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Off-Season Game Plan: Chicago Blackhawks

Scott Cullen
6/18/2014 3:50:25 PM
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The Chicago Blackhawks lost in Game Seven of the Western Conference Final, to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, and it says something about the calibre of this team that not winning the Stanley Cup comes as something of a disappointment. First World, Second City problems.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Blackhawks team that may be able to bring back largely the same cast next season, and they probably should.

While the Blackhawks might need to make moves if next season's salary cap comes in lower than expected, their roster is sound and doesn't require dramatic changes.

Thus, the first priority for GM Stan Bowman is to work on contract extensions for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the club's two cornerstone forwards. While that's of obvious importance to the future of the franchise, both are signed for next season, so while other teams are scrambling this summer to fill holes in their lineup, the Blackhawks don't have that same urgency.

They were the league's second-best puck possession team, and if a few bounces had gone theo their way, that could have been enough to alter the outcome of the Western Conference Final.

So, if the summer means a few minor changes, letting Michal Handzus ply his trade elsewhere next season and opening up a spot or two for a prospect to join the roster, well, that's an entirely reasonable plan of attack. Unless the salary cap dictates change, there's just not much incentive to dramatically change a roster that was very close to winning another Stanley Cup.

Maybe the Blackhawks' plan for the offseason ought to be working out in front of pictures of the Los Angeles Kings celebrating their Cup win. A little added motivation for what is looking like a very promising rivalry between teams that have won four of the past five Stanley Cups and will expect to contend for the next couple.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Stan Bowman/Joel Quenneville

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Patrick Kane 78.42 69 29 40 69 55.1% $6.3M
Jonathan Toews 78.37 76 28 40 68 59.3% $6.3M
Patrick Sharp 78.38 82 34 44 78 57.2% $5.9M
Marian Hossa 77.67 72 30 30 60 57.8% $5.275M
Bryan Bickell 64.60 59 11 4 15 58.0% $4.0M
Kris Versteeg 63.83 81 12 24 36 54.2% $2.2M
Andrew Shaw 67.29 80 20 19 39 56.9% $2.0M
Marcus Kruger 65.55 81 8 20 28 51.4% $1.325M
Brandon Bollig 61.50 82 7 7 14 50.9% $1.25M
Brandon Saad 72.04 78 19 28 47 57.7% $764K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Ben Smith 66.17 75 14 12 26 51.1% RFA $563K
Michal Handzus 58.93 59 4 12 16 51.8% UFA $1.0M
Peter Regin 59.12 61 4 7 11 52.6% UFA $750K

In seven seasons that Patrick Kane has been in the league, he's scored 493 points, which ranks 11th. He's a rare talent with the puck on his stick, able to create scoring opportunities either with his patience and puck skills or his ability to find an open teammate. Advanced metrics show how the Blackhawks tilt the ice in Kane's favour, starting the vast majority of his shifts in the offensive zone, and while that indicates that Kane's possession numbers could be better than they've been over the past couple seasons, starting in the offensive zone is merely the best way to maximize his talent.

His playoff performance was underwhelming, but Patrick Sharp had a fantastic season, scoring a career-high 78 points, and his 53 even-strength points ranked 11th in the league; not bad for the guy who gets lost in Kane and Toews' respective shadows. He is a fine two-way player, but Sharps has made his mark as a sniper too. Since 2007-2008, Sharp has scored 194 goals, tied with Marian Hossa and one behind Jonathan Toews.

Consistently mentioned as one of the best all-around players in the game, Jonathan Toews had his points-per-game decline for the first time in his career last season, and his 2.54 shots on goal per game was his lowest since 2008-2009. Toews is both a dominant possession player and a consistently high-percentage finisher. Part of the reason that Toews is such an elite finisher is that he perennially has an average shooting distance of less than 25 feet, always ranking near the top of the league.

Five points away from 1000 in his career, Marian Hossa ranks seventh among active scorers (moving to sixth with Teemu Selanne's retirement) and 35-year-old Hossa remains a productive first line player, a star who backchecks and, last season, faced extra tough opposition.

One of the reasons that the Blackhawks are right in the title mix is that they have been able to inject young forwards into the lineup and get inexpensive production in prominent roles.

Brandon Saad is an emerging power forward who struggled late in his second season, scoring one goal and six points in the last 21 regular season games, but he was a force in the postseason (scoring 16 points in 19 games) and has been a high-end possession player early in his career. Some of that has to do with playing in an offensive role with Patrick Kane, but Saad is also a beast down low in the offensive zone and that helps keep the Blackhawks on the attack.

A steal of a fifth-round pick in 2011, Andrew Shaw continues to improve and had a career-high 20 goals and 39 points last season. He doesn't have the same skill as other Blackhawks top forwards, but Shaw is effective because of his relentless style of play. Coach Q made it known at the end of the season that Kane, Saad and Shaw could be a line for a long time, so Shaw can continue to improve his work in the face-off dot if he's going to man the second-line centre spot on a permanent basis.

One of the reasons that the Blackhawks can turn loose their best players in the offensive zone is that they saddle Marcus Kruger with a heavy dose of defensive zone starts. Not surprisingly, his possession stats aren't great, but he's better than break-even despite starting 20.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone; that's good.

If not for his playoff exploits, scoring 16 goals in 42 games over the past two postseasons, Bryan Bickell might well be an obscure part of the Chicago forward group. He's never matched the 37 points hs scored as a rookie in 2010-2011, and while he's overpaid at $4-million per, Bickell is effective enough as a complementary player.

Re-acquired from Florida, Kris Versteeg wasn't as productive as he had been in previous seasons and was a non-factor in the playoffs (with three points in 15 games), so it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that he's moved to increase the Blackhawks' cap room. At the same time, if Versteeg improves his conditioning, he'd be a nice top-nine forward because, as a four-time 20-goal scorer, he knows his way around the net.

The Blackhawks' enforcer, with 19 fights in 125 games over three seasons, Brandon Bollig plays a similar role to Kruger, buried in the defensive zone to start, yet still managing more shot attempts than their opponents.

The Blackhawks have a lot of continuity up front, if they choose to keep the same faces. Maybe Teravainen makes an impact at some point, maybe there is an inexpensive veteran added for depth, but there aren't a lot of changes required.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Brent Seabrook 75.27 82 7 34 41 56.8% $5.8M
Duncan Keith 77.86 79 6 55 61 56.6% $5.538M
Niklas Hjalmarsson 66.93 81 4 22 26 53.3% $4.1M
Johnny Oduya 64.75 77 3 13 16 53.0% $3.375M
Nick Leddy 66.38 82 7 24 31 57.1% $2.7M
Michal Rozsival 62.84 42 1 7 8 58.8% $2.2M
David Rundblad 57.79 17 0 1 1 55.9% $785K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Sheldon Brookbank 58.56 48 2 5 7 51.6% UFA $1.25M

A favourite for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenceman, Duncan Keith had the second-best offensive output of his career, with 61 points, yet for the second straight season, he played under 25 minutes per game. Keith has been freed up, to some degree, by the Blackhawks playing Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya against the opposition's top line, so that Keith and Seabrook have more favourable matchups.

While he can get beaten by speed on occasion, Brent Seabrook remains a physical force on the Blackhawks' blueline. His 41 points last season was the second-best of his career, his possession stats were strong and Seabrook has missed a total of 10 games over the past nine seasons. That's a reliable presence to have night-in and night-out.

As the Blackhawks have shifted their defensive responsibilities, Niklas Hjalmarsson has been taking on the hardest assignments for the past couple seasons, and while he put up a carer-high 26 points while playing a career-high 21:17 per game last season, Hjalmarsson has proven to be very effective preventing shots against (which, it turns out, is quite useful for a defenceman).

Nick Leddy's role has been reduced over the past couple seasons, as he's settled on Chicago's third pairing, but Leddy continues to put up excellent possession numbers, playing well enough against lesser competition to consider the possibility that he could handle more responsibility.

Over the past three seasons, most of which Johnny Oduya has spent in Chicago, Oduya has been one of the league's best at preventing shots on goal and, over the last two seasons, it's been done while facing top opposition. Hjalmarsson and Oduya aren't as heralded as Keith and Seabrook, but are vital to the Blackhawks' defensive effort.

Michal Rozsival doesn't play big minutes for the Blackhawks, and has dressed for 69 of 130 games over the past two regular seasons, but he thrives on the third pairing, putting up tremendous possession stats.

It's not looking too likely that David Rundblad will be what he was supposed to be when he arrived from Sweden, where he scored 50 points in 55 games as a 20-year-old, but played well enough in 17 NHL games last season that he could be considered for the seventh defence spot, at the very least.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Corey Crawford 69.51 59 32 16 10 2.26 .917 $6.0M

Free Agent Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Antti Raanta 55.24 25 13 5 4 2.71 .897 RFA $1.4M
Nikolai Khabibulin 30.42 4 1 0 1 5.01 .811 UFA $2.0M

Corey Crawford doesn't have the rep that some other Cup-winning goalies get to revel in, but he's been above average in three of his four NHL seasons. Among the 27 goaltenders to play at least 3000 5-on-5 minutes in the past two seasons, Crawford ranks 11th with a .928 even-strength save percentage. It's reasonable enough to consider Crawford average to above average as an NHL starter, yet still have questions about whether paying him $6-million per season over the next six years is the best use of cap space.

Antti Raanta was pretty good through the first half of his rookie season, particularly in December, when he was playing regularly with Crawford hurt, but from January on, Raanta had an .872 save percentage in 10 games, so that was less than ideal, but he's a good option to back up Crawford next season.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Teuvo Teravainen C Jokerit Helsinki (SML) 9-35-44, -2, 49 GP
Ryan Hartman RW Plymouth (OHL) 25-28-53, -14, 52 GP
Jeremy Morin LW Rockford (AHL) 24-23-47, +9, 47 GP
Adam Clendening D Rockford (AHL) 12-47-59, +5, 74 GP
Mark McNeill C Rockford (AHL) 18-19-37, -12, 76 GP
Kevin Hayes C Boston College (HE) 27-38-65, +34, 40 GP
Joakim Nordstrom C Rockford (AHL) 17-16-33, +9, 58 GP
Stephen Johns D Notre Dame (HE) 8-12-20, +5, 40 GP
Klas Dahlbeck D Rockford (AHL) 10-25-35, +21, 75 GP
Phillip Danault C Rockford (AHL) 6-20-26, +11, 72 GP
Dillon Fournier D Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL) 13-19-32, +10, 36 GP

One of the premier prospects outside the NHL, Teuvo Teravainen was the 18th pick in 2012 and scored 75 points in 93 games in Finland over the past couple seasons before coming to North America late last season. The 19-year-old is expected to be Chicago's number two centre, eventually, but the Blackhawks are good enough that they can take their time and make sure he's ready before getting pressed into duty.

A second-round pick in 2011, Adam Clendening is a puck-moving defenceman who isn't big, and is improving his skating, but has 105 points in 147 games over two AHL seasons since leaving Boston University. He's likely ready for a shot in the NHL, if the Blackhawks have an opening.

Illinois native Ryan Hartman was the 30th pick in 2013 and the energetic winger had 113 poins and 211 penalty minutes in 108 games over two OHL seasons. A late-season look in the AHL was a good opportunity for Hartman, who contributed seven points (3 G, 4 A) in nine games.

Acquired as part of the Dustin Byfuglien trade with Atlanta, Jeremy Morin is a scoring winger who is improving his skating and had a strong year in 2013-2014, scoring a point-per-game in the AHL then adding 11 points (5 G, 6 A) and strong possession numbers in 24 games with the Blackhawks.

The 18th pick in 2011, Mark McNeill is a big forward who has some skill. While he slumped late in his first pro season, scoring seven points in his last 18 games, McNeill had 54 shots on goal in that span, so opportunities were still coming. If he delivers a strong year in the AHL, he should be ready to compete for a job.

Drafted in the first round in 2010, Kevin Hayes had a monster senior year at Boston College, scoring 65 points in 40 games while playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold. He's on the Blackhawks' top prospectd list for now, but if he doesn't sign by August 15, Hayes will be a free agent, able to sign with any team.

Picked in the third round in 2010, Joakim Nordstrom got into 16 games with the Blackhawks, playing a defensive role, using his speed as an asset.

Stephen Johns was picked in the second round in 2010 and played four seasons at Notre Dame before joining Rockford late in the year, contributing five points (1 G, 4 A) in eight games. He's big and moves well for his size, but needs to play with discipline as he climbs the ladder.

A third-round pick in 2011, Klas Dahlbeck made nice strides in his second AHL season, enough that he can't be too far away from getting his first taste of NHL action.

A two-way forward who struggled to score in his first pro season, Phillip Danault was the 26th pick in 2011. He's only 21-years-old, so he has some time, but could use a more productive season next year.

Picked in the second round in 2012, Dillon Fournier is a strong skater who was having a good season before a shoulder injury cut short his year. He'll get some time in the AHL to get stronger and develop before he gets a shot in the NHL.

Blackhawks advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
27th - Connor Bleackley, Nikolay Goldobin, Ryan MacInnis.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blackhawks have approximately $65.8M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 18 players.

Check out my possible Blackhawks lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Depth forwards, one depth defenceman.

What I said the Blackhawks needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, one or two defencemen, backup goaltender.

They added: Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri, Joakim Nordstrom, Nikolai Khabibulin.

TRADE MARKET
Kris Versteeg, Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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