Duncan Keith

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Injuries, salary cap crunch will force Blackhawks to play shorthanded

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Times are tough for the Chicago Blackhawks right now.

They enter the week having lost five of their past six games and were completely embarrassed by the Colorado Avalanche over the weekend, being outscored by a 12-5 margin in back-to-back losses on Friday and Saturday.

Now they have to play the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Monday night, and will have to do so with a shorthanded roster that will include only 11 forwards due to an unfortunate combination of injuries, an illness, and a salary cap crunch.

It is not uncommon to see teams play with 11 forwards, but it is usually done because they are dressing a seventh defensman.

The Blackhawks do not even have that going for them on Monday.

Here is the situation:

  • Duncan Keith, Andrew Shaw, Dylan Strome, and Drake Caggiula will all miss Monday’s game due to injury.
  • Keith, Strome, and Caggiula were all already sidelined and did not play in Saturday’s ugly 7-3 loss to the Avalanche, while Shaw’s injury (undisclosed) was revealed on Monday morning. The official word from the team is that he is currently being evaluated.
  • Adding to the issues is the fact goalie Robin Lehner (by far their best goalie so far this season) will not be available on Monday due to illness, forcing the team to recall goalie Kevin Lankinen from the American Hockey League. The problem is that move puts the Blackhawks against the salary cap, preventing them from calling up another forward to fill the open spot that all of the other injuries created.

This all paints a very bleak picture for the Blackhawks because it not only illustrates just how tight the team’s salary cap situation is, but it also serves as a reminder that they are spending a ton of money on a team that simply is not very good.

After they play the Blues on Monday, they have a few days to get healthy again and get some players back before they have to go on the road for a back-to-back that will take them through Boston and New Jersey.

While this type of shorthanded lineup is extremely uncommon, it is not completely unheard of. During the stretch run of the 2014-15 regular season the Pittsburgh Penguins were facing a similar situation when they were forced to play with only five defensemen in the lineup because of injuries and a salary cap situation that prevented any additional call-ups from the American Hockey League.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blackhawks have plenty of problems right now

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Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman took a big gamble this offseason that after consecutive non-playoff seasons his core was still good enough to compete and was only in need of a couple of tweaks.

He brought in Robin Lehner to give them some insurance in goal behind Corey Crawford, he traded for defenders Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to try and fix what had become a terrible blue line, and brought back two-time Stanley Cup winner Andrew Shaw because, well, he has never been able to let go of the people that he won with.

So far, there is not much to suggest that gamble is paying off.

At least not yet.

After dropping a 4-0 decision to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon the Blackhawks are now riding a four-game losing streak and remain near the bottom of the league standings with just two wins in their first nine games. (Remember, they were 5-2-2 after nine games in each of the past two non-playoff series — they have two wins now.) It is their worst start through nine games since 2000-01, and if franchise history is any indicator it has already made a return to the playoffs a real long shot. The only times they have really been able to overcome a start like this were in the Original Six days or the old Norris Trophy days when they could sneak in with a losing record. Neither one of those days are coming back to the NHL anytime soon.

The other problem right now is there isn’t any one particular problem holding them back. It is everything.

The offense has gone cold

The one thing the Blackhawks had going in their favor last season was that the offense went through a bit of a resurgence and was once again among the best in the league. Jonathan Toews bounced back, Patrick Kane was still elite, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome looked like they were on the verge of becoming cornerstone players. There were still serious depth concerns, but the top players were still making an impact. Right now, nobody is scoring goals. The Blackhawks have just two goals in their past three games and for the season are 26th in goals per game. They needed Toews to show his rebound wasn’t a fluke (he has been invisible so far), Kane to remain elite (he has only been okay), and DeBrincat and Strome to take big steps forward (they have three goals between them in nine games) while also finding secondary scoring somewhere. None of it is happening.

The defense doesn’t look any better

Maatta and de Haan were intriguing additions, but the biggest problem with this group as constructed is the complete lack of mobility. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are franchise icons, but they are 36 and 34 years old respectively and have absolutely lost a step (or more) from where they were when they were foundation players for a dynasty. Maatta is a solid defender, but is also probably one of the slowest defenders in the league. After being one of the worst teams in the league in preventing shots the past few years they have again opened this season near the bottom of the league. They are a bottom-10 team in shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances against during 5-on-5 play, and are also giving up more than 32 shots per game in all situations. None of that is close to good enough. Especially when…

Corey Crawford still doesn’t look right

The big wild card for the Blackhawks this season was going to be the goalie duo of Lehner and Crawford because there was always the possibility they could mask a lot of flaws on defense and steal some games. They have split the starts so far this season, and Lehner has mostly done his part. He has a .922 save percentage in his four starts and has probably stolen points for the team in two of them (he stopped 37 of 39 shots in a 3-2 win against Columbus; then stopped 33 out of 34 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss against Vegas). Crawford has been a different story, posting a sub-.895 save percentage in four of his five starts and now carrying around an .887 mark for the season. He has struggled to stay healthy the past two years, he was not particularly good a year ago when he was on the ice, and he has been even worse so far this season and is turning 35 in a couple of months. Not a promising start.

Put it all together, and you have what is now looking like a bad hockey team.

It is also a team that has missed the playoffs two years in a row and has not won a playoff series in four years. With the three-time Stanley Cup winning coach already gone all of the focus for that is going to start going in the direction of the general manager.

MORE: Brent Seabrook to be healthy scratch Sunday for second time in NHL career

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.

What DeBrincat’s new deal means for Blackhawks’ cap outlook

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The Chicago Blackhawks took care of some pretty important business on Thursday when they announced a three-year contract extension for one of their top young players, Alex DeBrincat.

Since he still has one more year remaining on his entry-level contract there wasn’t a huge rush for the Blackhawks to get this deal done now, but doing so helped them get ahead of the game when it comes to constructing next year’s roster.

Let’s take a quick look at what it means for both DeBrincat and the Blackhawks.

It eliminates a headache for the Blackhawks next summer

The storyline that dominated the NHL offseason this past summer was the way the RFA signing process dragged on for months with pretty much every significant player remaining unsigned until well after training camps began. It didn’t result in any meaningful player movement, but it did see a shift in the way RFA contracts are constructed with nearly every player opting for shorter term bridge deals.

Three year deals that increased in salary each year (the biggest salary is in year three, which impacts the qualifying offer on the next contract) became the new normal. Even though everything eventually ended up getting done, it still seemed to be a headache for every team that had to deal with it. Given the new bridge contract trend the Blackhawks probably figured they might as well just get right to it and take care of it now.

[Related: DeBrincat signs three year bridge deal with Blackhawks]

The won’t have to worry about it with their best young player next summer, and that is probably a relief because they still have five restricted free agents to deal with next summer, including Dylan Strome who is entering a massive year in his development.

He may have done the Blackhawks a favor

There was no rush or incentive for DeBrincat to re-sign right now when he still has this season ahead of him. By doing so he may have really helped the Blackhawks’ short-term salary cap outlook because he may have undersold himself a bit financially.

The $6.4 million cap hit is on the lower end of some of the recent RFA deals, and that makes some sense. He has just two years in NHL and while he has been outstanding, especially when it comes to putting the puck in the net, I don’t know that he is as impactful all over the ice defensively and as a possession driver as, say, a Brayden Point or a Mathew Tkachuk.

So to get a deal in their price range is probably a fair one for him.

But again, DeBrincat still has another year on his entry-level contract and if he repeats what he did a year ago (scoring 40 goals) or even improves his overall game (and there is no reason to believe he will not) he could have been looking at a much bigger deal for himself next summer, which could have complicated things for the Blackhawks and their salary cap outlook.

His contract expires the same time as the Blackhawks’ veteran core

DeBrincat’s deal will expire in the summer of 2023 when he will still be a restricted free agent. Because his base salary in the final year of the contract is $9 million, he will be looking at a huge qualifying offer from the Blackhawks and, as long as he continues to be a productive goal-scorer, a huge contract. That same summer the Blackhawks will have a ton of salary coming off the books as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith will all have their contracts expiring at the same time. Brent Seabrook‘s deal comes off the books one year later. It is pretty much a given that Keith and Seabrook won’t be re-signed beyond these current contracts given their ages, so the Blackhawks should have plenty of salary cap room to get a new deal for DeBrincat. In the short-term, the Blackhawks’ at least know what they have to work with regarding DeBrincat’s deal within their core as they try to squeeze another championship window out of the Kane, Toews, and Keith era.

MORE:
• 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.

Blackhawks’ Keith tossed after scary hit from behind (Video)

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Duncan Keith suited up for just 2:14 of the first period on Saturday night against the Calgary Flames.

By 2:15, the veteran Chicago Blackhawks defenseman was in the showers after an ugly boarding major on Flames forward Dillion Dube.

The hit, which you can see below, is sure to be the first thing on the docket for the NHL Department of Player Safety department come Sunday morning.

Keith followed Dube down behind the net, committed to the hit and couldn’t do much about it once Dube tried to turn back toward him.

Here’s the tape:

Dube’s face appeared to be in shambles after he got up. Dube held a towel over his nose, while blood had made its way onto his visor.

To Keith’s credit, he immediately checked on Dube but the damage was already done. The hit didn’t appear to be predatory, but it’s the type of hit that the NHL wants to be eliminated from the game. On top of that, Dube was injured in some fashion on the play and didn’t return to the game due to precautionary reasons.

Oh, and Keith has a history. His most recent suspension came in 2016 for this nasty bit of business.

The Flames were able to score on the ensuing penalty as Sean Monahan scored his seventh of the season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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