Brandon Saad

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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: Blackhawks get Andrew Shaw back as Canadiens clear cap space

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Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman was up to his favorite offseason activity on Sunday afternoon by acquiring another player he previously traded away.

The Blackhawks announced they have acquired forward Andrew Shaw from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for second-and seventh-round picks in 2020, and a third-round pick in 2021.

The Canadiens are retaining zero salary in the trade, meaning all of Shaw’s $3.9 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons comes off of their books.

That is significant for them as they attempt to be players in free agency (perhaps going after Matt Duchene?) when the signing period begins on Monday. Montreal now has more than $12 million in salary cap space and makes them a contender for any of the top free agents on the market.

The Blackhawks originally traded Shaw to the Canadiens three years ago for two second-round draft picks, one of which was used to select Alex DeBrincat.

In Shaw’s three years with the Canadiens he scored 41 goals and 96 total points in 182 games. That includes a career year this past season when he finished with 19 goals and 47 points in 63 games.

The Canadiens definitely sold high on Shaw this offseason and were able to pick up three more draft picks, giving them 11 selections in the 2020 class.

Ignoring the Blackhawks trend of trying to put the old band back together (in recent years they have re-acquired the likes of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, just to name a few, after previously trading them away in salary cap clearing deals) it is a curious move for them. For one, it eats up a significant portion of their remaining salary cap space and still leaves them with five roster spots to fill and only around $8 million in cap space to do it. It also is a pretty good sign that they intend to compete this season, not only because they are re-acquiring a veteran player but because that is a lot of draft pick assets to give up for a third-line player that may not really move them that much closer to a championship.

The Blackhawks have been extremely active this offseason as they attempt to return to the playoffs after missing in each of the past two years.

Along with the addition of Shaw, they have also traded for defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in an effort to improve what was one of the league’s worst defensive teams a year ago.

More Blackhawks Offseason:
Blackhawks defense suddenly looks respectable
Penguins trade Maatta to Blackhawks for Kahun, pick
Blackhawks get de Haan from Hurricanes

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.

 

The Buzzer: Connor McDavid drops four on the Lightning

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Players of the Night:

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: Oilers haven’t had much to smile about this season. Lacklustre play, lacklustre results and a season likely devoid of the playoffs. But on Monday, they got a chance to flash a grin. McDavid went into McJesus mode and dropped four goals and five points on the Tampa Bay Lightning. McDavid now has 21 goals and 40 assists on the season. Smile, Edmonton, even if only for a while.

Kevin Fiala, Nashville Predators: Fiala must like New York. It seems New York likes him. Fiala scored twice on Monday against the Islanders, two days after he put up a brace against the Rangers on Saturday. Fiala is now up to 17 goals on the season, six more than he had in his rookie season last year. And there’s lots of time left to keep advancing that number.

Auston Matthews and William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs: Both scored twice, both added an assist and the Maple Leafs won a shootout 7-4 against the Anaheim Ducks.

* Honourable mention goes to Corey Perry, who recorded an assist on each of Anaheim’s four goals in the game.

Highlights of the Night:

Stoned:

Dan Hamuis getting his due on Monday night:

McJesus:

If you think McDavid’s hat-trick goal was filthy, check out this one:

Factoids of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 7, Ducks 4

Predators 5, Islanders 4 (OT)

Stars 2, Rangers 1

Oilers 6, Lightning 2


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

Saad leads Blackhawks’ first-period barrage

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Brandon Saad isn’t feeling so sad anymore.

The Chicago Blackhawks forward had just one goal in 15 games entering Saturday night’s action, part of an unfortunate group of Blackhawks who have scored very little lately.

Some quick math boils down to roughly $26 million being made across those seven contracts this season. That’s a combined 116 games, including tonight’s contest, and a grand total of six goals, also including tonight, from one-third of the Blackhawks gameday roster.

Saad appeared to be a man on a mission in the first period. He had four shots on goal in his first two shifts and scored late in the period on his sixth shot. Just for some lucky good measure, Saad finished the period with seven shots. The Blackhawks finished with 17 shots on goal and 30 shot attempts.

Someone wanted the monkey off their back in a bad, bad way. And those seven shots in one period are the most since 2008, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

If Saad continues this pace, he’d smash the team record for most shots on goal in a game.

Meanwhile, Sharp, looking to end a 15-game goal-less drought, was having no such luck around the Panthers net in the first period.

Not the sharpest pole vault attempt ever conceived.


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

Poll: Will Seabrook re-sign?

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In Chicago, conversation about the cost of keeping the team together never really ends.

Having just come off a summer in which Brandon Saad, Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya and Patrick Sharp all exited due to financial constraints, the ‘Hawks can now begin looking ahead to next July, when another prized player could go unrestricted:

Brent Seabrook.

Seabrook, 30, is heading into the last of a five-year, $29 million deal with a $5.8M cap hit. His resume is loaded — three Stanley Cups, Olympic gold, a ’15 All-Star Game appearance — and he’s coming off a postseason in which he led all defensemen in goals (seven), the same number that Tampa Bay captain Steve Stamkos potted.

So needless to say, he’d be coveted on the open market.

There are two sides to this discussion. The first is why Seabrook would want to stay in Chicago, and it’s a fairly easy sell — it’s the only team he’s ever known, having been drafted by the ‘Hawks in the first round in ’03. He’s since appeared in over 800 games in a ‘Hawks sweater during his 10-year career, and developed a dynamic pairing with fellow blueliner (and one of his best friends) Duncan Keith.

Seabrook also has, as mentioned above, achieved a boatload of success with the ‘Hawks.

But there are reasons why he’d leave.

Well, one big reason — the money.

Per war-on-ice.com, the ‘Hawks already have close to $60 million committed to 16 players after this season. While there aren’t many other noteworthy contracts on the horizon — Andrew Shaw will require a new deal in ’16-17, Teuvo Teravainen and Marko Dano the year after — there is a question of how much Chicago can pay Seabrook.

Do consider that, a few weeks ago, Calgary gave Mark Giordano — who’s a year older than Seabrook — a six year, $40.5 million extension that carries a $6.75M cap hit. Earlier this summer, TSN speculated that Seabrook “is due to earn at least Dion Phaneuf-type money, in the neighborhood of seven years and $49 million.”

Those are both pretty steep AAVs but, given the dearth of quality UFA defensemen that usually hit the market, they could be in Seabrook’s wheelhouse. Remember that Mike Green got $6M per from Detroit this summer, while Andrej Sekera got $33 million over five years from the Oilers.

If Seabrook doesn’t sign an extension prior to the season starting, you can expect this conversation to pick up steam as the year progresses.

But why wait for that? Let’s vote and discuss now.