Blackhawks preview 2015-16: Questions on Patrick Kane, Joel Quenneville and more
There are lots of questions concerning the Blackhawks' upcoming season. Here are answers to three of the biggest.
No. 1: What’s the deal with Patrick Kane?
by Satchel Price
The biggest story of the Blackhawks' offseason wasn't a big trade, free agent signing or draft pick. It was the still-ongoing criminal investigation into allegations that star winger Patrick Kane sexually assaulted a woman at his offseason home in Hamburg, N.Y. The case has become a media circus, full of twisting developments and constant leaks, before the Erie County district attorney's office has even decided whether or not to begin grand jury proceedings. While the Hawks get ready to raise their sixth Stanley Cup banner and bring some nice symmetry to the United Center rafters, there's a very real, very challenging situation still looming over the franchise and one of its most important faces.
That leads to the two significant issues in this situation. The first is trying to figure out what happened on that early August night, something that authorities are still trying to do with enough confidence to either pursue a trial or drop the case entirely. Ensuring that the justice system is able to properly investigate the accusation in an effective and fair way is the crux of the issue here. But that also ties into Blackhawks' and the NHL's handling of the situation, which has led to significant criticism and debate over the best policies when it comes to this kind of matter. To many, the hockey world has dropped the ball with its lack of action. To others, the argument for keeping Kane away from hockey is too difficult to argue at this point. Just let the justice system play out and re-evaluate once more is known. Both sides make legitimate points, the latest part of this situation that's too complicated to be black and white.
What's not complicated, however, is understanding how significant this has been for many fans, and how much bigger it could get as the case develops. Even without any charges filed yet, there are very real questions to be asked about Kane, the Blackhawks and how their future together goes now. The narrative of Kane maturing as a person off the ice is dead. Several people have tweeted at me wondering if there would be a way to replace their Kane sweaters with another one, simply so they could keep wearing a product they spent so much money on without having to re-consider their priorities for even a moment. There's a real wound that's been opened among some fans, and while others might not see that as reasonable, it's something that cannot be ignored in favor of "getting back to hockey." This is hockey that we're talking about. This is part of the experience of being a fan, for better or worse.
But another part, for many fans, has been trying to separate the bad from the good. Jonathan Toews is still the best captain in hockey. Joel Quenneville is still the best mustached man. Bryan Bickell is still here to drive us insane with his $4 million cap hit. The Kane situation is horrible, and that can never be dismissed. Still, if you love something, you work to make it better until you just can't anymore. Most criticism of the team and the league comes from a positive place, from a desire to see a beloved thing be better. The vitriol thrown at many who express their opinions is immature and unacceptable. Unfortunately, the Kane situation may not resolve itself any time soon, so this is just something everyone will have to keep dealing with.
No. 2: Just how good are Marko Dano and Artemi Panarin?
by Satchel Price
Now we get to the fun stuff.
Dano and Panarin are the two biggest reasons I'm excited about the 2015-16 Blackhawks season. Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa ... we know those guys are amazing. I already know what I'm getting into when I watch those guys play. Dano and Panarin, on other hand, I got no idea. The former has played just a handful of games in the NHL, all with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. The latter is a 23-year-old who just dominated the KHL and wants to prove he can do that in the NHL, too.
Combined with Teuvo Teravainen, they're the three most exciting young players Chicago has had since its young stars first started breaking on the scene years ago.
Dano, 20, was acquired by the Blackhawks over the summer as part of the Brandon Saad trade with Columbus. A former first-round pick out of Slovakia, he turned a lot of heads by putting up 21 points in 35 games and displaying a solid two-way with the Blue Jackets in 2014-15. This is the kind of player that only gets traded for a young star who's an even better bet, like Saad. I have a hard time believing Dano ever would've been traded for anything short of a star first-line winger with championship experience.
And that's for good reason because Dano looks like a potential star in his own right. As we broke down in our Top 25 Under 25 post on Dano, his early performance in the NHL wasn't just good, it was amazing. We're talking elite possession numbers and point production that puts him among the best young scorers in the sport. A small sample size warning is necessary when we're only talking about 35 games, but here's a list of players who recorded similar shot production to Dano at the same age:
That's an impressive list to be a part of. While it's not a guarantee that Dano is going to ascend to great heights in his mid-20s, it shows pretty clearly why the Blackhawks decided this was the guy worth trading Saad for. There feels like a chance, however small, that Chicago ends up with the best player from that deal. That's not something I would've guessed general manager Stan Bowman could pull off, yet he has.
Bowman's other stroke of potential genius came in the spring by signing Panarin to an entry-level contract. The Russian winger is coming off a huge season for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL and an impressive showing at the 2015 Hockey World Championships, where Russia won silver. The scouting reports indicate he's a dynamic, smart winger who can deke his way into chances, make smart passes and finish opportunities around the crease. He's not particularly big, but he's very fast, and adds skill to what was already arguably the most skilled forward group in hockey.
The problem with Panarin is that nobody knows quite how good he'll be in the NHL. Unlike Dano, who has had time to adjust to living in the United States and playing North American hockey, Panarin just arrived in Chicago weeks ago and still hasn't suited up for the team except for practice. His spot on the roster shows the team's confidence in him, but it could stall his ability to take on a major role if he's still working out the details of playing the Blackhawks' way.
"The things that we’d like to instill in our players and how we play without the puck and the whole package is something that we’ll get to work with him in practice and the opportunity could come up," coach Joel Quenneville said of Panarin recently. "But certainly it’s tough to measure exactly what kind of player he is totally, but certainly we’ve got a pretty good idea what he’s capable of."
Dano and Panarin are big parts of the future, no doubt. The former feels like a better bet to make an immediate impact from Day 1.
No. 3: Will Joel Quenneville stop the youth movement in its tracks?
by Adam Hess
Easily one of the most volatile topics for the Blackhawks over the past few seasons has been the way head coach Joel Quenneville has handled some of the franchise's top young players. It's not much of a secret that Quenneville prefers to use established veterans that he knows he can trust over younger players who present more uncertainty.
Even Brandon Saad's entry into the NHL in 2013 was delayed and only took place after an early-season injury to Daniel Carcillo opened up a roster spot. Last year it took until January for the Blackhawks to call up their young phenom Teuvo Teravainen. Saad has risen to star status in the NHL and Teravainen isn't far off after his performances in last year's playoffs, so it says a lot that it took Quenneville a bit of time to figure out that he could trust them.
It's not entirely bad that Q prefers to play veterans, as the Blackhawks are a team whose only goal is to compete for the Stanley Cup every year. Unless a younger player can step into the system and produce right away, a la Saad and Teravainen, it does make sense to go with the known commodities. Still, the Blackhawks aren't exactly short on young talent deserving of NHL opportunities, so the question of how Quenneville will handle this new influx of younger players is a very valid one.
With players like Teravainen, Panarin, Dano and a few others being below the age of 25 and possessing crazy skill, there's no doubt that they should be at the NHL level this year. Panarin is a bit more of an unknown, as he's never played hockey in North America, but his age, skill and huge success in the KHL indicate that he has the potential to produce in the NHL, and do it well for a long time. Dano has already seen success with the Blue Jackets, so there's no doubt that he can play well at the NHL level. And we've already talked a bit about the way Teravainen really came on last season, proving that he is ready for the NHL game. He's with the big boys for good.
Moreover, the success of younger players like Kyle Baun and Garret Ross in the preseason and the AHL success of players like Phillip Danault, Mark McNeill and Ryan Hartman shows that there are plenty of other younger players in the Blackhawks system who are licking their chops for a chance at the NHL level. These are the fringe players who often get passed over by Quenneville in favor of veterans, though.
Truth be told, with the undeniable skill level of many of the younger Blackhawks like Teravainen, Dano, and Panarin, there aren't really many ways in which Q can hinder this youth movement justifiably. These are players who have proven they are ready to contribute to an NHL team and specifically can help the Blackhawks in their quest to repeat at Stanley Cup champions. They're too good for Q to ignore them.
And in the end, as much as it bothers some people when this argument is made, Quenneville is a coach with three Stanley Cup rings. He's the active leader in coaching wins at the NHL level. He's arguably the best coach in the sport, and he's definitely a smart hockey mind. Quenneville's not blind to the skill level of these young players, and he knows that they can play well in his system. So I'm going to go with no, Q will not stop the youth movement in its tracks.