Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey 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 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Chicago Blackhawks.
2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks Preview
The Chicago Blackhawks needed to recover quickly after getting swept in the first round of the 2017 playoffs by the Nashville Predators. There were warning signs in that series that the team that won three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013, and 2015 was on a decline. They also faced another tough off-season with salary cap concerns as well as the expansion draft. This brought about an off-season full of player changes.
General manager Stan Bowman made several moves in the off-season trying to bolster the roster. He traded sniper Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in order to reacquire winger Brandon Saad. He traded Scott Darling to the Carolina Hurricanes for a third round pick, and also Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for Connor Murphy. The Blackhawks then traded Marcus Kruger to the Vegas Golden Knights, then lost Trevor van Riemsdyk to them as well in the expansion draft. Bowman did add Patrick Sharp, Tommy Wingels, and Lance Bouma as free agents last summer. He also signed Cody Franson to a PTO contract prior to training camp.
Season of Disappointment
With all of the roster moves made by Stan Bowman, the team faced a difficult time gelling together. They also had a new kid on the block after rookie Alex DeBrincat made the opening night roster. DeBrincat played his way into the lineup with the hugely successful prospects tournament in Traverse City Michigan. He led the Blackhawks prospects to the tournament championship and had the tournament game-winning goal. Following that up with a strong training camp and pre-season playing against NHLers, his place on the roster was set and he would end up leading the Blackhawks in goals with 28 last season.
The previous season started well for the Blackhawks as they went 4-1-1 in the first six games. This included a 10-1 pounding of the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night. The Blackhawks appeared to be on the right track. Unfortunately, the team settled into one that struggled to stay above .500 during the first half. At the point Crawford went down for the season in December, the team was 17-11-5. This was only after Crawford won five straight games before going on injured reserve.
What ensued next was a revolving door in net as the Blackhawks struggled to find consistent quality net-minding. The backup goaltenders could not play at the same level as Crawford behind a suspect defence corps. Because of this, the team struggled the rest of the way going 16-28-5 without their star netminder. The hope for another playoff run faded early in the spring leading up to another long summer.
Expectations were huge as the Chicago Blackhawks entered the off-season searching for ways to improve their lineup. The June 22nd, 2018 NHL draft brought about hope as the Blackhawks had pick numbers 8 and 27 in the first round. The Blackhawks drafted defencemen Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin with their first two picks. The two defence prospects have a lot of promise, and overall the Blackhawks draft got high marks from Last Word’s own Ben Kerr.
After the NHL draft, the Blackhawks made three free agent signings in July. They were Cam Ward, Chris Kunitz, and Brandon Manning. These were considered lacklustre signings and brought a torrent of scorn on social media in Chicago. The term “rebuild” was not being used by Blackhawk management, but many were realizing the team was in one now. The once vaunted Blackhawk core was now facing another season with many new faces.
The Chicago Blackhawks forwards are a mix of familiar and many new faces getting their shot this season. Youngsters Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Sikura, Victor Ejdsell, Nick Schmaltz, David Kampf, and John Hayden are getting the chance to play regular roles. Their ability to produce offence and also defend will be a large factor in how well this season goes. If they have a productive year scoring, that will help take a lot of pressure off of a defence corps facing some questions.
Veterans Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad, Patrick Kane, and Artem Anisimov need to have solid years for their club. They will have to stay healthy and lead by example in order for the younger players to learn their way in the NHL. Role players Marcus Kruger and Chris Kunitz must excel on the fourth line. There may be some turnover on the fourth line with whatever forwards make the opening night roster. Jordan Schroeder and Tyler Sikura may see some games if the fourth line struggles. Andreas Martinsen and Matthew Highmore are two other forwards in training camp who will be trying to make the team. The upcoming training camp and pre-season games will be the proving ground for the youngsters looking to impress the way Alex DeBrincat did last year.
Much has been written about the poor performance of the Blackhawks defence last season. At times, they were abysmal in their own end. The Blackhawk goalies often faced an onslaught of prime shots from the slot while in net. Defensive coverage has got to improve if the Blackhawks are to be competitive this season.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook must have bounce-back years for their team. They are both past 30 and on the downside of their illustrious careers. It will not be easy as Keith (35) has played in 995 career games, and Seabrook (33) 1004 games. Their days as the anchors of the defence may be slipping away from them in the next year or two. They must recover their high level of play while the Blackhawks future defence has a chance to develop. Rushing defence prospects into the NHL is never a good idea.
The other Blackhawk defencemen will also have to play better. Connor Murphy left a lot of people missing Niklas Hjalmarsson, the former Blackhawks shutdown defence warrior. Murphy, Rutta, Gustafsson, and newcomer Manning will be expected to play solid defence. If they do not, expect prospect Henri Jokiharju to get his shot. He had a terrific season for the Portland Winterhawks scoring 12 goals and 59 assists.
There are also several other defence prospects for the Blackhawks waiting in the wings. Blake Hillman, Dennis Gilbert, Gustav Forsling, and Carl Dahlstrom will be playing for a call-up to the Blackhawks if there are defence problems again. Hopefully, things will not get so bad that the Blackhawks bring up their first-round pick Adam Boqvist. At 6’0″ 165 pounds, he is not ready for the rigours of playing in the tough Western Conference. The Blackhawks need patience with Boqvist as he adds size and experience.
The goaltending situation in Chicago will be the main focus as the team prepares for its training camp and pre-season games. The health of Corey Crawford will be a hot topic over the next month. After going down with a season-ending injury last December, Crawford’s recovery and health status have been a guarded secret by the organization. Signing Cam Ward in the off-season was a sign that the team’s #1 goalie may not be ready when the season begins. If this is true, Cam Ward and Anton Forsberg will have to hold down the fort until Crawford returns. Their ability to provide number one goaltending has caused anxiety this summer and will be watched closely.
Players To Watch
Both Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews need to have bounce-back years after last season’s disappointment. After Saad was re-acquired in the Panarin trade, it was expected that he and Toews would have the same chemistry as previous Cup winning years. Unfortunately. Saad finished with a disappointing 18 goals and 17 assists. Toews scored 20 goals and 32 assists to cap off another down year for the captain. The two top-line forwards need to show improvement in order for the team to compete for a playoff spot this season.
Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane playing on the same line has some incredible potential for highlight reel goals this season. We have Artem Anisimov slated as the second line center to start the season. You can be sure that a motivated Nick Schmaltz will be pushing him for playing time on that line. A line combo of Schmaltz, DeBrincat, and Kane would provide speed and playmaking ability unmatched by most second lines in the NHL. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville will be hard-pressed to not combine this trio together early on this season.
As stated earlier, Keith and Seabrook have to improve their play next season. Similarly to Saad and Toews, they’re on the players to watch list due to how important they will be this next year. If one or both struggle again, that will place too much pressure on the younger defence who are still learning the game. Their age and contracts are also major issues for a team in rebuild mode. At some point, they may be asked to waive their non-movement clause in order to swing a trade.
Making a prediction for the season ahead is nearly impossible right now. Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford is the key for next season. If Crawford is healthy by opening night and doesn’t have any further issues, the Blackhawks could be a .500 team or better. It’s even possible the Blackhawks could contend for a wildcard spot if their defence improves and young forwards produce. Unfortunately. the likelihood of all of those happening at once is really a long shot for the storied franchise.
If Crawford is unable to play until after the season starts, then it may be another rough year for the Blackhawks. Crawford’s ability to return to top form quickly will make or break next season for his team. With Cam Ward and Anton Forsberg manning the nets, the Blackhawks will look very similar to last season’s second half. The team will struggle to be a .500 club without their #1 goalie providing Vezina quality minutes in net. Crawford must return to the lineup before the season is lost.
Main Photo: CHICAGO, IL – February 23: Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville yells from the bench during a game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks on February 23, 2018, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. Blackhawks won 3-1. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)