Corey Crawford

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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.

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.

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.

Blackhawks add goaltending depth, sign Robin Lehner for one year

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The Chicago Blackhawks couldn’t stop anybody from scoring goals last season and have spent the entire summer trying to fix that problem. After focussing on defense in the first part of the offseason with the additions of Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan, they turned to the goal crease on Monday and pulled off one of the more surprising signings of the day when they agreed to terms with Robin Lehner on a one-year, $5 million contract.

Lehner is coming off a career year with the New York Islanders where he was not only a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as one of the league’s top goalie, but also helped backstop the team to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s a bit of an out-of-left-field signing not only due to the one-year term (Lehner reportedly turned down a two-year, $10 million offer to return to the Islanders), but also because it is with Chicago where Corey Crawford is still under contract for one more year at $6 million.

“I’m very excited to play together with Corey Crawford,” Lehner said Monday. “Big role model for me throughout my career. Hell of a goaltender.”

Combined with Lehner’s new deal the Blackhawks now have $11 million tied up in goalie for this season. That brings up questions regarding the status of Crawford’s health, or at the very least, the Blackhawks’ faith that he can get through a full season without missing significant time. He has been limited to just 67 games over the past two seasons, and without the Blackhawks have had no reliable backup to turn to. It has cost them dearly on the scoreboard and in the standings.

Lehner probably will not duplicate his 2018-19 performance, but he should be a better insurance policy than what the Blackhawks had for Crawford in recent years.

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.