex DeBrincat had two goals and an assist to help the United States rout Denmark 7-1 on Saturday for the Americans’ fourth straight victory during preliminary play at the world championships.

Jeff Blashill became the winningest U.S. coach in world championship history in the top division with his 18th career victory in 23 games.

Patrick Kane added three assists; Jack Eichel had a goal and an assist; and Frank Vatrano, Clayton Keller, Chris Kreider and Dylan Larkin scored a goal apiece. Goalie Cory Schneider made 21 saves for his third victory this tournament.

”Schneids made a couple of big saves early, and I thought overall we got better as the game went on and picked up an important three points,” said Blashill, also the coach of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. ”We can still tighten up a little defensively, but overall I thought we made some good strides today.”

The U.S. is 3-1-0-1 in Group A and plays Germany on Sunday when Minnesota Wild forward Luke Kunin is to join the team.

Russia beat Latvia 3-1 in Bratislava and leads Group B with a 5-0-0-0 record. Canada beat Germany 8-1 for its fourth straight win, and Norway beat Italy 7-1. In late games, Sweden edged Switzerland 4-3, and Slovakia scored three goals in the first 11 minutes in beating Britain 7-1.

The Americans improved to 6-0-1-1 against Denmark, jumping to a 4-0 lead after the first period.

Vatrano scored the first goal off a breakaway with Derek Ryan. DeBrincat scored 29 seconds later on a power play, putting the puck under goalie Simon Nielsen’s glove. Keller made it 3-0 when James van Riemsdyk deflected a shot by Ryan Suter off Keller’s back. Kreider made it 4-0 late in the first.

Nick Olesen scored at 4:50 of the second to pull Denmark within 4-1. DeBrincat padded the lead at 11:55 with tap-in goal, and Larkin made it 6-1 at 13:17. Eichel scored his first goal of this tournament at 11:19 of the third for the final score.

Mark Stone scored three of Canada’s first four goals, Anthony Matha added two and Dylan Strome and Jonathan Marchessault each had three assists. Canada is tied with Germany for second in Group A behind Finland (13) with 12 points apiece. The U.S. is fourth with 11 points.

Norway avoided relegation with a second win in as many days with Mathias Trettenes’ goal 1:47 into the third the winner.

Italy ended a scoring drought of 447 minutes, 42 seconds at the worlds dating to 2017 when Angelo Miceli scored at 2:03 of the third off a shot by Armin Helfer. The goal was reviewed for a possible kicking motion after going of Miceli’s skate only to be upheld to pull Italy within 2-1. Norway answered with five straight goals.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored at 11:47 of the third to lift Sweden to the win just 1:20 after Switzerland had tied it at 3 on a goal by Gaetan Haas.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports