With the NHL’s Christmas break coming to an end Wednesday, and the Chicago Blackhawks returning to the ice Thursday night in Vancouver, it’s now a month-long mad dash to the All-Star Break in late January. And lest you forgot some of the storylines surrounding the Blackhawks from the first few months of the season, here are 10 things to keep an eye on as the season resumes:
1. Crawford’s health
This became the top news story for the Blackhawks with the Wednesday morning news that Corey Crawford is heading back to injured reserve for the second time in a month. With coach Joel Quenneville calling Crawford’s absence “indefinite” on Wednesday evening, this became the primary concern for everyone in the Blackhawks’ camp.
2. Blackhawks’ schedule for next month is a rollercoaster
As of Wednesday, the Blackhawks had played just twice in the last 10 days. Part of that is a side effect of the annual Christmas break taken by the NHL. But a market correction is on the way: Chicago has nine games to play in the next 16 days, including a tough four-in-six stretch during the second week of January. Then the Hawks have five days off, then they play another four games in six nights, then it’s the All-Star break. Weird.
One of the most encouraging developments this season has been the excellent play of 20-year-old forward Alex DeBrincat, who graduated from his teenage years last week. In 35 games, he has 11 goals and 12 assists for the third-highest point total on the team this season. While other expected scorers have slumped, DeBrincat has emerged as a reliable point-producer in the young season.
4. Can Toews/Saad duo get rolling again?
The blockbuster summer trade which brought Brandon Saad back to Chicago was expected to jumpstart both Saad and Jonathan Toews on the Hawks’ top line this season. It hasn’t had that effect yet, though. Toews has 22 points, modest for the standards he’s set in his career. And Saad is even farther behind, with just 17 points (11 goals, six assists) in 35 games. There have been flashes of their old chemistry, but nothing that’s stayed consistent.
5. Will Murphy keep improving?
After a slow start to the season which included a few healthy scratches, Connor Murphy has emerged as one of the Hawks best defenseman after being acquired in Chicago’s other blockbuster summer deal. He has some of the best possession metrics on the team and displayed his versatility by flipping between the left and right sides when injuries affected the D corps.
6. Can Forsling and/or Rutta take another step forward?
Gustav Forsling was a promising rookie and Jan Rutta was an unheralded free agent signing in the summer, but both found themselves as full-time contributors on the Hawks’ blue line this season. It’s been up-and-down for both players, and the ceiling remains higher for Forsling, who’s six years younger than the 27-year-old Rutta. But both players need to progress even further if Chicago has hopes of playing into May or June in 2018.
7. Schmaltz back to center?
For the last month or two, Nick Schmaltz has been on the left wing opposite Patrick Kane with Artem Anisimov at center, and that second line has been one of Chicago’s best and most consistent scoring threats. But Schmaltz has always projected as a center in the future, and getting him back to the pivot could give the Hawks significantly more strength down the middle of its forward lineup. Whether or not he gets another shot there soon will be a key part of the next month.
8. Will Hartman, Panik, Sharp shake off their early-season struggles?
This trio has under-performed at varying levels throughout the first three months. While none of them were expected to lead the team in goals, all three were counted on to be part of the secondary scoring that would give Chicago a more balanced attack. With 35 games in the books, Ryan Hartman and Richard Panik have five goals apiece, while Patrick Sharp has three. That’s not going to cut it.
He’s still the best player (excluding goaltenders) on the team, and remains one of the most lethal scoring threats in the NHL. He’s averaging a point-per-game through 35 games while leading the team in goals, assists, and points (again). Lightening the load on his shoulders would be wise, but Kane has once again displayed his ability to carry this team offensively.
10. An eye on the standings
The NHL standings are one big logjam thanks to the prevalence of three-point games played on a nightly basis, and the Central Division is no exception. The top three teams have 48 (Nashville Predators), 47 (St. Louis Blues) and 46 points (Winnipeg Jets). At the bottom are three more teams separated by two points: Chicago (39), the Minnesota Wild (39) and the Colorado Avalanche (37). The Dallas Stars sit in the middle of this mess with 43 points. A quick win streak can help the Hawks get into a much safer spot in the standings, but a losing skid could bury them in a hole they’ll never escape. The margin for error is paper-thin.