Blackhawks forward Nick Schmaltz

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports

Zawaski: What Must Go Right For Hawks To Surprise?

As a new season begins, the Hawks are looking to blend veterans with youth.

Jay Zawaski
October 03, 2018 - 9:33 pm

(670 The Score) For the first time in recent memory, the Blackhawks are firmly in the background of the Chicago sports landscape.After a first-round playoff exit in 2017 was followed by the franchise missing the postseason for the first time in a decade last spring, it seems apathy has quickly set in on what was once a rollicking bandwagon.

Anyone who followed the Blackhawks in their prime knows that the core of the team is made up of proud, hardworking players. The recent failures can’t be sitting well with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but what, if anything, can the Blackhawks do to turn this around? Just how good (or bad) will this Blackhawks team be?

I’m not going to sugar-coat it as they enter a new season. The Blackhawks probably aren’t a playoff team, much less a contender. The Central Division is loaded with teams that are expected to compete for the Stanley Cup. The Predators, Jets and Wild all had more than 100 points last season. The Avalanche had 95. The Blues had 94. The Stars had 92. The Blackhawks had 76.

Of course, once Corey Crawford went down, it all went to hell. The Blackhawks couldn’t keep the puck out of the back of their net. Combine that with down years from Saad, Toews, Keith and a rapidly declining Seabrook, and the Hawks were doomed.

More trouble could be on the way as the Blackhawks open a new season against the Senators on Thursday night. Without several "ifs" coming to fruition, they don’t have much of a chance. However, if you squint hard enough, you can imagine a scenario in which the Hawks might at least be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Let’s go over those "ifs."

Return to form from stars

Chances are that Toews will never return to the near point-per-game player he was in his prime years. Over the last three seasons, he has recorded 52, 58 and 58 points. Those aren’t bad numbers, but for a player carrying a $10-million cap hit, there must be a higher offensive output. If Toews can get back to the 63/68-point pace while continuing his excellent defensive play, he can better justify his salary while helping the Blackhawks be more competitive. 

Saad started last season on fire, recording seven points in his first four games, including a hat trick in the Blackhawks' opener. He ended the season with 35 points. The good news is that Saad is still only 25, and his peripheral statistics were really good. His 56.7 percent Corsi rating is elite. He’s been skating on a line with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane this preseason, two other Blackhawks with high possession numbers. It will be really difficult to get the puck from that line. To me, Saad’s return to the 50/55-point range is the most predictable bounce-back the Hawks can realistically expect.

Keith is 35, has played in 1,121 games (including playoffs) and has averaged 25:13 of ice time over his 13-year NHL career. The decline has begun. While it’s not as glaring as Seabrook’s decline, the Blackhawks' inexperienced defense needs Keith to at least pause his decline for another season. Last season, he was coming off knee surgery, and it showed. Perhaps an extended summer of rest will rejuvenate the future Hall of Famer. This year, more than ever, the Blackhawks will need to rely on him to set the tone for the defense.

Continued growth from the young guns

There were two bright spots for the Blackhawks last season: Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat. The team’s two top prospects proved to be the real deal, each finishing tied for second in scoring with 52 points. Schmaltz and DeBrincat are the Hawk’s two most important players, as their development will dictate how long the Hawks can remain at least competitive. Help is on the way in a year or two, as the team anticipates the arrival of top defensive prospects Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin and forwards Dylan Sikura, Jake Wise and others. Those players are two to three years away from contributing in a major way, but once they’re ready, Schmaltz and DeBrincat should be entering their primes. I believe both players have 70/80-point potential. If DeBrincat can fill out physically, I could see him developing into a point-per-game player and perennial All Star. This season, 60 to 65 points for Schmaltz and DeBrincat is a conservative and realistic guess.

A forward, a defenseman stepping up

The Blackhawks are a top-heavy team offensively. Toews, Kane, Saad, DeBrincat, Schmaltz and Artem Anisimov are as solid a top six as you’ll find in the game. The drop-off from there, though, is precipitous. Aside from 39-year-old Chris Kunitz, the Blackhawks have no proven offensive depth.

They need one of their young depth forwards to step up and prove he isn't just another in a long line of Tanner Keros, Ben Smiths or Tyler Mottes. Free-agent signee Dominik Kahun is probably the best candidate. A German import, he scored 41 points in 42 games with Red Bull EHC Munchen in Germany’s top league. Quickly, he has found himself on the top line for the season opener, and while he won’t be confused with Pavel Bure anytime soon, he looks like a decent complement to Toews and DeBrincat.

Other candidates up front are John Hayden, Andreas Martinsen, the demoted Victor Ejdsell and Sikura, the latter of whom has the highest offensive and NHL ceiling but who needs work on his two-way game. With top minutes in Rockford, Sikura could find himself a midseason call-up who stays up for good.

Defensively, the Blackhawks will be relying on their top prospect, Henri Jokiharju. In an ideal world, the Hawks would probably like to keep the 19-year-old Jokiharju in the minors, but injuries to Connor Murphy and Gustav Forsling cracked open the door. Jokiharju kicked that door down and turned it into splinters. Coach Joel Quenneville has gushed about his preseason performance. Jokiharju displayed a maturity and calm to his defensive game that I’m not sure anyone expected to see yet. Of course, the regular season is a different animal than the preseason, but the young Finn looks the part and should be a major part of the next decade of Blackhawks hockey.

A relatively healthy Corey Crawford

Over the years, some Blackhawks fans had trouble realizing how valuable Crawford was to the team. After he went down just before last Christmas with a concussion, his value was truly and fully revealed. The Blackhawks were firmly in playoff position when the new year turned, but having to rely on the battery of Anton Forsberg, J-F Berube, Jeff Glass, Colin Delia and that accountant dude proved fatal.

Crawford will begin the season on injured reserve but has resumed practicing with the team. If he returns in two or three weeks and stays healthy, that could be the biggest factor that decides if the Hawks are pretty good or really bad. Crawford’s health is the No. 1 factor in this Blackhawks season.

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.​​