Olli Maatta

Blackhawks long-term outlook DeBrincat Toews Kane
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Long-term outlook for Blackhawks: salary cap, prospects, and more

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Pending Free Agents

  • Corey Crawford (UFA)
  • Drake Caggiula (RFA)
  • Dominik Kubalik (RFA)
  • Dylan Strome (RFA)
  • Malcolm Subban (RFA)
  • Slater Koekkoek (RFA)
  • Matthew Highmore (RFA)

The Core

Both at age 31 with matching $10.5 million cap hits through 2022-23, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the headliners of the Blackhawks’ core.

While Toews in particular isn’t what he once was, the biggest problem is shaky support.

Duncan Keith is far removed from his prime at age 36, yet his contract ($5.54 through 2022-23) lingers. Quite a bit of this structure has broken down, to the point that it would be preferable for both Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw to stay planted on LTIR.

Credit Stan Bowman with trying to improve a shabby defense. Unfortunately, Bowman whiffed with Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, and Calvin De Haan to varying degrees. Those three contracts stay on the books through 2021-22.

To Bowman’s credit, he’s experienced significant successes finding forward talent, sometimes off the beaten path. While the Blackhawks galaxy-brained themselves out of Artemi Panarin, they locked up Alex DeBrincat to a team-friendly extension.

One key question remains: can the Blackhawks find the cash to re-sign Corey Crawford? Actually, that folds into other questions. Being that Crawford is 35, should they?

Also, will Dominik Kubalik and/or Dylan Strome become core members, or stay in limbo with “bridge” deals. Can Alex Nylander cement himself? The supporting cast continues to go through auditions as if they’re in Chicago’s Broadway.

Long-Term Needs for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks face plenty of long-term needs.

Still, sometimes the biggest needs go deeper than “scoring depth” and “some actual, above-average NHL defensemen.” The Blackhawks organization needs to let go of the past, even if it means some extra suffering in the present. Otherwise, the future could be plagued by half-measures.

It would be understandable if the Blackhawks struck a short-term deal with Corey Crawford. He quietly put together a surprisingly strong 2019-20, particularly down the stretch.

Yet, how many times should Chicago really go to that nostalgia well? (To say nothing of how tough it might be to fit Crawford under the cap, as Mark Lazerus discussed here [sub required].)

This team needs more difference-makers. Adam Boqvist and other prospects figure to boost the competence of Chicago’s crummy defense, but how much?

Ultimately, the Blackhawks need to add “blue chip” talent, and hope that Boqvist, Kirby Dach, and others fall in that category. By trying to enjoy the best of both worlds of competing while getting some young talent, Chicago risks falling short of both marks. They’ve seemingly accrued good-but-not-great talent, and were moderately competitive but not legitimate contenders.

Pull off the Band-Aid already.

Long-Term Strengths for Blackhawks

As mentioned with Panarin and DeBrincat, the Blackhawks have shown some ability to unearth talent even when they didn’t have no-brainer picks like they did with Kane and Toews. (Panarin was a Euro free agent, DeBrincat went 39th overall in 2016). Dominik Kubalik looks like he could be the latest hidden gem.

Such successes have been a bit of a double-edged sword, as referenced in the long-term needs section. By finding ways to be semi-competitive, the Blackhawks have sometimes added good where a “tank” season may have provided great.

Still, there’s decent talent to work with. DeBrincat, Strome, Kubalik, and maybe Nylander can help on offense. Dach’s development is crucial.

Boqvist ranks as vital on defense, too, but he’s not alone. In ranking Chicago’s prospect pool 12th overall (sub required), The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler frequently listed defensemen. Wheeler highlighted Ian Mitchell almost as much as Boqvist, so help could be coming there. Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Chicago’s under-23 core at a respectable 13th, so it’s not as if there’s nothing beyond Kane and Toews.

Lately, “almost” has been in painful supply for Chicago. An optimist might squint and see how things could break the Blackhawks’ way, but improving this long-term outlook will require more long-term thinking.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary
Surprises and disappointments

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It looks like Blackhawks are sticking with Bowman, Colliton

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Before the 2019-20 NHL season went on pause the Chicago Blackhawks were headed toward their third consecutive non-playoff season and their fifth consecutive season without a playoff series win (with only three playoff game wins during that stretch).

It has been a pretty sudden fall from the top for an organization that was once the gold standard for winning in the salary cap NHL.

They are not only no longer a Stanley Cup contender, they are not even all that close to being a playoff team in what has been a mostly watered down Western Conference the past two years.

Despite the sudden descent into mediocrity, there does not appear to be any significant changes coming to the coaching staff or front office after this season.

In an interview with the Athletic’s Scott Powers, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said the trio of team president John McDonough, general manager Stan Bowman, and head coach Jeremy Colliton will all be back next season.

From the Athletic:

Wirtz isn’t on the same page as those fans. Asked about his confidence level in the trio, Wirtz replied, “I think they’re all good.”

Does he envision all three returning next season?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Wirtz said. “There’s not going to be any changes in the front office.”

Wirtz reiterated that when he was asked about a rumored Bowman contract extension.

“I’ll let John (McDonough) get into all the details,” Wirtz said of Bowman’s contract. “But there’s not going to be any changes, so let’s put that away.”

The level of confidence there is a little surprising given the current state of the Blackhawks’ organization, especially as it relates to the key people in the front office responsible with building the team.

It was just a little over a year ago that the team parted ways with a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach (Joel Quenneville) after a slow start to the season 2018-19 season. It wasn’t a stretch to think that move would have started the timer on Bowman given that the attention would eventually drift toward the team’s roster management. Especially after the Blackhawks seemed to go all in this offseason on trying to fix their flaws with the hope of squeezing another run out of this remaining core. Obviously, that gamble has not paid off.

While the Blackhawks have to deal with salary cap restrictions that come from paying a pair of superstars big money at the top, that alone isn’t enough of a justification for the drop in success, especially while teams like Washington and Pittsburgh have maintained consistent success with a similar cap structure. The issue still comes back to roster management and some questionable decisions over the years. The Blackhawks tried to get ahead of their salary cap issues over the years but simply made things worse in the short-and long-term.

They needed to dump Bryan Bickell’s contract and did so by attaching Teuvo Teravainen to it and trading him to Carolina for next to nothing. Today, Teravainen is one of the Hurricanes’ best players and would easily be a top player in Chicago.

They feared how much Artemi Panarin would cost on his next contract and dealt him to Columbus to bring back Brandon Saad and some cost certainty. Talent-for-talent, the trade was laughably one-sided and saw them deal a superstar for a good player. Maybe they couldn’t have re-signed him for his current contract and lost him anyway, but how much more competitive would they have been the previous two years with him at forward with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex DeBrincat?

Then there were smaller, minor deals this offseason like trading Dominik Kahun and Henri Jokiharju for Olli Maatta and Alex Nylander, and then getting an underwhelming return on Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the trade deadline. There are big mistakes. There are a bunch of small mistakes adding up into big mistakes. It all just keeps building up into what the Blackhawks have now.

That is not to say there have not been some successes.

Acquiring Dominik Kubalik has been one of the Blackhawks’ best steals in recent years. DeBrincat has turned out to be an outstanding second-round pick, while recent top picks Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach look like they can be young building blocks going forward. But even with those successes and the promise they bring there are still more questions than solutions throughout the roster. Without dramatic change somewhere, the mediocrity might only continue to build.

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’ Seabrook to return in 5-6 months after latest surgery

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The Chicago Blackhawks announced that veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook underwent successful hip surgery on Thursday and that he will be ready to return in five-to-six months. That would put him on a timeline to be ready for the start of training camp for the 2020-21 season.

His most recent surgery was his third — both hips, shoulder — over the past six weeks.

He has not played since Dec. 15, while the team announced a couple of weeks later that both he and Calvin de Haan (shoulder injury) would both be out for the season. He appeared in 32 games this season, scoring three goals with one assist.

Blackhawks’ long-term outlook on defense

What Seabrook’s role will look like next season remains to be seen. His play has not only rapidly declined the past few years, but he will be coming off of three major surgeries and be 35 years old when the season begins.

Seabrook still has four more years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season.

The Blackhawks have managed to hang around in the playoff race and play their way back into contention but still have some major flaws and question marks defensively and remain one of the league’s worst teams at preventing shots and scoring chances. The goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford has helped mask that, but both are free agents after this season and remains to be seen if either one of them will be back next season.

The Blackhawks tried to revamp their defense this offseason with the additions of de Haan and Olli Maatta, but it has not really worked. Almost everyone currently on the defense is signed long-term.

Seabrook, Maatta, de Haan, Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith are all signed for at least the next two full seasons (Seabrook and Keith beyond), while rookie Adam Boqvist remains on his entry-level deal.

Erik Gustafsson, their most productive defenseman offensively over the past two seasons, is an unrestricted free agent after this 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 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.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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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 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

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

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

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.