As 16 teams begin their quest to hoist the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks begin their second straight offseason searching for answers. During the exit interviews on Sunday, general manager Stan Bowman stated that he is going to make roster changes and be more active in the free agent market with around $16-20 million of cap space to play with. There is no doubt that Bowman is on the hot seat this offseason and it will be interesting to see what he chooses to do with his job on the line, especially after being rewarded with the third overall pick in the upcoming NHL draft.
Over the next few weeks, Second City Hockey has a number of planned articles that will take a deeper dive into the performance of the team and the players on its roster. Let’s kick it off with positives from the 2018-19 season that are reasons for optimism for the future of this franchise.
The Eerie Otter connection - Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome
After Strome was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes for Nick Schmaltz, the chemistry between Strome and his former OHL teammate, DeBrincat, was uncanny at times. One of my favorite goals of the season was DeBrincat’s 40th in San Jose in late March.
Strome won a battle behind the net and barely took a look over his shoulder before placing a puck right on DeBrincat’s tape in the slot. I am looking forward to seeing more of these type of goals from the young, dynamic duo who have performed their way into our future core.
Resurgence of Jonathan Toews’ offensive production
Toews set career highs in goals (35) and points (81). In addition to reaching the 80 point plateau, Toews had 72 takeaways (most since the 2011-12 season), a career high 235 shots on goal and owned a 56.3 face-off winning percentage (top 15 in the NHL).
It was obvious from the opening week of the season that Toews had an extra step, loads of confidence and was hungry to lead by example. There’s no doubt he is still in his prime.
Corey Crawford’s health
After two concussions in less than a year, Crawford’s health and future with Chicago was a major question mark. Watching Crawford string together fifteen starts in April and March where he went 8-4-3 with a 0.917-save percentage, including a 48-save shutout in Montreal, was relieving. When Crawford is 100-percent, he can play at an elite level. Getting him back for a full season would be a significant confidence boost for the team and give them a better chance at earning points more often.
Improved power play
It was the first season since the 2015-16 campaign that the Blackhawks power play had a conversion rate higher than 20.0-percent.
After beginning the season in the bottom five of the NHL on the man advantage, the top unit of Toews, Patrick Kane, DeBrincat, Strome, and Erik Gustafsson produced at ridiculous rates of 30-40-percent. That obviously dried up as the season wound down, but Chicago still finished in the top 15 on the man advantage at 20.2-percent.
Finding more consistency on the power play, instead of these peaks and valleys, is the next step to accomplish in the power play’s evolution under head coach, Jeremy Colliton.
Buying into Colliton’s system
Following the finale of the Blackhawk’s season, Duncan Keith spoke about the veteran core core and team being ‘all on board’ with the 34-year old coach. After a tumultuous first half of the season, which included the the firing of Joel Quenneville and a handful of long losing streaks, the Blackhawks had a record of 20-10-3 in their last 33 games. That’s a 106-point pace over a 82-game schedule. Earning the respect of the veteran core and the team, as a whole, is a prominent step in developing a winning culture. That step is complete.
Gustafsson’s offensive explosion
Gustafsson finished the season tied for third in the NHL in goals scored by a defenseman with 17 and sixth in points with 60. Chicago hasn’t had a blue liner hit the 60 point mark since Duncan Keith’s Norris trophy winning 2013-14 season. It was a big step in Gustafsson’s career and it will be intriguing to see if he can improve his defensive skillset over the last year of his $1.2-mil contract.
Duncan Keith finding his game after the trade deadline
After the Feb. 25 trade deadline, Keith had a 19 game stretch where he had ten points (3 G, 7 A), only four penalty minutes, 32 blocks and averaged 23:22 minutes of ice time. He played like a top four defenseman in the majority of those games and even sped by Nathan MacKinnon to score a memorable OT winner. Keith’s ability to play consistently at a high level is vital for the success of the Blackhawks who have lots of inexperience on the blue line.
Dominik Kahun’s emergence as a versatile option in the top 9
Coming into the season, there was an air of mystery surrounding Kahun’s potential. He won a silver medal with the German National team at the 2016 Winter Olympics and amassed 111 points in 157 games in Germany’s top professional league. However, it was unclear if that production would translate to the NHL.
In his first season with Chicago, Kahun had 37 points (13 G, 24 A), a plus-10 rating on a team with a goal differential of minus-22, six penalty minutes in 82 games played and demonstrated his versatility by bouncing around the lineup all season (5-on-5, power play, and penalty kill). He adjusted to the skill level and speed of the NHL quickly and had a relatively successful first season finishing eighth in the rookie scoring chase. He is only 23 years old and is a promising asset for the Blackhawks.
Brandon Saad burying more than 20 goals
After a lackluster 2017-18 season where Saad only scored 18 goals, he jumped above the 20-goal plateau for the fourth time in his career with 23 goals this season. In addition to finding the net more often, Saad led all Blackhawks, with more than 40 games played, in Corsi-For rate at 53.1-percent. He drives possession, kills penalties and has accumulated a 0.28 goals-per-game rate during his eight year career. That’s a valuable top 9 option on the wing.
Kane played at an MVP pace for most of the season and scored a career high 110 points (44 G, 66 A). When the team needed a spark to get back in the playoff race, Kane took over. He is clearly one of the best players this franchise has ever had, and I expect Kane will have another memorable season in 2019-20.
Collin Delia’s ascension to becoming a formidable option to back up Crawford
When Crawford was recovering from another concussion, Delia stepped up and showed that he belongs in the NHL this season. Delia finished with a 6-4-3 record and a .908 save-percentage. Imagine what a full season of practice time with goalie coach Jimmy Waite and mentorship from Crawford could do for Delia.
The four horseman are coming - Boqvist, Mitchell, Beaudin, Jokiharju
Clearly, the Blackhawks need reinforcements on the blue line. Bowman has done a nice job acquiring defensive prospects in recent drafts. As a result, there are four highly touted defensive prospects in the pipeline that are on their way over the course of the next two seasons. It’s unclear who will be ready first and if they will all pan out. However, these assets give Bowman trade bait and an auspicious vision of the future blue line in Chicago.
3rd overall pick in upcoming NHL Draft
Wow! Never would have guessed I would be writing about having the third overall pick this summer. This is an exciting moment for the franchise and can accelerate the remodeling project of this team. It will be one of the most important moments in Bowman’s career, and I am looking forward to seeing what he does with this opportunity. As the legendary Herb Brooks once said, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
Fans can expect an even better in-game experience at the United Center and on TV
WGN will no longer broadcast games. That means no more awkward intermission reports and no more scoring bugs. The United Center will also have a new scoreboard next season that’s going to be even bigger and louder. The Madhouse on Madison will be rocking.
What else was a positive from the season? Discuss below.