Wednesday, September 27, 2017

NHL Preview 2017-18: Chicago Blackhawks

GM: Stan Bowman (since 2009). 9/10
Coach: Joel Quenneville (since 2008). 9/10

2016-17 record: 50-23-9, 109 points, 3rd overall. First-round playoff exit (sweep).

Departures: Niklas Hjalmarsson (D), Scott Darling (G), Artemi Panarin (LW), Marian Hossa (RW), Marcus Kruger (C), Tyler Motte (LW), Brian Campbell (D), Trevor Van Riemsdyk (D), Dennis Rasmussen (C), Michal Rozsival (D).

Arrivals: Brandon Saad (LW), Patrick Sharp (RW), Laurent Dauphin (C), Connor Murphy (D), Anton Forsberg (G), Jean-François Bérubé (G), Lance Bouma (LW), Tommy Wingels (LW), Jordan Oesterle (D).

Top forwards: Patrick Kane (80-85 points), Jonathan Toews (60-65 points), Saad (55-60 points), Artem Anisimov (40-45 points), Alex DeBrincat (30-40 points), Nick Schmaltz (30-40 points), Richard Panik (35-40 points), Ryan Hartman (30-35 points), Tanner Kero (30-35 points), Sharp (30-35 points), Dauphin (25-30 points).

Must-improve forward: After years of producing in the high-60s in terms of point production while winning Selke trophies as the league's best defensive forward, Captain Serious (Toews) has stagnated at 58 for the last two seasons. Granted, his partner Hossa had a so-so season in 2015-16 and Toews himself missed ten games last year, but he's 29, his decline should not happen for another good three or four years. This time, Hossa's gone for the year (and "retirement" is actually a possibility in his case) and Saad only half-replaces the future Hall of Famer, but that means Toews needs to step up and make his teammates better himself. Perhaps playing in between Saad and Schmaltz might be a solution.

Top defensemen: Duncan Keith (45-55 points), Brent Seabrook (35-40 points), Murphy (20-25 points), Michal Kempny (15 points), Gustav Forsling (10 points).

Goalies: Corey Crawford (91/100), Forsberg (74/100).

Top rookies: DeBrincat (19 years old, LW, over two points per game, 127 in 63, in the OHL), John Hayden (22, C, point-per-game player at Yale), Ville Ponka (23, D), Chad Krys (19, D), Radovan Bondra (20, LW).

A small step backwards for Chicago is still a tremendous season by any other measure.

In true Hawks fashion, they will not rebuild by tearing the roster apart and finishing at the bottom of the standings - they did that a decade ago, ensuring they not have to do it again until Toews, Kane, Keith and Crawford all retire.

Instead, Coach Quenneville will be hard on the young guys and have them learn twice as fast as they would on an awful team. A year or two from now, though, they'll be ready to challenge for first-place in the division again, all while not missing the playoffs in the meantime.

Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division.

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