Strolling around parts of the NHL world on the Internet, peaking inside for a quick listen to the conversations, there are a few whispers about what’s going to happen to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2017-18 season.
“They’re finished, man. They didn’t even win a playoff game last year.”
“They traded away Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin. It’s over for them.”
“They’re going to be so bad this year. I bet they won’t even make the playoffs.”
Don’t believe me? Find it here. Or in the SB Nation NHL Preview here (Our fearless leader Satchel Price exempted, he knows better).
I’m sure it would make a lot of people quite happy if the Blackhawks missed out on the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But it’s a ridiculous thing to believe. Barring injury, the Blackhawks season will extend beyond the first week of April. Why? Let’s get to that.
Half of the freaking league makes the playoffs!
It’s not like this is an incredibly high bar. There are 31 teams in the NHL now with the inclusion of the Vegas Golden Knights, and 16 of them will be postseason-bound come April. That’s 51.6% of the league, for those counting at home. Is it really that crazy to assume a team boasting players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, and Duncan Keith is going to be, at a very minimum, mediocre. That’s not a wild assertion.
They’re still loaded with top-end talent and the kids are improving
As I mentioned above, they have plenty of stars. Toews, Kane, Saad, and Keith would be top-line guys on virtually every NHL team. But behind that group of stars, Chicago has steadily assembled a talented group of young players who are starting to emerge as legitimate NHL-caliber athletes. Nick Schmaltz is coming off a strong showing in the second half of the season and appears to be the team’s new second-line center. Ryan Hartman scored 19 goals in his first full NHL season. Richard Panik had 22 goals last year. John Hayden earned a roster spot with a strong preseason showing. The defense has its holes behind Keith, but there’s reason to believe players like Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny can help fill some of those. Again, it’ll be enough to get this team to, at least, the middle of the pack in the Western Conference.
Can any other Central Division teams pass up the Hawks?
Nashville is the obvious exception here, coming off of a Stanley Cup appearance last season. But outside of that ... who else is going to catch a Chicago team that had 109 points last season? We’ve been told the Minnesota Wild are going to become a Western Conference power for about four years now. Still waiting for it to happen. The St. Louis Blues traded away Kevin Shatternkirk at the deadline last year, lost Robby Fabbri for season with the injury, and will be without Alex Steen for the start of the season while he recovers from an injury. The Winnipeg Jets have some young talent, but may not have enough of it to truly thrive. The Dallas Stars may have fixed their goaltending issues by signing Ben Bishop but still don’t have enough defensive depth in front of him. The Colorado Avalanche are going to redefine the word “terrible.”
Chicago has the best goalie in the Western Conference
I will beat this drum til my arm falls off: Corey Crawford is the best goalie in the Western Conference and has been for several seasons now. It’s true that Corey Crawford’s overall numbers dipped slightly last year, with his save percentage going from .924% in 2015-16 to .918% last year, and his goals-against average going from 2.37 to 2.55. But with plummeting possession numbers by the players in front of him, Crawford was tested more and more often than he had in prior seasons, and frequently bailing his teammates out when they abandoned their defensive responsibilities. He was the biggest reason for the Hawks notching 50 wins last season, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
What will happen when the Hawks get to the playoffs? Excellent question. But what’s not going to be a question is whether or not they get the opportunity. The goalie is too good. They have too much top-end talent. And obstacles in their way are not as high as they’ve been in the past.