To say that being swept in the first round of this year’s NHL play-offs was a major disappointment to the Chicago Blackhawks would be a drastic understatement. Yesterday’s season-ending press conferences made that abundantly clear. The team certainly isn’t going to rest on their laurels, though—this off-season is sure to be an entertaining one, with the expansion draft to take into account, and the Entry Draft taking place in Chicago, and after such a poor conclusion to the year, the ‘Hawks are sure to be very involved. What exactly they do, though, is up for some debate. Here, I give the four things that I think the team should do as they prepare for the 2017-18 season:
Yes, the team got blasted in the play-offs against a division rival, and are just a year removed from losing to another team within the Central. Because of the yearly salary cap crunch, they figure to be priced out of the markets for Scott Darling and Richard Panik, lose Johnny Oduya and Brian Campbell to either retirement or free agency, and see Trevor van Riemsdyk picked up by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. But there is a lot of talent on a team that won the regular season title in the Western Conference—guys like Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, and Tanner Kero stepped into important roles this past season, and guys like Vinnie Hinostroza, Gustav Forsling, and Tyler Motte are poised to take that next step. The pipeline goes deeper, too, with top prospects Ville Pokka and Alex DeBrincat only a short ways away from being potential role players on the big squad. With all of that in mind, there’s no need to panic, and that’s not even accounting for a core that has won three Stanley Cups in the past eight seasons.
Give serious consideration to trading a key core player or two
If I had my way, though, that core wouldn’t be together much longer. It was abundantly clear that this team was not good enough to be competitive against a team as good as the Predators. If Stan Bowman’s comments in his press conference yesterday are anything to go by, changes are probably going to happen. The thing is, though, that with the current salary projections for next season, unless the cap ceiling goes up more than it is expected to, there’s actually nothing that the team really can do. This article by the Blackhawks blog Second City Hockey makes it very clear that, even after the presumed losses of van Riemsdyk, Panik, Campbell, Oduya, and Darling, that the team is basically right on the line in terms of cap dollars. Other teams will be quick to recognize this, and the man that would be an ideal salary to dump, Marcus Kruger, would probably require a prospect or a draft pick to take on his contract, which, considering how much the team will have to rely on their youth in the coming years, would not be ideal. Therefore, I think that the team should put some thought into trading a guy that has a higher salary, but would also net a greater return, allowing for increased depth and talent throughout the roster. I also feel that everybody should be in play except for Toews and Keith—and yes, that includes fan-favorites Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi Panarin. Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford would get the most consideration, but after two straight play-off failures, it’s clear the league has caught up to the Blackhawks, and if they need to deal a big name to regain their swagger, then so be it.
Target players that are good with the puck
When the team makes some moves, they’re going to need to target some guys that are really good with the puck. And I’m not talking guys like Patrick Kane, who can dangle with the best in history, but guys like the departed duo of Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen, who were among the top 40 forwards for individual Corsi percentage this season. For those unfamiliar with the statistic, Corsi measures how many shots—on net, off net, or blocked—that take place for and against a team when a certain player is on the ice. Like any advanced statistic, Corsi is flawed—a USA Today article published back in November suggested that some players are willing to take shots at poor times just to boost their percentage—but it is generally a good indicator of how well a player can keep possession of the puck. The Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawk teams finished in the top-10 in overall Corsi percentage, but slipped to the middle of the pack this year, especially on the top line, where Jonathan Toews’ primary line mates, Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik, were below 50% Corsi. There were many reasons why Nashville’s top line dominated Chicago, but I’m sure that the fact that all of their first line forwards have better possession numbers than any of the Blackhawk forwards has something to with it. If the team is constrained to looking at fairly economical options for new players, they should look towards acquiring guys like Mark Stone of Ottawa and Kyle Clifford of Los Angeles via trade, and players like Brett Connelly of Washington and Sam Gagner of Columbus in free agency, if they aren’t priced out of Chicago’s range.
Find better balance on the blue line
In my last post, I noted that Joel Quenneville had a lot of trouble coming up with consistent defensive pairings as the regular season drew to a close, and that played a contributing factor in some of the baffling plays made by Blackhawks defensemen in their first round loss. The acquisition of Johnny Oduya made the problems incredibly stark, but the issues in the back of the team were there before he re-joined the team from Dallas—Seabrook and Campbell are usually relatively reliable veterans, but they struggled to find their game, especially offensively, throughout the year. Now that the team figures to get (relatively) younger on the back end, they won’t have to worry as much about being outpaced as badly as they were against Nashville, but they do need to place a premium on making sure that the pairings that they end up forming will work together in both zones. If that doesn’t happen, and the inconsistencies that each individual player displayed in this year’s play-offs continue to plague the team, then they’ll have virtually no chance of regaining their old dominance, especially when the teams that have dominated the post-season so far, the Predators and the Ducks, have such deep blue lines. The way the current roster is set up, my parings would probably be Keith-Hjalmarsson, Seabrook-Kempny, and Pokka-Forsling, with Rozsival as the 7th man, but after such a disappointing finish to the year, nothing, nothing at all, is guaranteed.
What are your thoughts about what the team should prioritize this off-season? Comment what you think below, or contact me here.