The Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08, and are looking to rebuild on the fly, as general manager Stan Bowman maintains that the core four – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook – aren’t going anywhere.
Off-Season Game Plan examines what the Blackhawks might be able to do this summer, as they try to improve around their long-time stars in hopes that they can return to the postseason.
Trying to build around Toews and Kane was always going to be a challenge, because they take up $21-million under the salary cap, but that requires Bowman to be more ruthless when it comes to managing other deals.
It also means that Chicago can ill afford to have big ticket players get injured or fail to produce, and that is part of what sent the Blackhawks spiraling down last season – starting goaltender Corey Crawford got hurt, Brandon Saad struggled in his return to Chicago and their big-ticket defencemen, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, struggled. It might be possible to survive a couple of those things, but all those issues coupled with their financial restrictions left Chicago looking up at the rest of the Central Division.
Can they turn it around quickly, or will another season out of the playoffs be necessary to prompt a more substantial rebuilding effort?
Stan Bowman/Joel Quenneville
Corey Crawford – The veteran goaltender played only 28 games, but everything was fine before he got injured, thanks in large part to his career-best .929 save percentage.
Alex DeBrincat – It surprised exactly no one that DeBrincat could put the puck in the net, after he scored 167 goals in three seasons of junior hockey, but he still impressed, finishing third among rookies with 28 goals.
Erik Gustafsson – The 26-year-old defenceman played for the Blackhawks in 2015-2016, but spent nearly a season-and-a-half since in the AHL before getting called up and showing well in 35 games for the Blackhawks, earning a two-year contract extension.
Duncan Keith – Expectations play a part in whether a player gets labeled a hero or zero, and the two-time Norris Trophy winner naturally carries high expectations with him. He struggled last season, though, scoring two goals on 187 shots and finishing with negative shot differentials relative to his teammates.
Patrick Sharp – It wasn’t an unreasonable decision for the Blackhawks to bring Sharp back into the fold last season, in part because he had averaged more than three shots on goal per game the year before in Dallas. However, Sharp saw his ice time drop to 12:53 per game, his lowest since 2003-04 and finished with uncharacteristically below average possession stats.
Brent Seabrook – The veteran blueliner played 20:12 per game last season, his lowest since his rookie season of 2005-06, and the last time he scored fewer than 26 points in a full season was 2006-07. Given the financial investment, declining production isn’t a good sign.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
A 76-point season would be great for most players in the league, but it was the first time since 2011-12 that Patrick Kane scored at less than a point-per-game rate. He may have missed having Artemi Panarin on his line, but still generated a lot of shots (3.48 per game), but his percentages dipped, even though shot quality didn’t appear to be a significant problem.
When Alex DeBrincat dropped to the second round in the 2016 Draft, it was a gift for whichever team decided that a 5-foot-7 winger could still play, and the Blackhawks saw the results last season. He’s a big part of what this team needs: a productive player on an entry-level contract.
2014 first-rounder Nick Schmaltz took a step forward in his second season, and he’s a skilled playmaker who, as he continues to develop, should be able to keep providing Kane with sufficient opportunities to fill the net.
It’s natural to see Jonathan Toews scoring 52 points, his lowest in a full season, and figure that the 30-year-old is just hitting decline after more than a decade of top-tier performance. The thing is, though, that Toews has been held under 60 points for three years running, and yet last season he was utterly dominant at 5-on-5 play; he just needed someone on his line who could finish (or, you know, he could have shot better than a career-worst 9.5%).
Blame for last season’s scoring woes tends to land on Brandon Saad, who had 35 points, because he was traded, one-for-one, for Panarin, who put up 82 points in Columbus. Saad isn’t a point-per-game player, but he did have three straight seasons with at least 50 points before last season and, playing alongside Toews, did have dominant possession stats. It’s possible that the Blackhawks could cut their losses and look to move Saad this summer, but it would be a classic case of selling low on a player who had a career-low on-ice shooting percentage (6.7%) last season.
Even though Artem Anisimov hit the 20-goal plateau for the third consecutive season, he was surpassed on the depth chart by Schmaltz, which makes it conceivable that Chicago could deal Anisimov. He’s a solid complementary centre, which should mean there is a market for him, but if the Blackhawks are going to retain any kind of cap flexibility with the big contracts that they have on the books, then it might make sense to move Anisimov.
23-year-old rookie David Kampf was fine as a fourth-line centre. He didn’t contribute much offensively, and was outscored, but his shot differentials were decent and his percentages were awful (resulting in a 95.6 PDO).
Vinnie Hinostroza faded down the strech, managing two assists in the last 15 games, but he showed some potential after getting called up from the AHL, where he had 22 points in 23 games. He’s small, but speedy and created positive shot differentials when he was on the ice; now, to see if the 24-year-old can hold down a regular spot for an entire season.
Acquired in a trade with Arizona, Anthony Duclair only scored two goals in 23 games with the Blackhawks but was a solid enough contributor otherwise. He needs to be more consistent when it comes to generating shots, but he’ll be in mix for Chicago, whether he get a shot alongside Toews, or if he’s slotted in a second or third-line role.
John Hayden has good size and plays with the kind of edge that would fit on the third or fourth line, but he struggled in Chicago last season and was demoted to the American Hockey League.
25-year-old Tomas Jurco has been stuck on the fringe of the roster for most of his career, but he was reasonably effective after getting called up to Chicago last season. He has talent, and could provide an edge lower on the depth chart.
If there is a prospect that might be counted on to produce next season, it would have to be Dylan Sikura, who tallied 54 points in 35 games as a senior at Northeastern before recording three assists in five late-season games with the Blackhawks.
22-year-old Victor Ejdsell, acquired in the Ryan Hartman trade, got a late-season look with the Blackhawks and performed well in the AHL playoffs, so he could challenge for a job next season, too.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
2006-07 was the last time that Duncan Keith scored as few as two goals and 32 points in a full NHL season, but that’s where the 34-year-old’s production settled in 2017-18. His percentages were abysmal (career-low 97.1 PDO), but Keith’s shot differentials weren’t great either. It could be that Father Time is catching up to him, or maybe he’ll rebound with a vintage season next year when he’s 35. I know which one feels more likely.
There is a reliability to Brent Seabrook, who has missed 15 games in the past 12 seasons, but he’s not the player he was during the Stanley Cup years either. To his credit, Seabrook recovered from disastrous possession numbers a couple of years ago and now is just a bit below average, in relative terms, compared to his teammates. That might be fine if he wasn’t eating up such a significant chunk of the salary cap for *gulp* six more years.
Czech blueliner Jan Rutta was signed as a free agent and the 27-year-old had some decent moments in his first season, but his overall results were still questionable – decent offensively, not-so-great defensively. Perhaps having a steady partner, and one steadier than Gustav Forsling, will help him next season.
It feels like the Blackhawks didn’t give Erik Gustafsson a shot until the season was already going downhill, but the 26-year-old performed quite well in the second half-season sample that makes up the entirety of his NHL career. However, in his 76 career games, he has 30 points and stellar shot differentials, so it’s probably worth seeing what he can do in a full-time role.
Jordan Oesterle had played 25 games, total, in the previous three seasons with Edmonton before he was afforded a significant opportunity in Chicago, and performed well in 55 games. On a bargain contract, Oesterle provides good value, but the Blackhawks have enough guys that are good value propositions and not enough high-end talent on the blueline.
When the Blackhawks dealt Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona for Connor Murphy, the move got Chicago younger, which made sense, but only if Murphy would fill a top-four role on defence. That didn’t happen, as he played more than 20 minutes just four times all season and finished with a career-low 16:22 per game. While he was moved down the depth chart (and to the left side), Murphy’s results were fine. However, if Coach Q isn’t going to trust him, Murphy might have more value as a trade chip for the Blackhawks.
21-year-old Gustav Forsling starred at the World Juniors for Sweden in 2015, and it looked like he could be a star, but his first two North American pro seasons have been split between the NHL and AHL, with his poor results last season prompting another demotion. He’s still young, but it’s hard to count on him in a significant role next season.
For a team that isn’t overwhelmed with great options on the blueline, the Blackhawks moved on from Cody Franson awfully quickly, especially considering his relative shot differentials were literally the best among defencemen to play at least 200 5-on-5 minutes.
The Blackhawks have bodies on the blueline. What they could use is someone to run the power play, because that was a major shortcoming last season. Carolina’s Justin Faulk, New Jersey's Damon Severson, Calgary’s T.J. Brodie and Los Angeles’ Alec Martinez are a few viable options and Chicago has Nashville’s first-round pick, which could certainly enhance their ability to get a deal done.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2018-19 CAP|
fREE AGENT GOALTENDER
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2017-18 CAP||STATUS|
There was a time, not so long ago, when Corey Crawford was considered expendable, not a significant part of the Blackhawks core. After last season, that seems a laughable concept, but it does suggest that he was still somehow underrated. Since 2012-13, only Sergei Bobrovsky has a better save percentage in 200-plus games.
Crawford’s injury forced the Blackhawks to turn to their backups more than they would have liked. Jeff Glass was a great story, Jean-Francois Berube made a career-high 10 starts and Scott Foster delivered on of the most amazing performances ever. Ultimately, Anton Forsberg was the best of the backup goaltender lot, but Chicago would have likely preferred that he play fewer than 35 games.
Jean-Francois Berube has started 23 games over the past three seasons, but his results don't suggest that he's necessarily ready for a backup role.
|Henri Jokiharju||D||63||12||59||71||+47||Portland (WHL)|
|Dylan Sikura||RW||35||22||32||54||+18||Northeastern (HE)|
|Ian Michell||D||41||2||28||30||+17||Denver (NCHC)|
|Chad Krys||D||36||7||20||27||+8||Boston University (HE)|
|Tim Soderlund||LW||43||9||5||14||+3||Skelleftea AIK (SHL)|
|Artur Kayumov||LW||20||2||1||3||+5||Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (KHL)|
|Lucas Carlsson||D||44||7||10||17||-9||Brynas (SHL)|
|Victor Ejdsell||C||50||20||14||34||+5||HV71 Jonkoping (SHL)|
|Andrei Altybarmakyan||RW||14||0||0||0||0||St. Petersburg SKA (KHL)|
|Jakub Galvas||D||42||2||11||13||+5||Olomouc (Czech)|
|Carl Dahlstrom||D||64||3||25||28||+14||Rockford (AHL)|
|Matthew Highmore||LW||64||24||19||43||-6||Rockford (AHL)|
|Luc Snuggerud||D||40||5||12||17||-3||Rockford (AHL)|
|Joni Tuulola||D||58||7||23||30||+3||Sport Vaasa (SML)|
|Dominik Kahun||LW||42||12||29||41||+16||EHC Munchen (DEL)|
8th – Adam Boqvist, Oliver Wahlstrom, Jesperi Kotkaniemi
27th – Filip Hallander, Jacob Olofsson, Martin Kaut, Rasmus Sandin
The Blackhawks have approximately $68.5M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 17 players.
Power-play quarterback, two top-nine forwards
WHAT I SAID THE BLACKHAWKS NEEDED LAST YEAR
Two top-nine forwards, defencemen, backup goaltender, cap savings
Alex DeBrincat, Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Tommy Wingels, Lance Bouma, Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle, Michal Kempny, Cody Franson
Artem Anisimov, Vinnie Hinostroza, Connor Murphy, Gustav Forsling
PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Brandon Saad||Jonathan Toews||Rick Nash*|
|Alex DeBrincat||Nick Schmaltz||Patrick Kane|
|Anthony Duclair||Vinnie Hinostroza||Dylan Sikura|
|Victor Ejdsell||Tommy Wingels*||Tomas Jurco|
|Dominik Kahun||David Kampf||Josh Ho-Sang*|
|Matthew Highmore||Tanner Kero||John Hayden|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Duncan Keith||Damon Severson*||Corey Crawford|
|Jordan Oesterle||Brent Seabrook||Anton Forsberg|
|Erik Gustafsson||Jan Rutta||Jean-Francois Berube|
|Gustav Forsling||Adam Clendening|
|Joni Tuulola||Carl Dahlstrom|
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com