Who will be the Blackhawks’ breakout player in 2017-18?
Every year in the NHL, there are players who put it all together and surpass expectations. Richard Panik went from a journeyman who had 25 goals in 181 NHL games entering the 2016-17 season to a 22-goal scorer capable of demanding a multi-year contract. Ryan Hartman went from 15 goals in the AHL to 19 goals in the NHL.
These things happen in the wacky world of hockey, and it’s part of what makes the sport so fun to follow. Success isn’t guaranteed for the vast majority of players. Even those we’ve counted out in the past can prove us all wrong with one big year in a league that’s constantly evolving.
The Blackhawks will be looking for those kinds of breakout performances in the upcoming season. They still have the experienced core that’s led the franchise to three Stanley Cups since 2010, but more than any time in the past few years, this is a team banking on unproven players to take major leaps forward. If they don’t, we could be in for a rough year watching a team try to prop open its championship window.
But as guys like Panik and Hartman showed a year ago, optimism can be rewarded when you give opportunity to the right players. Those two showed they were ready to take on bigger roles in the NHL, and now that same chance will be extended to a bunch of other players.
So we’re going to run through the team’s top breakout candidates here for the 2017-18 season. These range from young NHL contributors looking to break into starring roles to prospects looking to make the leap to the next level. There are eight of them in all.
Why he’ll break out: Schmaltz finished the 2016-17 regular season strong with 24 points in 35 games following a trip to the AHL. Now the 21-year-old enters his second full pro season with a better idea of what it’ll take to succeed with the Blackhawks after getting thrown into the fire as a rookie. Fifty-plus points seems entirely possible.
Why he won’t break out: Schmaltz didn’t produce much as a rookie until he was put on the top line with Jonathan Toews, and he was total flop in the playoffs with just zero points and two shots on goal in four games. He’s also a questionable fit as a full-time center unless he can measurably improve his faceoff percentage.
Why he’ll break out: If it doesn’t happen now, it probably never will. Jurco’s NHL career has sputtered over the past three seasons, during which he’s recorded just seven points in 73 games. He’s posted strong possession numbers throughout his career, though, and the Hawks didn’t give up a third-round pick for him based off nothing.
Why he won’t break out: Well, seven points in 73 games seems like a good summary. Jurco’s last team gave up on him, and at a certain point, you have to accept some guys won’t put it all together.
Why he’ll break out: He was a scoring machine in the OHL, and he’ll be a scoring machine in the NHL, dammit.
Why he won’t break out: He’s shorter than me and completely unproven at the next level. Even if he’s the real deal, that breakout season may be delayed as he spends time in the AHL.
Why he’ll break out: A lot of people seem to like him, the Blackhawks’ coaching staff included. He was playing at a 28-point pace last season, and could conceivably crack 30 in a full season, which would be rather impressive. He also led the team in 5-on-5 GF% at 61 percent, per Natural Stat Trick.
Why he won’t break out: Kero’s shot numbers indicate his 5-on-5 impact is due for deep regression. The team probably won’t shoot 11 percent with a 94.2 save percentage with him on the ice again, in which case his numbers could be collapse. If that happens, someone like Laurent Dauphin or Lance Bouma will be ready for the next opportunity.
Why he’ll break out: A 2011 first-round pick who played his way into top-pairing NHL minutes by age 22, Murphy could blossom next to Duncan Keith in a new system. He’s big, mobile, and brings an element of physicality that the team lacked last season. The ineffectiveness in a major role with the Coyotes is a red flag, but how much of that was his fault versus being on the backend of a bad team in general?
Why he won’t break out: Again, Murphy’s rise to a prominent role with the Coyotes is impressive, but what he did with it? Not so much. He’s put up 34 points in 155 games over the past two seasons. At 5-on-5, the Coyotes have a 46.7 percent CF% and 47.1 percent GF% with him on the ice, even though his most common partner has been Oliver-Ekman Larsson. If the Hawks get the same performance out of Murphy next season, it’ll be a major letdown and a downgrade from Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Why he’ll break out: Forsling showed flashes last season as a mobile defenseman who can move the puck and make plays offensively, but his lacking play near the boards limited him in his first season. The hope is that he’s taken the summer to add some strength and improve his ability to win puck battles working with new assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, which would go a long way in helping him become a complete NHL defenseman.
Why he won’t break out: Forsling looked overmatched at times in the NHL last season, and he wasn’t noticeably better upon being sent to the AHL. He’ll also have to battle for playing time with Michal Kempny, Jordan Oesterle, Erik Gustafsson, and whoever else the team might add between now and the trade deadline. Forsling got a 38-game audition last season, but he’s not assured anything entering his second year.
Why he’ll break out: Kempny looks ready to get a shot at a top-four role after leading the team in 5-on-5 Corsi last season at 56.7 percent. His ability to drive possession stands out, and while his game wasn’t without errors, he’s shown signs he can hang as an effective defenseman in the NHL.
Why he won’t break out: Kempny got stuck in Joel Quenneville’s doghouse last season due to his defensive zone mistakes. It’s always possible that happens again.
Why he’ll break out: Forsberg has never gotten a real shot in the NHL before with Sergei Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo ahead of him in Columbus, but he’s posted a .923 save percentage in 126 AHL appearances over the past four seasons. He was especially good last season with the Cleveland Monsters, posting a .926 save percentage in 51 games. That signals he could be ready for the NHL, and he’ll get the shot as Chicago’s backup.
Why he won’t break out: Young goaltenders aren’t always easy to evaluate, and Forsberg has struggled in his limited NHL opportunities with a .879 save percentage over 10 games. The Blue Jackets have quickly turned away from him each time they’ve tried him because he was bad. It’s always possible that happens again in Chicago, in spite of his apparent upside.