Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-18, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-18 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks
Nightmare; this was the only accurate way to describe what every Chicago Blackhawks fan felt as they watched their team swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the Nashville Predators. Always a fiercely competitive regular season team, it was a monstrous reality check for Chicago, who have lost their last five playoff games, and fallen to two consecutive first rounds exits.
Still one of the favourites for this year’s Stanley Cup, this younger, quicker Blackhawks team will remain hotly competitive throughout the regular season, as they always are. However, the first 82 games of the season will serve as no measuring stick for this franchise, as they go in search of their lost playoffs mojo.
Many explanations were provided as to why the ‘Hawks had seemingly lost their indefatigable postseason class, and vice president Stan Bowman responded swiftly in the off-season. Out was veteran defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, replaced by the younger, quicker Connor Murphy, as was youthful scoring ace Artemi Panarin, as they opted to bring back former Cup hero Brandon Saad.
The moves made sense on paper; both Murphy and Saad are signed on longer than their predecessors, and assumedly, they will serve to better fit both this team, and the way the rest of the NHL is trending. Chicago also lost Scott Darling to the cap crunch over the off-season, trading him to the Carolina Hurricanes and bringing in Anton Forsberg as replacement in the Saad trade.
Obviously, Forsberg is less capable than the hugely talented Darling, meaning the Blackhawks will be watching closely to see what sort of impact the replacement has. Also returning after a previous Stanley Cup with the ‘Hawks is Patrick Sharp, who will provide depth on the wing.
2017-18 predicted line combinations
What most will be watching for among the forward group will be whether or not Saad and captain Jonathan Toews can renew their vaunted chemistry that helped their team to the 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cups. Sharp has a big job also, tasked with producing at a clip somewhat resembling what Panarin managed alongside Kane the past couple of years.
Also of interest will be how local products Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz continue to develop in the early years of their careers.
Michal Kempny – Connor Murphy
All eyes will be on Murphy in defence, who is looked to as the next generation of Chicago hockey. He partners Michal Kempny, who is equally as keen to impress in his sophomore year, especially in a contract season.
Expectations are high for Forsberg, who didn’t exactly impress last year with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but has a chance to push the reset button as he arrives at the United Center.
Player to watch
We have already discussed players such as Murphy and Saad at length, so for this section, we’re going with the recently re-signed Richard Panik. The right winger earned himself a two-year extension worth $2.8 million per year in May, which many questioned as to whether or not it was an economical use of salary.
For Panik to leave no doubt it was, he will need to produce like a top line right wing that belongs on a contender. 22 goals and 22 assist for 44 points was a nice output last season, but with the financial investment made, the Blackhawks will be hoping he can top the 50-point mark.
Players on the rise
Many may forget that Saad is actually a full year younger (24) than the man he replaced, meaning he still has a ton of growing to go. The ‘Hawks will hope he can rekindle the synergy he generated with Toews before the trade, but will also certainly be hoping he can go beyond that, and prove himself an elite left winger that will be around beyond the current dynasty.
Player on the decline
This is never a nice section to write, but it’s hard to imagine Rozsival will not continue his decline this season. He bordered on useless last year, providing just three points in 22 games, and it’s likely the 39-year-old Czech will spend a good deal of what should be his last professional season with the Rockford IceHogs.
2017-18 season prediction
With the end to last year, and the landmark moves made in the off-season, you may forget that Chicago have actually become quite good at this game – recycling players, renewing their team, and loading up for another Stanley Cup challenge. The Blackhawks have now disappointed two seasons in a row, and it would be hard to imagine a team this good accepting a third successive year ending in underwhelming fashion.
The Western Conference will be incredibly tight this season, perhaps in a similar vein to what we saw in the Eastern Conference last year. Expect to see this team making the Stanley Cup Finals again, but also there will be one or two better teams in the Wild Card – perhaps the Western Finals in this team’s peak.