April 10, 2018 | 4:56pm ET
By Tab Bamford, The Fourth Period
BLACKHAWKS FOCUSED ON REGAINING TOP FORM
Stan Bowman, GM
CHICAGO, IL -- The Chicago Blackhawks don’t have another hockey game to worry about until... September.
That feels a bit off considering it’s been almost a full decade since they last watched the first round of the playoffs from home.
But the 2017-18 season wasn’t a just-miss from the postseason; Chicago finished in dead last in the Central Division – a full 16 points behind Dallas. The only teams in the Western Conference to finish the year with fewer points than Chicago’s 76 were Vancouver (73) and Arizona (70), and nobody thought they were going anywhere this year.
So where did it all go so wrong?
The discussion begins with Corey Crawford. After he left the Hawks’ lineup on Dec. 23, the Blackhawks were never the same team. Going into that game in New Jersey, the Blackhawks were 17-12-5. Without Crawford they managed a 16-27-5 record and five goaltenders – including accountant Scott Foster – tried to hold down the fort in Crawford’s absence. Of the four NHL goaltenders who saw action for Chicago, Anton Forsberg (.908) was the only one with a save percentage above .900 and goals against average (2.97) under 3.00 for the season.
Crawford suffered from the dreaded upper-body injury that doesn’t have a timetable for return. He took a number of hits to the head during this season and eventually left the lineup for good before Christmas. While coaches and management can try to confidently say he’ll be back in September ready for the 2018-19 campaign, coming back from that amount of time off forces us to wonder if the dominant goaltender who was taken for granted for so long will be the guy wearing 50 in red ever again.
Crawford was good enough that he made up for some glaring issues over the past couple years as the Hawks got bounced from the playoffs early in each of the last two Aprils.
Last year’s early exit led to GM Stan Bowman saying that the performance wasn’t good enough in his end-of-season comments. There would be changes, most dramatically the trade of Artemi Panarin to Columbus for Brandon Saad. While that deal is the one most talked about in Chicago today, Chicago was also trying to replace Marian Hossa and Niklas Hjalmarsson, two core pieces from three championships who were also gone. It appears a skin disorder has ended Hossa’s career, and Hjalmarsson was dealt to Arizona in a deal that brought Connor Murphy to Chicago.
Murphy joined a blueline that was a hot mess. Led by the $12.4 million duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the Hawks handed the blueline to Ulf Samuelsson for the first time this season. He got to work with almost a dozen different players over the course of the season.
The Cody Franson experiment lasted 23 games with little success. Michal Kempny was eventually traded to Washington, but never got regular ice time. Jan Rutta, Carl Dahlstrom and Blake Hillman made their NHL debuts during the season. Erik Gustafsson has shown some offensive ability in 35 games, finishing fourth among Hawks defensemen with 16 points in only 37 games. Murphy, Gustav Forsling and Jordan Oesterle also figured into a mix that was clearly not good enough.
Bowman has said that, with the cap flexibility the Blackhawks will have heading into next season, he plans on addressing the blueline. This will make for an interesting summer for the guys we just named because eight of the defensemen listed above are already under contract for next season. Chicago also anticipates top prospect Henri Jokiharju to be in the mix for an NHL roster spot next year.
Jokiharju, who turns 19 in mid-June, was the Hawks’ top pick (29th overall) in last summer’s NHL Draft. He’s coming off a marvelous season with Portland in the WHL in which he posted 71 points in 63 games. Between Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell (who will be a sophomore at the University of Denver next season) the Blackhawks have a couple solid prospects coming to help their defensive group in the future.
The question, of course, is how far into the future will those two make an impact – and does what that means for those under contract moving forward.
Then there’s the Draft this summer, in which the Hawks own two first round picks.
Since Bowman became the General Manager in Chicago on July 14, 2009, the Hawks have had a top-20 pick only three times: Mark McNeill (18th in 2011), Teuvo Teravainen (18th in 2012) and Nick Schmaltz (20th in 2014). Two of those players, Teravainen and Schmaltz, have developed into quality NHL players, but this will be the first time Bowman has his hands on a Top 10 pick.
The last time Chicago picked in the Top 10 they won the lottery and selected Patrick Kane in 2007.
Obviously, we won’t know where the Hawks’ top pick will fall for a couple weeks; the second is coming from Nashville (from the Ryan Hartman trade), and that pick figures to be, at best, in the late 20s.
The cupboard isn’t empty in Chicago, though. As much as there are questions marks between the pipes and on the blueline, Hawks fans should be encouraged by the collection of forwards returning next season.
Jonathan Toews missed the final couple weeks of the regular-season with an upper-body issue of his own, but still managed 52 points and another 20-goal season. Kane had an off-season by his standards with 27 goals and 76 points, but the youth movement is fully under way in Chicago and shows a great deal of promise.
Alex DeBrincat, who is still only 20 and will play for the U.S. at the World Championships in May, led the team with 28 goals and a rookie leading three hat tricks. Schmaltz finished with 21 goals and 52 points and showed a great deal of improvement as the season progressed. And Chicago was able to sign the organization’s top forward prospect, Dylan Sikura, when his collegiate career came to a close at Northeastern. Bowman has been outspoken about how highly the front office feels about his abilities; he figures to be an impact player next season.
And while the Saad-Panarin trade has been widely trashed this season because of a tough year for Saad, it’s worth remembering that Saad is younger than Panarin and under control for two more years. Even with a career-worst 7.6 shooting percentage this season (four points below his career average), Saad still managed 18 goals.
Bowman rolled the dice on a few veteran stopgaps heading into the 2017-18 season that delayed the arrival of a few young players. Lance Bouma, Patrick Sharp and Tommy Wingels made the opening night roster, which meant Vinnie Hinostoza and John Hayden were in the AHL in October. Hinostroza was called up early in the year and appeared in 50 games, producing 25 points and providing a speed element the Hawks needed. Hayden is a big body who finished fourth on the team with 118 hits in only 47 games.
Hinostroza, Hayden and Anthony Duclair are all restricted free agents. Duclair, acquired from Arizona during the season, is another player with plenty of speed but injuries cut his season short as well.
As Chicago heads into unfamiliar territory this summer, they also do so with cap flexibility. Even with an overage of roughly $1.3 million, the Hawks figure to have some room to work with heading into next year.
The conversation will focus goaltending and finding a formula that works to improve the blueline, but the standard hasn’t changed for the Blackhawks. The organizations’ one goal is a championship, and after three straight years of falling short of that goal, the pressure is now squarely on Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville to get it right in 2018-19.