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The 8 most important players to extending the Blackhawks’ championship window

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The burden of a fourth Cup falls on their shoulders more than anyone.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s continue our deep dive into what is or is not remaining in the Hawks’ championship window.

On Monday, I told you why I think this window is going to stay open through 2019. On Tuesday, Satchel Price laid out the reasons why the window may have already closed with the Hawks’ elimination in the first round of this year’s postseason (but you don’t really believe that, do you?).

There are countless variables in play when discussing the Hawks’ ability to remain among the NHL’s elite. But I’ve narrowed things down to a list of eight players who are going to be essential in preserving what is left of the Hawks’ current run.

Patrick Kane

It’s hard to expect Patrick Kane to put up another season like he did during his MVP 2015-16 campaign. He was still an offensive dynamo in 2016-17, although his numbers took a minor step back, going from 109 points two years ago to “only” 89 points this year. He still remains one of the league’s best offensive weapons and he can still carry the Hawks through large stretches of the regular season. He’s never been shy of the heightened playoff stage, either, and was one of the few noticeable Hawks during the abbreviated playoff run this spring. Kane turns 29 this fall, and how long he is able to sustain his offensive production will affect how long this run persists.

Artemi Panarin

Kane can’t carry the offensive burden alone, especially in the postseason. Panarin followed up his 30-goal rookie season with 31 more this year, but his one-point postseason left a lot to be desired. There were stretches of the regular season where No. 72 wasn’t effective enough, either. With a healthy raise to a $6 million salary for the upcoming season, the Hawks will need more postseason production from Panarin to get out of the first round for the first time since 2015.

Corey Crawford

A cursory glance at Crawford’s numbers suggest the 32-year-old may be regressing, with his 2016-17 numbers (2.55 GAA, .918 save percentage) lagging behind his 2015-16 stats (2.37, .924). But considering those numbers came as the Hawks fell from seventh to 22nd in high-danger chances against (per Natural Stat Trick), and thinking back to how many regular season games Crawford won in spite of an avalanche of pucks thrown at him, it’s hard to say there was a clear step back taken by No. 50 in net. Similar to Kane, the Hawks need Crawford to continue playing at a high level if they want a fourth Cup this decade.

Ryan Hartman and Richard Panik

I’m lumping these players together because they have similar roles: critical depth scoring. Panik had 22 goals in his first full year with the Hawks, while Hartman added 19 in his first NHL season. Panik gets a raise to $2.8 million next year, while Hartman stays on his entry-level deal for another season. But behind the Hawks top scorers, depth scorers like Panik and Hartman are essential for deep playoff runs.

Nick Schmaltz

It’s fairly simple: the Hawks need more of the guy who scored 24 points in his last 35 regular season games after being recalled from Rockford. He’s only 21, so there’s still time for Schmaltz to grow. But having Schmaltz cement a spot in the top six is crucial to the Hawks success in the immediate future.

Gustav Forsling

You may be able to add Michal Kempny here as well, but as was correctly pointed out to me in the comments on Monday’s article, Kempny isn’t exactly young by NHL standards — he’ll be 27 this fall. Forsling is young, though, with this 21st birthday awaiting in June. Forsling spent much of the back half of the schedule in Rockford, totaling just 38 games for the Hawks this winter. As virtually any Hawks fan can tell you, Chicago needs to get younger and faster on the blue line, and Forsling’s NHL ceiling projects as the remedy for that ailment. Should he earn more ice time with the Hawks, the future looks significantly brighter.

Alex DeBrincat

Let’s venture down this road. Say that DeBrincat is, at a minimum, worthy of a spot among the Hawks’ top six forwards next season, and that the aforementioned Schmaltz continues the progress he made in the second half of the season. Suddenly the Hawks’ forward depth looks a lot more formidable in 2017-18, doesn’t it? Toews, Kane, Panarin, DeBrincat, Schmaltz, and Anisimov? How many teams could boast a similar glutton of talent among its top six forwards? That also slots the aforementioned Panik and Hartman in the Hawks’ bottom six along with Marian Hossa — the type of third- and fourth-line production that pushed prior Hawks championship teams across the finish line.

Sure, it’s a lot to put on a kid who hasn’t skated in the NHL yet, but DeBrincat’s last two OHL seasons mean he can’t be ignored anymore in discussions of the Hawks’ future.

We know the Hawks aren’t a young team anymore, and that many players not specifically mentioned in this article (Toews, Keith, Seabrook, etc.) are all still key factors. But, eventually, some of that burden is going to be shifted to players who haven’t won anything in their careers yet. It’s the same way that Brandon Saad and Nick Leddy factored into the 2013 season and Teuvo Teravainen had some vital contributions in the Cup-winning series in 2015.

The bad news is that it’s going to be yet another long summer for us while we wait to see what will be the next chapter in the Blackhawks’ story. But the good news is that many of the questions that we need answered are going to have resolutions by the end of the 2017-18 season. Then we’ll really know just how much longer this run is going to last.