After one of the worst playoff flame-outs in franchise history, and an offseason filled with difficult roster changes, the Chicago Blackhawks stand on unsure footing going into this season. It’s a very unfamiliar feeling for a franchise and fan base acclimated to relative stability for the last decade or so.
That’s not to say that the Hawks as a team and organization are tearing at the seams. It’s just that there is so much that we do not know going into the year. A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought about the Hawks. After a few moments my response was just a simple “I really have no idea what to think.”
And it’s true, I really don’t know what to think going into this season. There is so much unfamiliarity, so many questions, so many new pieces and parts to the operation.
I guess my point here is that there are many more questions than answers. So I’ll run through a few of them here and give my best answer.
How is this team going to look defensively, primarily without Niklas Hjalmarsson?
It’s no secret the Hawks are going to be young and thin defensively this year. We saw the issue perk up last year, when Hawk defenders were blitzkrieged by the speedy Predators, looking old and slow through all four games. Duncan Keith wasn’t his Conn Smythe self, and how could you expect him to be as he’d carried the Hawks defense the entire previous year too. Will he be able find that gear again in 2018? As Keith goes the entire Hawks defense will go, good or bad.
The same goes for Seabrook, who was a shell of his former self the past two years. As was the concern with hammer, hopefully Seabrook’s days aren’t behind him and he can also get back into productive shape. That was the concern, and eventual gamble, with Hjalmarsson. That his play would see a downward trend after he hit age 30, a concern and pattern in defensemen that played his same style and role.
The two veterans swill be surrounded by a ton of youth on the blue line this year. Connor Murphy, Gustav Forsling, Michael Kempny, Jan Ruuta will all have to prove their worth and show signs that they can stay as the Hawks’ future defensive core. The risk here is that they just aren’t ready, and will be feasted upon by teams and eventually stapled to the bench by Q. The hope will be that they all show signs of development and can take the next step. That may take a little time, and will certainly require a bit of patience.
Will Jonathan Toews have a bounce-back year?
It’s no secret that the Hawks’ captain was not very good last year. Aside from one hot stretch in the middle of the season, Toews was mostly ineffective and struggled mightily. This was obviously a concern since he is the leader of the team, and first line center. The problem was that his poor play brought down his linemates’ play and hindered their ability to perform since Toews couldn’t dig pucks out and win board battles as well as he did in the past.
One positive sign is that Toews has been reunited with old first line mate Brandon Saad. Will Saad’s return help Toews’ productivity? You better hope the answer to that is yes. Much like Keith, as Toews goes the Hawks will mostly go. For them to succeed this year and beyond, they need him to get back to form as one of the game’s best. Because he flat out wasn’t even close to that a year ago.
Will Brandon Saad fit right back in, or miss a step, in his return to Chicago?
This summer’s blockbuster trade sent Artemi Panarin to the Blue Jackets to bring Brandon Sadd back to Chicago. His reunion with the Hawks, especially with Jonathan Toews, was well-received amongst Hawks fans. Saad’s age and contract were also appealing on the front office side of things. It’s been positively a win-win so far.
The question that remains is how effective Saad will be, and will his return to the Hawks’ lineup be a smooth one. His ability to be a two-way player is something that the Hawks desperately need, and something that Panarin wasn’t good at. Saad obviously doesn’t provide as much offense and scoring as Panarin, but the hope is that he can do enough while also being effective in his own end as well.
Saad’s consistency should quell fears of any sort of drop off or regression in his return to the UC. I’m expecting him to have a monster year.
Are the Blackhawks definitely a playoff team? Is the championship window actually closed?
The Hawks’ ugly defeat last spring brought a startling realization to the franchise and fan base. It signified that the team needed an overhaul and a retooling. That happened over the summer, in one form or another. All we will find out now is if they made the right changes.
There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not the Hawks’ championship window is over. Their contractual issues dating back to the Bickell deal have hamstrung the franchise, and according to some (and yours truly) shortened, if not closed, their window to win more Stanley Cups.
I look at their moves last summer in a couple of ways. First of all, it’s something that other teams went through in previous years. A prime example are the Penguins, you know, the team that just won back-to-back Cups after retooling their entire roster around their core pieces. That, if anything, should give fans a glimpse of hope. The second way I look at it is as a sort of Hail Mary attempt. They’re making a risky, all-in type of move to take advantage of what talent they still have. Will it work? Who knows. Maybe it will. But if they hadn’t done it last summer the answer going forward would have been a resounding “no.”
With that being said, I think this team absolutely still has the talent and pedigree to be a playoff team. They just have a different make-up this year. Corey Crawford is still reliable in goal, Patrick Kane hopefully will still do Patrick Kane things on the ice, Saad will bring back his old effectiveness, Toews will bounce back and get back to old form, the young players (DeBrincat!) will all take steps in development and cement themselves as positive role guys and future stars… That’s what I see through my rose colored glasses.
This may be the most mysterious Blackhawks season in a long time. I feel like it could go a million different directions, some positive and some negative. It’s kind of a roll the dice and see type of scenario.
I’m going to believe for the best, because this would be drudgery if I couldn’t do that, and honestly life is negative enough already.
Let’s Go Hawks!