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Off-Season Game Plan: Chicago Blackhawks

Scott Cullen

5/30/2012 3:06:46 PM

The Chicago Blackhawks were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the second straight season.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a talented, and nearly full, Blackhawks roster that, if healthy, still has reasonable aims of competing for the Stanley Cup.

While there are always roster tweaks that contending teams are going to make, perhaps the biggest issue facing the Blackhawks this summer is the status of star forward Patrick Kane. (Notice I said forward, as opposed to right winger, since Kane played centre quite a bit last season and could end up in the middle more in the future.)

Kane's offseason has been marked by a notorious drinking binge that was all-too-public for the Blackhawks and maybe it will serve as a wake-up call for Kane, who is obviously very talented, but perhaps somewhat troubled too.

However, if the Blackhawks would rather not wait to find out if Kane will get his act together, he would obviously be a blue-chip trading piece this summer. His production would not easily be replaced, and many of the players that might be capable of replacing his production won't be moved, but if the Blackhawks are willing to trade Kane, there will be other teams prepared to roll the dice on a player with his skills.

Aside from Kane, the Blackhawks have to hope for good health going into next season. Jonathan Toews missed the last quarter of the regular season with a concussion and Marian Hossa was knocked out of the playoffs with his own concussion. Their health will have a major effect on whether the Blackhawks are contenders next season.

On defence, the Blackhawks already have six players under contract so, unless there are plans to deal one of those blueliners, they may not need much more than depth additions.

Finally, the goaltending. While the Blackhawks expect better from their goaltenders than what they received in 2011-2012, both are under contract for next season. Either that means Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman will be busy wheeling and dealing for an upgrade or he's left to hope that the same players can provide better results.

Many general managers would readily swap places with Bowman, because he has a talented core around which to build, but expectations and some serious issues should make this a challenging summer in the Windy City.

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) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

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

GM/COACH
Stan Bowman/Joel Quenneville

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Jonathan Toews 83.63 59 29 28 57 +17 $6.3M
Patrick Sharp 81.33 74 33 36 69 +28 $5.9M
Marian Hossa 80.46 81 29 48 77 +18 $5.275M
Patrick Kane 75.04 82 23 43 66 +7 $6.3M
Andrew Shaw 70.38 37 12 11 23 -1 $565K
Viktor Stalberg 69.86 79 22 21 43 +6 $875K
Dave Bolland 66.06 76 19 18 37 0 $3.375M
Dan Carcillo 63.59 28 2 9 11 +10 $825K
Michael Frolik 61.95 63 5 10 15 -10 $2.333M
Marcus Kruger 61.27 71 9 17 26 +11 $900K
Bryan Bickell 60.56 71 9 15 24 -3 $541.7K
Jimmy Hayes 60.11 31 5 4 9 -3 $875K
Jamal Mayers 56.17 81 6 9 15 -4 $650K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Brendan Morrison 60.97 39 4 7 11 -5 UFA $1.25M
Andrew Brunette 58.78 78 12 15 27 -13 UFA $2.0M

One of the game's best all-around players, Jonathan Toews continues to improve and is one of three forwards (Alex Burrows and Pavel Datsyuk are the others) to have a double-digit plus rating in each of the last five seasons.

He scored a career-best 0.97 points per game last season while playing a career-high 20:51 per game. A concussion caused Toews to miss the last 22 games of the regular season, but he did return for the playoffs, so he should start the 2012-2013 season in good health.

In the last five seasons, Patrick Sharp has scored 154 goals, which ranks 15th in the league over that span. He's also one of 11 players to have at least three plus-20 seasons in the last five years, so Sharp ranks among the league's best forwards. As he spends more time on the wing, Sharp has been allowed to focus on his offensive game and he registered a career-best 3.81 shots per game last season.

At 33-years-old, Marian Hossa is coming off a season in which he topped 70 points for the seventh time in his career, recording a double-digit plus rating for the eighth time, yet none of that production is particuarly important. After he was leveled by a Raffi Torres hit in Game Three of the first round playoff series against Phoenix, Hossa has been recovering. While his health has been improving and he expects to be ready to go in time for training camp, any concussion of that nature is going to be some reason for concern.

If the story of Patrick Kane was as simple as a 23-year-old who scored a career-low 66 points despite playing a career-high 20:12 per game, then it would be easy enough to move past -- slightly disappointing production from a talented young player -- but he's earned an off-ice reputation, for partying too hard, that has reportedly troubled the Blackhawks. That doesn't mean that this can't be fixed with a little maturity from Kane and patience from the team, but it could also pave Kane's way out of town.

A fifth-round pick last summer, 20-year-old Andrew Shaw split the season between AHL Rockford and Chicago, scoring 23 points in 38 AHL games as well as 23 points in 37 NHL games. The scoring is a bonus, but Shaw's real impact is as an energy forward whose 2.22 hits per game helped make up for the physical presence lost with Daniel Carcillo out of the lineup.

Viktor Stalberg has been fortunate enough to play with quality linemates, but he's making the most of his chances too. He scored a career-high 22 goals and 43 points last season with his 22-even-strength goals tying several others for 25th in the league.

Saying that David Bolland scored 37 points and was an even player doesn't scratch the surface when trying to assess his value to the Blackhawks. He consistently played against a high level of competition (ranked 12th among forwards that played at least 50 games in Corsi Relative Quality of Competition, according to www.behindthenet.ca) while, at the same time, starting jsut 32.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone (the seventh-lowest percentage among forwards, again from www.behindthenet.ca). What those numbers indicate is that Bolland does a lot of the heavy lifting, which allows Chicago's first two lines more offensive freedom.

Knee surgery cut short Dan Carcillo's season, but the agitating winger earned a contract extension anyway, which seems to suggest that the Blackhawks like what they got from Carcillo in 28 games.

There was a time, not so long ago, that Michael Frolik looked like he was on his way to becoming an offensive threat in the league, but those days are getting further away in the rearview mirror after he managed just five goals in 63 games last season. Still just 24, Frolik can still return to being a 20-goal scorer, but he'll have to finish better.

Over the last two seasons, Frolik has scored on 4.3% of his shots on goal. Among forwards with at least 200 shots on goal over the last two seasons, only Scott Gomez, Trevor Lewis and Adam Hall fared worse and considering Frolik actually had some scoring ability in his first couple seasons, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he bounces back somewhat, but it's also possible he could be cut loose since buyouts are relatively inexpensive on younger players..

Marcus Kruger steadily earned more ice time as his rookie season went along, contributing 15 points in his last 30 games, while playing 17 minutes per game after the All-Star break. It would certainly be nice to get more consistent offensive production from Kruger, but he's just turned 22, so there should be some natural evolution as he matures and gets stronger to deal with the physical demands of the game.

After scoring 17 goals and 37 points in 2010-2011, Bryan Bickell took a step back last season, particularly early, before picking up his production in the second half. Consistency is still a challenge for the big winger who, at his best, can be an effective checker and can chip in offensively.

6-foot-6 winger Jimmy Hayes may be in a battle for a lineup spot after splitting time between the AHL and NHL last season, but his combination of rare size and skill gives him a chance to contribute if he gets the opportunity.

Just signed to a new contract, Jamal Mayers produced about what was expected -- it was his fourth straight season in which he finished betwen 14 and 16 points and he has 50 fights over the course of those four seasons. That he comes with an inexpensive price tag likely factored into the Blackhawks' willingness to re-sign him.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Brent Seabrook 75.70 78 9 25 34 +21 $5.8M
Duncan Keith 75.08 74 4 36 40 +15 $5.538M
Nick Leddy 69.09 82 3 34 37 -12 $1.117M
Steve Montador 65.84 52 5 9 14 +4 $2.75M
Niklas Hjalmarsson 65.41 69 1 14 15 +9 $3.5M
Johnny Oduya 64.98 81 3 15 18 -6 $3.375M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Sami Lepisto 61.91 26 1 2 3 +3 UFA $750K
Sean O'Donnell 59.69 51 0 7 7 -6 UFA $850K

A workhorse defenceman who consistently matches up against the opposition's best, and succeeds in that role, Brent Seabrook has been plus-20 or better in three of the last four seasons and played a career-high 24:43 per game last season. Additionally, Seabrook has steadily cleaned up his game, decreasing his penalty minute totals in each of the last five years, going from a career-high 104 penalty minutes in 2006-2007 to a career-low 22 penalty minutes last season.

There were only nine defencemen in the league to record 40 points with at least a plus-15 rating last season and Duncan Keith was one of them, yet he's still regarded as somewhat disappointing. The reason, in part, is that Keith elevated expectations by winning the Norris Trophy in 2010, so playing at that level isn't easy, but Keith hasn't been engaged as consistently in the last couple seasons. He can still turn it up and play an A-1 game, and he did log 26:54 per game last year, but there are too many occasions that he's not playing his best.

21-year-old Nick Leddy took a quantum leap forward last season, his second year in the league, playing more than 22 minutes per game and while he finished with a minus-12 rating, Leddy's shot differential was positive (plus-3.7 per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, www.behindthenet.ca), indicating that he was as much a victim of bad luck/goaltending in the plus-minus game.

Steve Montador went through an injury-plagued season, but was rather well-compensated for the role he was asked to play, skating just 14:46 per game after playing 19:43 per game the year before in Buffalo. Montador suffered a late-season concussion which leaves his status uncertain, but there are hopes that an off-season of rest will allow him to be ready for training camp.

It appears that Niklas Hjalmarsson's progress has stalled, but it's not like a (soon-to-be) 25-year-old defenceman who logs 20 minutes per game is without value. Hjalmarsson can play in the top four, but could also be bumped to the Blackhawks' third pair.

Part of the reason that the Blackhawks could move Hjalmarsson down (if not trade him altogether) is that they have re-signed Johnny Oduya, obviously happy with his contributions (five points, plus-3, 24:25 ATOI in 18 games) after he was acquired from Winnipeg. Oduya has played more than 20 minutes per game for each of the last four seasons and can expect more of the same in the next three years with Chicago.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Corey Crawford 64.21 57 30 17 7 2.72 .903 $2.667M
Ray Emery 61.95 34 15 9 4 2.81 .900 $1.15M

It's not entirely unusual for a young goaltender to drop-off in their second season after experiencing some rookie success and that happened to Corey Crawford last season. After an up-and-down regular season, Crawford was generally playing well in the playoffs, aside from allowing a couple of soft overtime goals against Phoenix. While they were only a couple of goals, they were back-breaking for the Blackhawks and Chicago heads into next season hoping for better from their No. 1, provided they don't decide on a major trade to upgrade the position.

Ray Emery played in 34 games for the Blackhawks, probably more than they hoped when they signed him and his most in a season since 2006-2007. He even had chances to run with the starting job when Crawford was struggling but, aside from brief stretches, couldn't hold it together long enough to steal the gig. Now that he appears to be healthy once again, Emery should be good enough to be an above-average backup.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Brandon Saad LW Saginaw (OHL) 34-42-76, +35, 44 GP
Mark McNeill C Prince Albert (WHL) 31-40-71, -10, 69 GP
Brandon Pirri C Rockford (AHL) 23-33-56 +9, 66 GP
Jeremy Morin LW Rockford (AHL) 18-22-410, +9, 69 GP
Phillip Danault C Victoriaville (QMJHL) 18-53-71, +11, 62 GP
Kyle Beach LW Rockford (AHL) 5-5-10, even, 19 GP
Dylan Olsen D Rockford (AHL) 4-3-7, -5, 44 GP
Adam Clendening D Boston University (HE) 4-29-33, +11, 38 GP
Stephen Johns D Notre Dame (CCHA) 4-6-10, -1, 39 GP
Alexander Salak G Rockford (AHL) 6-10, 2.63 GAA, .903 SV%, 21 GP

Brandon Saad made the Blackhawks out of training camp, after being drafted in the second round last summer, but was returned to junior after playing two games. Saad dominated in the OHL and played a couple of playoff games with the Blackhawks. A big forward with skill, Saad may not be ready for the first-line duty he was handed in his brief time last season, but he could earn a job next season and start the depth chart climb.

A first-round pick last summer, Mark McNeill is physically ready for the NHL, as a big, strong, two-way centre, but if he's returned to the Western Hockey League, it would be fine for him to control the puck more than he would as a pro.

Improved skating gives Brandon Pirri a chance to push for a job in Chicago soon, as the 21-year-old enjoyed a productive season season in the AHL. Pirri may start next season in Rockford, but he could earn a shot for the number two centre role if others can't claim the spot.

Jeremy Morin plays with some bite to his game, enough that it could help earn an initial place on the roster, but the 21-year-old can score too, so another season in the AHL, with time to further develop his offensive game, could prove beneficial in the long run.

Phillip Danault, a 19-year-old playmaking centre, impressed at training camp last season, but there's no need to press the issue. Given time to get stronger and improve his all-around game, he could have long-term value.

A dislocated shoulder cut Kyle Beach's season short, but the 2008 first-round pick shouldn't be forgotten altogether. He has size, skill and toughness and is 22-years-old, so if he's healthy for a full season next year, his development could be back on track.

Dylan Olsen was a first-round pick in 2009 and injuries did give him a chance to play significant minutes in Chicago last year, but he could further seasoning before he's considered for a regular spot on the blueline.

A mobile defenceman with good puck skills, Adam Clendening has performed well in his first two seasons at Boston University, but he's still just 19-years-old, so the Blackhawks can remain patient and let him mature before he's pressed into pro action.

Quite different than Clendening, Adam Johns is a big, bruising defenceman who isn't going to provide much offence, but the 2010 second-round pick could make his mark in a physical defensive role.

Signed to a one-way contract next season, Alexander Salak didn't have a great year in Rockford, so he didn't knock down the door for a team with goaltending question marks, but he may as well be considered as a possibility if next year doesn't bring better goaltending to Chicago.

DRAFT
18th - Brendan Gaunce, Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm, Pontus Aberg

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blackhawks have approximately $59.8M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 20 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Blackhawks roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top six-forward, depth forwards, depth defencemen,

What I said the Blackhawks needed last year: Depth forwards, backup goaltender.

They added: Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo, Marcus Kruger, Steve Montador, Sean O'Donnell, Ray Emery.

TRADE MARKET Patrick Kane, Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Michael Frolik, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Corey Crawford.

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.