The Chicago Blackhawks open another season Wednesday night, and they’re not quite the same team they were last year or two years ago. This is a younger, faster group, which didn’t necessarily come by choice but happened nonetheless. What’s left is a wide variety of possibilities.
The statistics peg the Blackhawks as a likely playoff team, but not a sure thing. In his preseason predictions, Micah Blake McCurdy gave the Hawks a 64 percent chance of making the playoffs in a stacked Central Division. The Hockey News ran some stats that give them a 75 percent chance. The Washington Post, meanwhile, projects the Hawks to win the division, and Vegas somehow has them as the favorite to win the Cup.
The traditional predictions don’t see the Blackhawks as a go-to Cup winner choice. None of us at SCH picked Chicago to win the Cup. The same goes for the six analysts at USA Today. Two of Sportsnet’s 17 analysts picked the Hawks, and at ESPN, one of nine did. CBS Sports’ Chris Peters matched my prediction of a Caps-Preds Final. The Lightning and Capitals have been far more popular choices to breakthrough this season.
In general, there’s a bit more skepticism about the Hawks than we’ve seen in years. But here in Chicago, there’s another possibility, and it’s one we probably haven’t talked about enough: This youth movement could work wonders.
It starts on defense, where the Hawks don’t get enough credit for how good they could be this season. This is a borderline overhaul highlighted by a 37-year-old veteran and a 20-year-old rookie.
Brian Campbell, 37, was one of the best defensemen in the NHL at driving possession last season. He’ll immediately help reverse the worrisome trend of Chicago’s declining Corsi numbers, and while he’s not a stellar offensive finisher at this point, he’ll have a lot of help there.
Soupy will open the year next to Swedish blue liner Gustav Forsling, 20, who could be a revelation in Chicago. He wasn’t necessarily supposed to be part of the plans for this season, but looked so good over the past month that the Hawks couldn’t justify sending him back to Europe. Now he’s opening the year next to Campbell, who is as reliable as they come and should be perfect in helping ease Forsling in.
And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the big three of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook, who should remain effective even if Seabs was a bit disappointing at 5-on-5 last season. Part of that may have stemmed from the constant rotation of defensemen, so having far more stability this season might help him a bit.
Toss in Michal Kempny, an intriguing 25-year-old Czech, and Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was WAY over his head as the No. 4 d-man last season, as your No. 6 and No. 7 defensemen, and you have the makings of a potentially excellent defensive corps.
For a team that relies on the ability of its defensemen to make smart plays with the puck to clear the zone and set up forwards in transition, these defensive improvements could do wonders.
In fact, I think there’s a very good chance that part of why the Hawks are so comfortable going with so many young forwards to enter the season is their confidence in the defense to be solid. It’s one thing to ease in four young forwards when they can’t rely on the guys behind them to make smart plays and get the puck up to them. Responsible defense will make things that much easier as the rookies get thrown into the fire.
And speaking of, what if the Hawks’ young forwards are actually good? I don’t mean they’ll have a bunch of new Artemi Panarins on their hands, but what if Ryan Hartman can be a decent checking forward next to Marcus Kruger? What if Nick Schmaltz and Vinnie Hinostroza can settle in and turn that line into a dependable scoring option? What if Tyler Motte keeps playing up to the talent around him and finds himself on the first line by the end of the season?
I’m not saying all of this — or even any of it — is likely to happen, but it’s all completely possible.
Schmaltz took amazing strides over the past year and has the ability to be a high-level player in the NHL. Motte’s rise has happened so quickly it’s hard to peg his potential, but he’s shown the speed and hands to get this far. Hinostroza and Hartman were very solid in the AHL and could step up as role players. One of the biggest questions is whether they can handle 100-plus games if there’s an extended postseason run.
The Hawks might be desperate for cheap, young forwards, but they chose to dive into the youth movement head-first. They didn’t need to do it like this. They could’ve chased after PTOs for veterans like Kris Versteeg, or worked harder to complete a trade for Nail Yakupov. But it seems like they kept watching the kids, and kept thinking they were the superior options. You know the Hawks wouldn’t have passed up on a reasonable win-now move just to try to develop prospects at the NHL level. That’s not what they do. They clearly believe in these guys on some level.
And if all those young players live up to expectations, watch out. This Hawks team is going to be fast, it’s going to be dangerous, and, it’s going to be fun. There will be mistakes and, hopefully, learning. In goal there’s Corey Crawford, who is slowly but surely earning the praise he deserves as one of the best goalies in the world. The defense will be deep. And you know Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Artemi Panarin will be stellar.
So with the season just hours away, I’m excited. There are a lot ways this season could go. Maybe the youth flounders, a couple guys get hurt and the Hawks are scrambling in a crowded division just to get the No. 8 seed. But there’s also a very real chance the Hawks have just reloaded on the fly and put themselves in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup once again.
At the beginning of the season, hope is really all you can ask for. And I’m hopeful about the 2016-17 Blackhawks.