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Chicago Blackhawks

2016-2017 Season Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

USATSI_9262593_154158418_lowresIn their 90th NHL season, the Chicago Blackhawks entered the fray as defending Stanley Cup champs. They entered 2015-2016 with a number of changes and made the best of it with the departure of key players like Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp. The acquisition of Artem Anisimov in the Saad trade seemed to mitigate things.

The Blackhawks went 47-26-9 in 2015-2016, finishing third in the Western Conference and third in the Central Division behind the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. They scored 235 goals, putting them just behind the Stars and San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference, and allowed 209 goals against.

Patrick Kane led the charge in scoring, with 46 goals and 60 assists. He had a whopping 17 goals on the power play. Winger Artemi Panarin had 30 goals for a total of 77 points, while captain Jonathan Toews had 58 points – including 28 goals. Anisimov had 20 goals.

Offence

Offensively, the Blackhawks haven’t changed much and that’s a good thing. Kane will still step up to the place and provide league-leading scoring punch. He’s among the most electric players in the NHL, averages over 20 minutes of ice time a game and 24 minutes of ice time a game in the post-season, and plays big hockey in big games.

Toews solidifies the top line and the team as a whole and has been an excellent captain. The 28-year-old is not the point-per-game player Kane is, but he is a responsible and steady player with tremendous puck-handling upside. He averages over 19 minutes of ice time a game in the regular season and turns on the jets for over 22 minutes a game in the post-season.

24-year-old Panarin will continue to produce good numbers for Chicago. The Russian winger can set up plays or finish scoring opportunities himself, plus he can play either wing. He’s not the most sizable winger in the world, but he had eight power play goals last season and is one of the Blackhawks’ most exciting young threats.

Anisimov adds depth down the middle for Chicago and can play a shutdown game, giving balance to that top unit. He’s versatile and can top out at over 18 minutes a game, plus he could build on his goal totals in 2016-2017. 37-year-old Marian Hossa is a sturdy player and can be hard to knock off the puck, even if his better scoring days are behind him. These days, the Slovakian winger would rather dish the puck than shoot it.

Defence

Duncan Keith continues to be the marathon man in Chicago. He averaged 25:14 of ice time last season and 31:27 in the post-season. He produced 43 points, including nine goals, and is one of the best skaters on the team. Keith activates the defence and propels the attack from the defensive zone, which opens up opportunities for the forwards. The 33-year-old lives for the playoffs, when he often becomes a point-per-game player.

29-year-old Niklas Hjalmarsson is another big minute defenceman. He had 24 points in 81 games last season and plays a shutdown game, complete with a tendency to block shots. He’s not a power play quarterback or a scoring defenceman, but he doesn’t have to be on this team.

Brent Seabrook solidifies the depth of this group. The 31-year-old had 49 points last season, logged 22:49 a game in the regular season and 27:09 in the post-season, and fired 167 shots on target. He’s one of Chicago’s finest and plays an all-round game. He’ll be a factor, as will the returning Brian Campbell. The 37-year-old may be slowing down, but he’s still a mobile skater and a threat from his own end. Campbell can also log big minutes.

Goaltending

Corey Crawford is a reliable starter. He gives the Blackhawks a chance to win every game. He went 35-18-5 last season, with a goals against average of 2.37 and a save percentage of .924 with seven shutouts. Crawford is a big netminder at 6’2, 216 pounds and he can come up big in the clutch. He’ll never be ready for a 60-start season and is prone to slumps, however, so Chicago will require balance.

For 2016-2017, that balance falls to Scott Darling. The 27-year-old went 12-8-4 last season, with a .915 save percentage and a 2.58 goals against average. He’s tall at 6’6 and covers a lot of the net, plus he’s experienced at lower levels and plays a hardy game. The knock on Darling is in the speed department and he seems a perpetual backup, which may be all Chicago needs.

Prospects

The prospect pool for the Blackhawks is stout in terms of overall depth, with a good group of defensive prospects and considerable wealth down the middle. They lack a top-tier goaltender. Michigan native Tyler Motte, drafted by Chicago in 2013, is a technically-sound winger and a robust skater. He doesn’t play a flashy game, but he’s positionally-sound and will be a reliable hockey player.

Nick Schmaltz was drafted by Chicago in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and plays a two-way game with a playmaking edge. He’s known for responsible play in his own end and is a high-quality passer. The Blackhawks think he has plenty of upside, so 2016-2017 could be the year he gets a shot in the big league.

The Path Ahead

There’s a lot to like about the Chicago Blackhawks and they’re a sure bet for the post-season. They lost to St. Louis last time around and will be looking for a measure of revenge, but they’re a little slim up front after the top-tier scorers taper off. Defensively, it’s hard to imagine a deeper squad. But questions continue to dog Crawford in goal and that could represent a sign of weakness. Barely.

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