NHL Network and Second City Hockey decided to team up before the Winter Classic. Here is a conversation with host, Jackie Redmond, about the Blackhawks and their current state of affairs before puck drop outdoors on New Years Day.
1. What was your prediction for the Blackhawks coming into the 2018-2019 season?
Corey Crawford was the vital piece to the puzzle coming out of the offseason and training camp. If Crawford was back and healthy, the Blackhawks could grab one of the wild card spots. Having an elite goalie like Crawford takes them to another level. Then with Kane, Toews, Saad, DeBrincat, Keith, and Seabrook leading the charge, it was an easy prediction to slot them in as a playoff team. However, if Crawford was not back or was not 100%, that would take them out of the playoff conversation and move them to the bottom 15 of the NHL.
So far, I have been personally surprised by how poorly they have played even with Crawford in net. The offensive group lacks scoring depth and the defense is porous. No team can get into the playoffs with a 3.46 GAA. Plus, with the most recent concussion to Crawford, things are beginning to look bleak. Right now the Hawks look like a lottery pick team and should start to consider clearing cap, moving veterans, and rebuilding their team systems and strategy for the future.
2. What was your initial reaction to coach Joel Quenneville getting fired? Did you think it was the right move?
It was absolutely shocking. Coach Q is one of the best ever and is not one of the major issues plaguing the team. The Hawks were coming off an unsuccessful year in 2017-2018 and there were reports of a deteriorating relationship between Q and the front office, so it makes sense that a coaching change would happen at some point. Change is alway necessary, especially in a winning business like hockey. However, I can not imagine the Hawks being a better team without him, rather than with him.
When Q is ready to coach again, he will come back and work his magic. He is one of the best coaches ever and it will not be long before he is back behind the bench leading a team into the playoffs.
3. Do you think Jeremy Colliton is already on the hot seat?
Not at the moment. Coaching was not the issue, which has been proven by their record and play in recent months since Colliton took over. Issue is the roster. Obviously, the Hawks had some really great years and had a dynasty. However, the game has evolved. Speed, skill, and young talent is paramount for success in the current state of the NHL. Right now, the Hawks do not have enough of that on their roster. The team was inevitably going to regress because of the core growing older, Bowman having to offer big contracts to the core, which is crippling their cap flexibility now, and trading away any depth players that had successful runs in Chicago due to the cap pressures. It was a ticking time bomb that finally went off. Now the Hawks need to stockpile their young talent from drafts and adapt their roster as best they can to the evolved NHL.
Colliton will not be judged on wins or losses. What is most important and telling of Colliton’s success is whether or not the players are buying into his system, mentorship, and attitude.
4. Which Blackhawk players have exceeded your expectations so far this season?
One player that has really impressed me is Alex DeBrincat. He just turned 21, and already has 45 goals in a Hawks sweater. It took Patrick Kane 149 games to get to 45 goals. It has taken DeBrincat only 121 games.
Jonathan Toews has also impressed. Of course he has loads of offensive talent and he is showcasing that agin this year, but his leadership and attitude off the ice has been exemplary. He always stays positive and even calls himself out for poor body language. He empowers the team around him with his confidence, positivity, and healthy mental state. He is the heartbeat of the team and will go down as one of the best captains in Blackhawks and NHL history.
5. Which Blackhawk players have underachieved so far this season?
To be honest, most of the team. It is hard to single out one player when they have been this unsuccessful. The defense has regressed significantly and that is most likely due to the lack of depth. It is just unusual to watch the Hawks give up so many goals and constantly be behind in games.
6. Is there a particular moment leading up to the Winter Classic, during the game, or after the game that you are looking forward to the most?
I think it is pretty incredible that the game is being held at a stadium as storied and famous as Norte Dame. There is so much history and tradition within those walls. Those facts alone, enhance the experience significantly. I am pumped to have the opportunity to watch a NHL game at Norte Dame, which has been around since 1930.
I really enjoy the family skate. It gives the whole event more of a holiday feel. Kids are out there, families are out there, everyone is smiling, laughing, and having a good time. There is usually a chance to catch a Make-a-Wish moment, which is alway special. The family skate has a great vibe, and hopefully it will snow a bit to make the event even more magical.
7. If you could change anything about the Winter Classic, what would you suggest for next year?
In years past, the sweaters could be designed a bit better. This year I think they sweaters are great. The retro feel is outstanding and I am looking forward to watching the players fly around on the ice with their new look.
One change that I hope happens for next year, is for NHL Network to find a way to do more of their Winter Classic coverage from inside the stadium. I want to get one of those massive thermal jackets that Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk get to wear. That’s my goal for (2020).
8. Which players are you looking forward to watching the most from the Blackhawks?
Patrick Kane. I have never had the chance to watch him play live. I am looking forward to watching him get his elite hands ready during warmups and hopefully see a highlight reel goal created or scored by Kaner from inside the stadium.
9. What would a Winter Classic win for the Blackhawks do for their current status in the league?
Will not necessarily do much. Hawks are at a point where they need some momentum and to get people excited and to believe in them again. Great thing about hockey and fans is that it does not take much to believe again. A couple wins in a row and a big win on national TV at the Winter Classic could bring more enthusiasm from fans and start a longer streak of success for the Blackhawks. It will get the locker room buzzing with positivity and the younger players to buy in even more. A win could be an important moment in cultivating more chemistry within the group and give Coach Colliton some evidence to back of his new systems and strategy.
I grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan and always had hope, but it inevitably always got crushed. I remember my Dad scooping up the paper in the morning and talking to me about what the team needs to do over the next 10 games or month to get back in the playoff picture. We would start doing math on the side and prepare for game-day. It is a strange feeling to see the Leafs perform so well and become a contender. The Hawks will get there again, it just takes time, patience, hope, and determination.
10. What are a few steps that the Blackhawks have to take to return to a contender status in the NHL?
- Biggest thing - Ownership needs to make a decision on the state of the team. Is it a playoff team that is severely underperforming, a team in need of a hybrid rebuild/remodel, or a complete rebuild? They need to be honest with the fans. When you hesitate, you lose.
- When you look at the age of core, how much money they take up, and the current lack of NHL-ready depth on offense and defense, upper management needs to be honest with themselves. Have to start doing something about it or they will get blown away by teams that have accepted their fate and chose to adapt.
- Writing is on the wall. There’s a lot of options. Make a commitment one way or the other. It has to be done.
Questions from Jackie Redmond
1. In your opinion, what is the biggest issue with the Hawks current roster?
Depth, both offensively and defensively. On the offensive side, there are three forwards with more than 10 goals as of December 26th: Patrick Kane (17), Alex DeBrincat (17) and Jonathan Toews (16). The forwards on the verge of hitting the teens are Brandon Saad (9) and Artem Anisimov (7). After that, scoring from other forwards is almost negligible. A playoff bound team and contender will have three lines that are are a threat to score every game. It allows coaches flexibility and opportunity to optimize matchups every shift. For instance, the Lightning have eight forwards with nine or more goals. The Maple Leafs and Penguins have six. The Avalanche have five. When only one or two lines can do damage up front, it makes the game plan for the opposing team a lot simpler. The Hawks are in need of a third line center or winger that can put up points. Here is an updated depth chart up front.
First Line: Saad-Toews-Kahun
Second Line: Anisimov-Strome-Kane
Third Line: DeBrincat-Kampf-Sikura
Fourth Line: Hayden - Kruger (IR) - Perlini (Andreas Martinsen and Chris Kunitz slot in on the wings occasionally)
Backups that come up from Rockford (AHL) due to injury or when a bottom-six player performs poorly during a stretch of games: Luke Johnson and Jacob Nilsson.
Jeremy Colliton is trying to divide the scoring threat across three lines, but once you move past DeBrincat on the left-wing on the third line, there are not many threats to light the lamp.
On the defensive side, our depth is also lacking. Here is the current depth chart.
Top 2/Fringe Top 2: Duncan Keith, Henri Jokiharju
Top 4: Erik Gustafsson, Connor Murphy
Bottom Pairing/Rotating: Brent Seabrook, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Manning, Jan Rutta, Carl Dahlström.
As of December 26th, the Hawks have the worst goal differential in the league at minus-33 and are tied for the most goals allowed with the Senators at 144. The next closest team is the Flyers at 125 goals against. Most fans will point to the goalies being the issue, but that is not the case with the Blackhawks. Recently, there was a stretch of 11 games where the Hawks gave up the first goal. They also only held a lead for 41 seconds during 662:32 minutes of game time. That is not a recipe for success. The Hawks get burned by turnovers at the blue line and on breakouts from their own zone, or there is a missed assignment on a line rush from the opponent that leads to a wide open opportunity and usually a goal.
However, there have been signs of improvement on the defensive side in recent games. The Hawks have an even goal differential in their last seven games and have won three games where they only allowed two goals or less. There are less mistakes in the D-zone and every game does not seem like it is over after the first period. Progress is progress.
2. Who are some prospects Hawks fans have to look forward to in the near future?
General manager Stan Bowman has loaded up on defensive prospects in recent years. They lead the top prospect list for the Blackhawks. Right now the top 5 would be as follows:
- Adam Boqvist (D) - Drafted 8th overall in 2018. 25 points in 23 games for the London Knights of the OHL. Playing for Team Sweden at the 2019 World Junior Championship (WJC).
- Henri Jokiharju (D) - Drafted 29th overall in 2017. Made Blackhawks roster out of training camp. Already impressing in the NHL and usually paired with Duncan Keith. Playing for Team Finland at the WJC.
- Ian Mitchell (D) - Drafted 57th overall in 2017. Sophomore at University of Denver (41 points in 55 total games played in the NCAA) and playing for Team Canada at the WJC.
- Collin Delia (G) - Signed in July 2017 after an impressive junior season at Merrimack College. First career NHL win March 29 against the Jets despite leaving early with cramps. Had a .933 save percentage in the AHL before being called up last week.
- Nicolas Beaudin (D) - Drafted 27th overall in 2018. Plays for the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the QMJHL (25 points in 21 games). Just missed the cut for Team Canada at World Juniors.
The Hawks also have a number of forwards that are making a name for themselves in their respective leagues. Keep an eye out for MacKenzie Entwistle (OHL Hamilton, Canada - WJC), Evan Barratt (Penn State, U.S. - WJC) and Philipp Kurashev (QMJHL Quebec, Switzerland - WJC).
3. The Hawks are currently a bottom five team. Considering the upcoming draft class and the players available in it, how much would a top 5 pick help this team? Who do you see as a good fit?
- Jack Hughes, C, USNTDP
- Kaapo Kakko, RW, TPS (Liiga)
- Vasily Podkolzin, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (MHL)
- Dylan Cozens, C, Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL)
- Kirby Dach, C, Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
The prizes of the 2019 draft class are Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. They are the consensus Nos. 1 and 2 pick, respectively. However, with the recent trend in play by the Blackhawks, I am guessing we are going to end up with a top 10 pick. Lots of fans are tweeting #LoseForHughes or #CrappoForKakko, but, in my opinion, this should not be the strategy. It would be a gift to win the lottery and get the chance to pick a player like Hughes who could be our future first or second line center. However, most likely the Hawks will end up with a pick somewhere between Nos. 4 and 8.
It is not a franchise altering decision like the Nos. 1 or 2 pick would be, but it still provides Bowman an opportunity to draft a prospect who could jump into the top 10 prospect list for the Blackhawks immediately. It will only increase the hope for the future of the team. Look for Bowman to grab a top forward prospect to fill the lack of young talent the Hawks have at the position. Judging by the prospect reports, Cozens, Dach, or Raphael Lavoie (ranked eighth) could be fits at center. On the other hand, Cam York (ranked 12th) has high end speed and elite vision on the blue line. He fits the mold of the new era puck moving, offensively gifted NHL defenseman that every team is trying to grab.
4. Do you think the Hawks will make big moves ahead of the deadline? If so, who do you think could be on the move?
I think the Hawks are going to make some moves to increase the number of draft picks they have in the 2019 entry draft. I could see Artem Anisimov moved to a team in need of a depth center for the playoffs. I could also see a defenseman like Brandon Manning, Jan Rutta or Carl Dahlstrom moved for a later round pick or two. The Hawks have defined their core with contracts — Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Crawford (hopefully he can come back from another this concussion), Saad and DeBrincat, who has joined purely by performance and is due for a pay raise soon. I do not see Bowman moving any of those pieces. He is preparing for a free agency with plenty of salary cap flexibility for the first time in a decade. My guess is he is going to do everything he can to get the core another cup before they retire. There have been reports that Bowman wants to go all in on Artemi Panarin in the offseason. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
You can watch Jackie Redmond as part of NHL Network’s pre- and post-game coverage for the 2019 NHL Winter Classic, starting at 10 a.m. Central time Jan. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium. For your local channel listings, visit nhlnetwork.com.