UA-59049186-1 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks Preview - Good if it Goes

2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks Preview

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After a regular season that saw them put up 109 points, the Blackhawks’ 2016-17 season ended with a disappointing thud, a first-round sweep at the hands of the eventual Western Conference champion Nashville Predators. After a second straight season ended in the first round of the playoffs, Stan Bowman got to work. Some fixtures are gone and some familiar faces are back as the Hawks try to reclaim the Stanley Cup this year.

The Team

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Forwards

Brandon Saad – Jonathan Toews – Richard Panik

After Brandon Saad was a cap casualty after the 2015 championship, the Hawks struggled to find his replacement and Jonathan Toews’ production dipped as the team tried out a multitude of players in the 1LW spot. The Hawks have finally found Saad’s replacement this year, though: Brandon Saad. The Saadfather returns to Chicago after being acquired from Columbus in exchange for Artemi Panarin. While losing Panarin stings, Saad brings a more complete game and is under contract for the next four years. Saad’s return should give a boost to Toews, though even when Toews isn’t lighting the lamp frequently, his impact can’t be understated. He’s the man counted on to go up against the opposition’s best each night and handles that job as well as anyone in the league. Nobody plays a better 200-foot game and nobody brings better leadership. On Tazer’s right side is Richard Panik, coming off a breakout season that saw him put up a nice 22-22-44 line.

Ryan Hartman – Nick Schmaltz – Patrick Kane

I’m calling this line the Aces in 8s. I thought of it. It’s mine. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Anyway, Ryan Hartman more than filled the void left by Andrew Shaw’s departure. While the Hawks tried Alex DeBrincat out at 2LW during the pre-season, I like this line better, as Hartzy gives the line a little bite. Centering the line is Nick Schmaltz. After registering a 6-22-28 line in 61 games a year ago, Schmaltz looks to take the next step and will do so where he fits best – center. And what a great line mate he has as he looks to make that step. After leading the league in scoring and winning MVP honors in 2016, Kane took a step back last year. After that step back, Kane still put up over a point per game, so, yeah, things could be worse.

Patrick Sharp – Artem Anisimov – Alex DeBrincat

This line is a bit of a question mark. How much does Sharp have left in the tank? What will Anisimov do without Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane at his sides? Will Anisimov get better at the face-off dot? Is DeBrincat ready for the NHL? My guesses: enough to be a solid third-liner, see previous answer, no, see the first answer.

Sharp returns to Chicago after two years in Dallas. The first was a good one that saw Sharp put up a 20-35-55 line. The second saw him held to 8-10-18 in 48 games. Sharp lost a chunk of last season to hip surgery and Bowman said he was not concerned about that injury, so maybe Sharpie’s still got something left in the tank. 40 points or so this year is a reasonable hope. Anisimov has averaged 0.62 PPG during his first two years in Chicago and we should all be thrilled if he does that again this year. The catch: he’s not playing with Kane and Panarin anymore. Expect a bit of a drop-off, but I’m not expecting anything severe. As with Sharp, 40 points would be a fine year. What we really hope to see is improvement at the dot. Last year, he won 45% of face-offs, up from 44% the previous year, but still not good. He averaged 49% in consecutive years (2013-13 and 2013-14) in Columbus. If he can get back there, that would be awesome. Can he? Not likely. C’est la vie. Alex DeBrincat makes the jump from the OHL to the NHL after serving as a alternate captain for the Erie Otters last year and putting up over 2 PPG(!). DeBrincat stands on;y 5’7, but plays bigger than that, is a skilled skater, and has a knack for finding the back of the net. He’s only 19 – he’s going to screw up sometimes. The ceiling is the roof, though, and I’m excited to see him develop.

Lance Bouma – Tanner Kero – John Hayden

Bouma comes over from Calgary. He’s had one decent offensive season in his career – 2014-15, where he put up a 16-18-34 line in 78 games. His other 226 career games have produced 33 points. He’ll give you what you need on the fourth line and can kill penalties. Kero is not an offensive juggernaut, either, but is a solid, responsible contributor. He doesn’t give you as much defensively as Marcus Kruger did, but he should fill his role pretty well. Hayden looked very promising in 12 games last season. He can skate, he can hit, and he’s skilled. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get 30-40 points.

Defense

Duncan Keith – Connor Murphy

Connor Murphy comes over from Arizona in the Niklas Hjalmarsson trade. Losing a guy like Hjalmarsson sucks, but Murphy’s younger and on an easier-to-manage contract. Murphy’s not as much of a sure thing as Hjalmarsson was, but playing with a guy like Duncan Keith should help his production.

Michal Kempny – Brent Seabrook

Kempny had an up-and-down year in his first year in North America. On the one hand, he could get better as he gets more used to the NHL. On the other hand, he’s 27, so I don’t know how much better he’ll get. He should be at least fine. Brent Seabrook’s play has sagged a bit, but Seabs is still a top-flight blueliner.

Gustav Forsling – Jan Rutta

Forsling showed flashes of serious potential a year ago and should take the next step this year. Jan Rutta comes over from the Czech Extraliga, where he put up a 8-24-32 line last year. He’s already 27, but he’s got the tools to make a quick transition to the NHL.

Goaltenders

Corey Crawford is the starter. One of the top 5-10 goalies in the league, the Hawks will need a big season from him with such an inexperienced defensive group. His numbers may drop a bit, but he should still be one of the game’s finest.

Anton Forsberg came over from Coumbus in the Saad-Panarin trade. He’s got a very high ceiling, but hasn’t done much yet. Literally. He’s only played in 10 NHL games. Ask again later.

Reserves and others we could see

C Tommy Wingels comes to the Hawks after registering 4 points (2 G, 2 A) in 36 games with Ottawa a year ago. The Evanston native will be another fourth-line option and that’s about it.

D Jordan Oesterle turned in a solid pre-season and could see some action on the bottom pair.

D Cody Franson comes to Chicago after spending the last two seasons in Buffalo. Franson should play in a good amount of games and gives the Hawks another serviceable option on defense.

F Vinnie Hinostroza will start the season in Rockford and some folks on Twitter are not too happy about. With 14 points in 56 career games, it seems like this may be a “prove it” year for the local kid.

W Alexandre Fortin will likely spend the year in Rockford, though his needle is trending upward. Fortin had an impressive pre-season a year ago then went back to the QMJHL, where he averaged a point per game with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.

D Erik Gustafsson looked promising two seasons ago when he first made it to the NHL, registering 14 points (0 G, 14 A) in 41 games. Then he didn’t make it to the ice in the NHL at all last season. It seems like there’s an opportunity there this year. This looks like a “prove it” year for Gustafsson, too.

The Obligatory Second-Guessing

Not much here. I’d probably put Hinostroza on the fourth line instead of Bouma, but that’s a rather minor quibble. If Q would rather have Bouma’s physicality, that’s fine, I’ll ride with him on this one.

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The Prediction

The way last year ended was disappointing, but 109 points doesn’t happen by accident. Losing Marian Hossa to LTIR, Trevor van Riemsdyk to the expansion draft, and Marcus Kruger to the cap hurt, to be sure – the Hawks don’t have immediately replacements for Hoss and TvR and while Kero should be a solid 4C, he doesn’t replace what Kruger gives you on the PK. Panarin for Saad was an upgrade and I think Hjalmarsson for Murphy will be no worse than a slight downgrade and at the very least, that trade puts the team in a much better financial position going forward. Nick Schmaltz seems ready to make the leap and having Kaner next to him can only help. Don’t be surprised if Hartzy has a big year, too. If the third line hits its ceiling, this will be an elite offense. If they don’t, the offense should still be very good. I’m far less bullish on the defense – there are only three proven hands there. The team will need a big year out of Crow. I think he’s up to the task, but still, don’t expect many 1-0 wins. This is a playoff team. Last year’s 109-point division win may not be repeated, but I don’t think this team will be sweating it out at the end of the year, either. In the NHL, anything can happen in the playoffs and the Hawks still possess much of what got them three Cups in six years. Still, they’ll be looking to make anything happen instead of staving off the anything. 104 points, 2nd place Central Division, Western Conference finalist.

Twitter: @KSchroeder_312

E-mail: schroeder.giig@gmail.com

 

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