Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews

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Zawaski: Blackhawks Might Not Be Terrible Next Season

The addition of a proven backup goalie and another defenseman would be big.

Jay Zawaski
June 12, 2018 - 11:47 am
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By Jay Zawaski--

(670 The Score) Last week, Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz hinted in an interview with Crain’s Chicago Business that changes could be coming next season if the team gets off to another slow start.

"Nothing lasts forever," Wirtz said, suggesting the team’s core needs to be evaluated by its current level of play as opposed to referencing past performance.

Fans quickly praised the Wirtz for his position after a season in which the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Obviously, the look-ahead philosophy is correct, and while fans and media alike opined about who specifically might be on the way out, a thought occurred to me.

The Blackhawks might not be terrible next year.

I so-liked my own thought (for once) that I tweeted it out. How did I come to such a daring and controversial conclusion? Let’s take a look.

Goaltending

The Blackhawks plan to and will address the backup goalie situation. I’m told their top priority is to find a netminder who can carry the load should Corey Crawford not be ready or miss some time next season. Anton Forsberg, JF Berube, Jeff Glass and that accountant dude proved they weren't capable of that kind of assignment.

The Devils' Eddie Lack, the Rangers’ Ondrej Pavelec and ideally the Blues' Carter Hutton are options as far as unrestricted free agents go. Lack and Pavelec both have starting experience but are much better suited as backups. Both could be signed for reasonable contracts and provide a week or two of replacement-level play should Crawford miss some extended time next season.

Hutton is the best name on that list, but he’ll likely cash in after posting a 2.08 goals against average and a .931 save percentage in 32 games last season. Hutton is a product of the Blackhawks' system, so maybe that gives Chicago a slight advantage, but I’d expect Hutton to be out of the team's price range.

Statistical corrections

When I hear the phrase "statistical correction," Brandon Saad jumps in to my head nearly every time.

If you dig in to the numbers, Saad had a really good season. The puck just didn’t go in the net for him. He was 12th in the league in even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes; 13th on that list was Oilers star Connor McDavid. In high-danger chances per 60 minutes, Saad was 10th among all forwards -- one spot behind Devils star Taylor Hall. Saad’s shooting percentage was also low at 7.9 percent. Two years ago, his shooting percentage was 11.4 percent. Had Saad scored at that rate this past season, he would've racked up around 25 goals.

I have a harder time selling a correction for Jonathan Toews, other than I know that he works his butt off, he’s had the longest offseason of his career to recover from whatever was affecting his play and he may have found some help on the top line in Vinnie Hinostroza, who showed solid chemistry with Toews and Saad.

Natural maturing process

Speaking of Hinostroza, it’s difficult to ignore what he put together at the end of the season. He recorded 25 points in 50 games, up from 14 points in 49 games the season before. He played a more controlled game and didn't ever look out of place on the top line. He posted a 54.5 Corsi percentage, 2.4 points higher than the team average and good for third on the team among forwards, behind only Toews and Saad.

My two key players last season were Nick Schmaltz and Alex Debrincat. Both showed they not only belonged on a second line but that they could thrive there. Debrincat especially impressed, notching 52 points in his rookie season. Schmaltz matched Debrincat’s 52 points and made a massive jump from 28 points (in 61 games) in the previous season.

Both players struggled with consistency and still ended up with solid statistical seasons. Once they put it together for the better part of 82 games, we could be looking at two 70-plus point players.

Fixing the defense

It’s no secret that Brent Seabrook’s decline is well under way, but we also saw Duncan Keith regularly struggle for the first time since his early years. Has the mileage finally caught up with him? We’ll find out. He’s had an entire offseason to rest the knee that was giving him problems entering the 2017-'18 season. It remains to be seen what effect that had on Keith’s overall play, but I have trouble betting against a rested and hopefully healthy Keith.

Connor Murphy, acquired for Niklas Hjalmarsson last season, had a roller-coaster season of his own. I’m interested to see how he’ll perform without the pressure of replacing a beloved defenseman. Oh, I’m not talking about beloved by fans. I’m talking about beloved by coach Joel Quenneville, who never seemed to get on board with Murphy. It’s no secret Quenneville wasn’t pleased when Hjalmarsson was traded, and many think because of his displeasure, he didn’t have the most open of minds when it came to Murphy. Quenneville will need to open his mind, because this team needs Murphy to be an effective player if they have playoff of Stanley Cup aspirations.

I’d also expect the Hawks to add a noteworthy defenseman this summer. Be it via trade or free agency, they’re looking for a solid second-line defenseman. The free-agent list isn’t the most inspiring collection of talent, so if I was general manager Stan Bowman, I’d be looking at trading from my overflowing stable of forwards. 

On Tuesday, the Blackhawks also signed 18-year-old defenseman Henri Jokiharju to a three-year deal. He's the team's top prospect and has the chance to make the roster out of training camp.

There’s no question the Blackhawks are a better team than they showed last season. I believe they’d have been a playoff team with a healthy Crawford last season. To me, he's the key moving forward. Without Crawford, this whole conversation may be moot.

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Bernstein & McKnight Show on 670 middays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. He's also a columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.