Coming off yet another Stanley Cup victory, the Chicago Blackhawks had their work cut out for them in the off-season. Salary cap issues meant shedding some serious cash, with the likes of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp traded away. Johnny Oduya was lost to free agency and the focus shifted to keeping the lasting core in play.
There’s a lot of “dynasty” talk surrounding this modern incarnation of the Blackhawks and it’s not without merit. They’ve won three Stanley Cups since 2010 and boast a roster of some of the best players in the National Hockey League. They always seem to pull it out when it matters and there’s nothing to suggest that will change in 2015-2016, even though the team looks slightly different on paper.
Chicago went 48-28-6 in the regular season, scoring 220 goals in the process. They had the second-lowest goal totals in their division, with only the Colorado Avalanche hitting the scoreboard less in 2014-2015. The Blackhawks only allowed 198 goals, though, and gathered momentum where and when it mattered most.
While losing Sharp and Saad will sting temporarily, the Blackhawks will get over it. Jonathan Toews is one of the best centres in the NHL, if not THE best centre in the NHL. He had 66 points in 81 games last season and added 21 points in 23 playoff games. He averaged 19:33 of ice time a game and fired 192 shots on target. Toews is one of the most intelligent players to lace the skates and he’s a born leader, which makes him always dangerous and always capable.
Patrick Kane scored 64 points in 61 games and is another dangerous Blackhawk forward. He scored 27 games last season and looked primed to put up even more, plus his playoff performance had him rolling at a point per game. He was on the ice even more than Toews and has tremendous confidence, which means he takes chances and lets loose an explosive streak few can contain.
Beyond the one-two punch of Toews and Kane, the Blackhawks will feature the likes of Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Teuvo Teravainen, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, and the newly-acquired Ryan Garbutt. Marko Dano is also worth keeping an eye on, plus the Blackhawks hold the rights to Russian dynamo Artemy Panarin and inked him to an entry level deal. Panarin is lethal with the puck and could be a top-line winger.
Any team that boasts Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as the top two defencemen will prove difficult for opponents. Keith is one of the best skating defencemen in the NHL. He logged over 31 minutes a game in the post-season and over 25 minutes a game in the regular season. Keith posted 45 points in 80 games, including 10 goals, and fired the puck on target 171 times. He can propel the attack, plus he’s responsible in his own end. What more could you want?
Richmond’s Brent Seabrook is a precise defenceman and a comprehensive player. He can fit into shutdown roles and offensive roles, which makes him incredibly versatile. Seabrook scored eight goals last season and added seven in 23 playoff games. He’s not overly aggressive, but he’s also rarely out of position and sees the opposition’s best players.
Swedish defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson completes the top three for Chicago. He’s yet another big minute blueliner and he plays a shutdown role better than most. He’s capable of moving the puck well out of his own end, even if his offensive upside is limited. Trevor Daley is a new addition and he’ll also put up serious minutes (see the trend?), plus he’ll find the net. Daley had 16 goals last season for the Dallas Stars.
Corey Crawford will once again be the man in Chicago’s net and that’s just fine. He’s a dependable starter and has the right attitude for the game. He can get over rough patches and makes big saves. Crawford played his best hockey in the post-season and turns on the jets at the right time, especially in the clutch. He’s not the best goalie in the game, but he doesn’t have to be.
Scott Darling will back him up. The 26-year-old hasn’t seen a lot of puck, but he see action in five post-season games while Crawford found his mojo, picking up the slack when the starter stumbled. He’ll do more of the same this season, covering the bases and using his height to cover the net. Darling is a spirited goalie, but he could stand to work on his speed.
Chicago boasts a deep prospect pool and that’s a good thing. They have some extremely mobile defensive prospects, like Ville Pokka and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Pokka, who came to the Blackhawks via the Islanders in 2014, is a self-assured defender who fits the Chicago mould of playing big minutes. He’s a multifaceted player.
Philip Danault, drafted by the Blackhawks in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, could fit the picture eventually at centre. He’s a versatile player with a decent nose for the game, even if his size is wanting and his strength levels aren’t up to par yet. Danault could see some time in the bigs this season, which would benefit his development and give the Blackhawks even more options down the middle.
The Path Ahead
It should be another good year for the Blackhawks. They’ll make the playoffs and challenge for the Cup again. Even with some losses, this a team that makes it look easy on most nights. Crawford is a reliable goalie and the Blackhawks can cover for him if he has an off-night.
If their 2015 Cup win didn’t solidify them as a dynasty in the minds of fans, their performance in 2015-2016 will. They’ll finish near the top of the standings and could even improve on their fortunes from 2014-2015. While there are many variables at play, like injuries and whatnot, there’s no reason not to have faith in the Chicago Blackhawks. Place your bets now. This is going to be another great run.