Thursday, September 8, 2016

2016-17 Blackhawks Season Preview

We're baaaaack, much to the chagrin of many, I'm certain. Well actually, I'm back, and that's really all that matters. We'll see if Fatrick can manage to make it back from his summer hibernation by game 5, but I digress...

With the World Cup of Money upon us, we can finally start talking more hockey and less insufferably relentless "the Cubs magic number is 14 3/4". That said, the Blackhawks seem to have assembled the squad they are going into battle with this season.

And yes, I can use "battle" because you can have a "battle" and not equate it to war.

While the Blackhawks made a few off season moves, they certainly left some gaping holes in the lineup. Some have said that they are no more optimistic about this season than they were in 2010-11. Let me take you back to just 12 months ago, when many of us said, "second round out". That's not very optimistic, and this year's defense is much deeper. I'll get into that subject a little later, though. Lets start from the top.

Other than some Rockford assistant coach shuffling, the meat of the Blackhawks staff remains intact. It was widely speculated that Kevin Dineen could have been headed to Colorado to replace noted homeless puddinghead Patrick Roy but they, instead, decided to go with Cleveland Monsters and Calder Cup winning coach Jared Bednar. Personally, I like the consistency in this staff and I like Dineen. Mike Kitchen, on the other hand, I'm not a big fan of, but the players seem to like him. Jimmy Waite clearly had a positive effect on Corey Crawford, so having "Stephane lite" on the Hawks staff is perfectly fine by me. Status quo.

Where we might see the biggest change is with the forwards, and by change, I mean frustration. The Blackhawks clearly went to solidify the defense during the summer, but weren't as lucky with forwards. Unlike last season, where Artemi Panarin, and in some respects Marko Dano, brought some promise, the Blackhawks only free agent addition was veteran face puncher Jordin Tootoo, who was (statistically) the "worst NHL forward by goals versus threshold". So please forgive me if I'm a tad bit snarky about this free agent signing. They lost Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, Teuvo Tervainen, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann, and Dale Weise. Some of these losses we expected and others....well...not so much. Shaw priced himself out of Chicago, Bickell played his way out of Chicago, Teuvo just "Quennevilled" himself out of Chicago (as many players have done), and Ladd was never even a realistic option. Mind you, These are only the forwards that exited stage left over the summer.

That is all fine and well, fans, because the saviors have arrived. Jimmy Vesey, Nick Schmaltz, and Tyler Motte. Like American Icon Meatloaf once penned, two out of three ain't bad. Right? If you're talking about "middle-of-the-road" college players, then most certainly. None of these players, even the great Jimmy Vesey, were going to come in and fill that enormous left wing crater next to number 19. Not only did they not fix their left wing problem, but the Blackhawks created themselves a right wing problem by trading away Teuvo Teravainen. The "sweet & low" to the deal to get Bickell the hell out of Chicago would have been a decent candidate to replace Marian Hossa, so the Hawks could give those tired legs a rest and possibly move him down to the third line. At this point, the only viable option is to move Calder winner Artemi Panarin up, to give Toews some assistance in the goal scoring category, and you can't move Hossa, yet, if you expect Jonathan Toews to eclipse the paltry 58 points he put up last season. There is a very obvious reason why Toews posted his lowest point total, and lowest Corsi since his rookie season (barring injury or lockout) of his career. Hossa is not scoring, and he dragged Johnny Random Dickall around the ice as a left wing all season. Give him Panarin and he has a fighting chance to produce. Kane has shown that he can still carry a line of steaming hot turds on his back for an entire season and still net roughly a point per game. Richard Panik could prove to be a very suitable wing on that line and a full season with Artem Anisimov under his belt only helped Kane. He now has a luxury has not had previous, which is a consistent familiar pivot. And, listen, don't give me this "we can't break up the #AK72 line" bullshit. They certainly can, and they certainly should. This is the difference between having one extremely dangerous line, and having two really good lines. Divide and conquer, because teams can quickly learn to shut a single line down. I'm not splitting the atom, here, Dr. Gatekeeper. It's basic common sense.

The bottom six is a potpourri of disappointment and unrealistic expectations. Marcus Kruger, whether he likes it or not, needs to play a bigger role in 5 vs 5 hockey for this team. There is just no other choice. Sometimes you need to push yourself to earn your keep, and this is Marcus Kruger's time to shine. He gets a bad rap, for a guy that has done just about everything asked from him, but contributing on the offensive side of the ice hasn't been there. Generally, that has been acceptable because of the immense value he has in the defensive end of the ice and on the penalty kill, but it's time to expand his reach. By no means am I saying he needs to be dumped if he doesn't score 20 goals, but a 35 point season would be nice. I am a Kruger defender, so you won't hear much bad out of me regarding his value. I understand that he makes a little too much money, but his intangible value far outweighs the few goals he didn't score last season. As a former coach, I can see his value far and away more than, say, and Andrew Shaw. Anyone ragging on him for not scoring in a half season where he severely injured his wrist, is utterly asinine. He has without a doubt earned that mulligan and would have certainly netted 4-5 goals, had he played the entire season.

Moving on to the pits of mediocrity, Andrew Desjardins will probably figure in to the 4th line duties with Jordin Tootoo, and probably a little Brandon Mashinter sprinkled in for flavor. That's a helluva 4th line, isn't it? At least two of those names illicit a "head desk" reaction, but Q just keeps on Q'n. The rest of the bottom six forwards are a complete unknown. If Panik doesn't stick in the top six, he could be a perfectly fine 3rd liner. In his short time, he kind of reminds me as a Michael Frolik type, which would be wonderful. That could all come crashing down, though. One would think that the Hawks will do their best to keep Nick Schmaltz around, and the third line is honestly the best place for him to get comfortable. His presence is, by no means, a lock. We could see any of the following names playing 3rd or 4th line minutes throughout the regular season:

Vince Hinostroza
Tyler Motte
Tanner Kero
Dennis Rasmussen
Mark McNeil
Ryan Hartman
Sam Carrick

All of these players could very well hang in the NHL, for a variety of reasons, but none are really going to blow your doors off just yet. Throw all the names in a hat and pick two. There is no way to predict which guy is going to play well in camp. Hell, Kyle Super Baun Baun made the team out of camp last year, following a very Schmaltz/Motte-like season in college. I'm not even going to venture to guess at who will stand out. Keep an eye out for free agent forward Alexandre Fortin, who made a big impression in prospect camp, and will play in the Traverse City rookie tournament. He might not see NHL time, but I would not be surprised if he ends up in Rockford.

The defense, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of the mess the Hawks have at forward. The Blackhawks return Duncan Keith, whipping boy Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Trevor van Riemsdyk which should theoretically be your numbers 1-2-3-5 defenders. Stan Bowman stepped in this summer did his best to realistically fix the one major problem that cost them in the playoffs, which was their lack of depth on defense. He signed international vet and highly sought after Michal Kempny to a very economical deal, and then followed suit by almost having Brian Campbell pay the team to come back. Even if Campbell is the number 4, and Kempny is the number 6 guy, this defense is significantly better than it has been in quite a while. That is basically the worst case scenario. If one of those two new additions crashes like a Yak-service air plane then "Ol Dusty Trusty" Michal Rozsival can lend a hand, but not more than spot duty. If more extensive service is needed, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg could all be asked to jump in and should be able to fill some spots without completely imploding. I didn't even have to get to Gustav Forsling, who was basically pushed back to Sweden for another season of maturity, which is not a bad thing at all. All in all, the defense looks great on paper, but we all know that perception and reality can be oddly dissimilar.

The one spot were nothing changed at the NHL level is in net. Corey Crawford returns after what should have been a Vezina nomination, and probably his best single season performance. If Crawford have can have a similar season this year, then maybe the jackass meatball nation will lay off for a bit. Please forgive my ignorant optimism. Lemont Native Scott Darling returns for his third year, second full season, as the backup to Corey Crawford, which is just peachy. He can give you more than just spot duty, and won't end up costing you a fortune. I have no complains with this duo. As far as the depth goes, the IceHogs have completely revamped their net. The guy with the most NA experience is Mac "The Truth" Carruth, which is a little concerning on the surface. Stan brought in veteran European goalie Lars Johansson to fill some need, and then followed up by signing Jake Hildebrand and Wheeling Native Eric Levine to AHL contracts. I would expect Johansson / Carruth to spend the season in Rockford, and Hildebrand / Levine to spend the season in Indy. Could be much much worse.

There you have it. The Blackhawks current status. I can't say I predict anything more than last season, which I said would be a second round exit. There are too many question marks at forward, for me to think that they could go through a team like Dallas without getting windburn. The defence, while very good, is getting old. Without some offense being generated, Dallas could possibly wear them down over 7 games.

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