After missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the Chicago Blackhawks have gone back to the well – so to speak. They have spent the off-season shoring up some considerable positional depth, adding goaltending, defence and some more stroke at the forward position.
“The bigger difference now is we have a full roster of players who have proven they can play in the league,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said. “…If you look at our group now, sort of top to bottom, we have players who have proven they can play in the NHL. Now it’s a matter of finding the right role for them on our team, but we’ve got a lot more experience.”
That experience should help the Blackhawks tighten up on defence, something they sorely need to do after allowing 291 goals against last season. That was the second most in the NHL, with the Senators finishing first in that auspicious category. Chicago defensive porousness was a troubling sign, especially with Corey Crawford missing 80 games over the past two seasons due to concussions.
To meet those needs, the Blackhawks acquired Robin Lehner to back Crawford up in goal and took defencemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta in a pair of trades. Forwards Andrew Shaw and Zack Smith will help with the forward position, adding two-way depth.
The Blackhawks have not really struggled with goal-scoring. Patrick Kane continues to rank as one of the best bets for fantasy hockey, landing fifth overall on NHL.com’s own assessment. Kane set career highs in points last season with 110, plus he registered 340 shots on goal.
Jonathan Toews skated on the same line as Kane and reaped the benefits, landing a career-high 81 points. That included a career-high 35 goals. There’s word that he could stick with Kane in 2019-2020, which would only boost his production, but the Blackhawks could also put him with Shaw and a revolving door of wingers.
Winger Alex DeBrincat scored nearly a point a game in his second NHL season and he found his way into the upper echelon of the lineup after Chicago changed coaches. Jeremy Colliton likes to use him with Dylan Strome and Kane and that could push DeBrincat’s stats way, way up. He notched 76 points in 2018-2019, including 41 goals.
Strome was snagged by the Blackhawks in late November and had 51 points in 58 games. He skated with DeBrincat and was instrumental on the power play, where he picked up a dozen points. The 22-year-old definitely found his change of surroundings beneficial and should be ready to roll in Chicago for his first full season.
Not only did the Blackhawks allow the second-most goals in the NHL last season, their penalty kill was bad. Really bad. Chicago’s PK was dead last overall at 72.7 percent. To answer the bell, de Haan was brought in. He’s strong on the penalty kill and thinks defence first, something Chicago needs.
The Blackhawks can still push the puck with their active defenders, of course, and that’s where Erik Gustafsson comes in. He’s somehow become Chicago’s top draw on defence based on putting up pure points, which makes him an attractive fantasy option. Gustafsson posted a career-high 60 points last season.
Brent Seabrook has seen a drop in overall production, as has Duncan Keith. The latter dropped just 40 points last season, including six goals. Seabrook had 28 points, also a diminishing return, but the duo can still hold court and control the puck.
Crawford may not be the sure starter in 2019-2020 and that’s exciting for the Blackhawks. Robin Lehner has all the tools to take the gig, with the Vezina finalist signing a one-year deal. The 28-year-old had a season-high 25 wins, with a 2.13 goals against average and a .930 goals against average. Lehner will have to bounce back from a lacklustre playoff performance, including allowing three goals on eight shots in Game Four against Carolina.
Crawford is entering a contract year and has a lot to prove, but he’s got better and more responsible defence in front of him. He was limited to 39 games due to two concussions and the numbers were not great. He went 8-4-3 in his last 16 games, with a .919 save percentage.
The Blackhawks have (hopefully) addressed their many insufficiencies, but they do run the risk of running out of real estate. If Chicago can’t turn it around and make the playoffs in 2019-2020, it could be time for an overhaul. But if Bowman, Colliton and Co. can make this system work, the Blackhawks will be dangerous.
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