Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton looks on before a game against the Hurricanes.

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports

Zawaski: Catching Up With The Blackhawks

An up-and-down season has featured a changing of the guard.

Jay Zawaski
January 08, 2019 - 10:52 am
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(670 The Score) The Bears' season is over. It was a really fun and exciting ride that captured the attention and imagination of most of the city. Now, with no real baseball until April, Chicago fans will have to fill the void.

I wish I had better news about the Blackhawks. It’s been an up-and-down season that finds them currently sitting six points out of a playoff spot. That sounds bad, but they’ve actually been ascending lately. Some recent trades and adjustments to new coach Jeremy Colliton’s system has the Hawks playing at least decently.

Here’s a look at the season to date and a look ahead to what fans could expect from the fading dynasty.

Chapter 1: Hot start

This season began with several "ifs." No one really knew what to expect from the Blackhawks, who were coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Coach Joel Quenneville’s seat was hot, and a couple of the team’s high-profile players, Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad, were coming off down years. They also opened the season without star goaltender Corey Crawford, who had been sidelined since the previous Christmas.

Even without Crawford, the Hawks opened the season 6-2-2. Their first five games went to overtime, and the Hawks averaged more than four goals per game over that span. The offense was on fire, while the defense was a dumpster fire. It felt like smoke and mirrors, and it turned out it was.

Chapter 2: Crawford returns

Crawford made his return on Oct. 18 in a 4-1 loss to the Coyotes at the United Center. He stopped 27 of 30 shots and looked like his old self despite the loss.

Chapter 3: Cracks begin to show

After the 6-2-2 start, the Hawks went on to lose their next five games -- and in ugly fashion. A 7-3 loss to the Blues, a 2-1 overtime loss to the lowly Oilers, a 4-2 loss to the Canucks, a 4-0 loss to the Oilers and a 5-3 loss to the Flames gave everyone a wakeup call.  What we had seen early was a mirage.

Chapter 4: Quenneville fired

The Blackhawks fired the legendary Quenneville on Nov. 6.

Looking back on it, it seemed like the Hawks were just waiting for a reason to move on from Quenneville. Maybe it was time. Players weren’t developing. The team wasn’t winning. The system wasn’t working. Still, a midseason firing of a coach who won 528 combined regular-season and playoff games -- not to mention three Stanley Cups -- puts everyone behind the eight-ball, including his replacement, Jeremy Colliton.

Chapter 5: Tough start to Colliton era

Colliton began his head coaching career by losing his first four games. The Hawks then won three of their next six, after which all hell broke loose. Chicago lost its next eight games. The Hawks found themselves down early in almost all of those setbacks and really seemed to struggle with Colliton’s man-to-man defensive system.

Chapter 5.5: Blackhawks trade Schmaltz for Strome, Perlini

Seemingly out of the blue on Nov. 25, the Blackhawks pulled the trigger on a major trade, sending forward Nick Schmaltz -- whom the team had identified as a key to their long-term future -- to the Coyotes for forward Dylan Strome (the No. 3 overall pick in 2015) and forward Brendan Perlini.

Schmaltz had struggled to take the next step in Chicago and looked lost on the ice at times. His mind never seemed to catch up to his skill set. He was also due a new contract after the 2018-'19 season. With all that considered, the Blackhawks realized they hadn’t seen enough to commit long-term money to Schmaltz and tore the band-aid off.

Since joining the Hawks, Strome has found his stride. After only scoring 16 points in 48 career games in Arizona, Strome has recorded 14 points in his 21 games with Chicago. While he lacks the overall speed and skill of Schmaltz, Strome has shown an intelligence and patience Schmaltz lacked. He has really found his groove on the suddenly competent power play and has shown a lot of chemistry with Patrick Kane.

Perlini, who had been a solid contributor with the Coyotes, has struggled to find his place with the Blackhawks so far but has shown signs of life over the last few weeks. He has three goals and an assist in his 20 games in Chicago.

Chapter 6: Crawford reinjured, Delia arrives

It only took 23 games, but a hard collision with Sharks forward Evander Kane -- on a dirty play -- resulted in another concussion and trip to injured reserve for Crawford. There remains no timeline for a return and no update on his status. Crawford’s hockey career could very well be in jeopardy. One has to wonder with all Crawford has won and accomplished over his career if it’s even worth it for him to return to a rebuilding situation.

When Crawford went down, the Blackhawks recalled goaltender Collin Delia, who has quickly won the hearts of Blackhawks fans. In his five starts, he’s gone 3-1-1 with a sparkling 2.19 goals against average and an incredible .947 save percentage. It’s expected that Delia will get the bulk of starts in Crawford’s absence despite the presence of veteran goalie Cam Ward.

Chapter 7: Admission

I already mentioned how it seemed like the Hawks were looking for a reason to move on from Quenneville. If you’re looking for evidence, take a look at the team's offseason signings. Ward has done a decent enough job in his backup role, but forward Chris Kunitz finally scored his first goal of the season in Pittsburgh on Sunday night. He’s still on the roster, for now.

Signing defenseman Brandon Manning was an even more egregious mistake. It was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t a fit. Conspiracy theorists will look at the Kunitz and Manning singings and say general manager Stan Bowman was sabotaging Quenneville. Maybe Quenneville said, "Get me a veteran forward and a stay-at-home defenseman" and Bowman responded with these two.

Regardless of what you believe, Bowman somehow moved Manning’s insane two- year, $2.25-million deal to the Oilers for an actual NHL player -- Drake Caggiula. It was an absolute fleecing for the Blackhawks. Because of visa issues, Caggiula didn't make his Blackhawks debut until Sunday, but his skill set was apparent. He's speedy and physical and plays seem to happen when he’s on the ice. He had another strong game against the Flames on Monday despite playing only nine minutes. I’m still shocked the Oilers gave up on a promising young player to acquire Manning, but hey ... thanks.

Chapter 8: Present day

The Blackhawks have shown signs of life lately, securing 14 of their last 20 available points. They beat a Penguins team Sunday that had won eight in a row. Chicago has also picked up some big divisional wins against Nashville, Dallas, Colorado and Minnesota. The main difference has been the Blackhawks' power play, which is suddenly pretty good under Colliton. They've converted 10 of their last 30 chances with the man advantage, and those numbers don’t include a pair of goals Monday that came two and seven seconds after power plays had ended.

The Blackhawks have also received some unexpected help from their defensemen this season. Henri Jokiharju, a 19-year-old and the Blackhawks' top prospect if you can even call him that anymore, made the team after an excellent camp and preseason. Early on, he was the Blackhawks' most reliable defenseman. There have been errors of inexperience, but his overall play has been well above average. Jokiharju just returned to the Blackhawks after being loaned to Finland's national team to compete in the World Junior Championship, which wrapped up last weekend. Jokiharju’s team won the gold medal, and he was a major contributor to their success. He’s expected to return when the Blackhawks host the Predators on Wednesday.

The Hawks have also gotten a boost from Carl Dahlstrom, who was called up in December. He quickly earned the trust of Colliton and has found chemistry with Connor Murphy. Together, they make up the team’s most reliable defensive pair. While Duncan Keith and Erik Gustafsson probably hold the title of "top pair," Murphy and Dahlstrom have been getting the bulk of the tough matchups lately.

After Colliton issued a challenge to Gustafsson in December, he responded with an excellent stretch and has been a huge difference-maker on the Blackhawks resurgent power play. He has 15 points in his last 15 games, which includes an active six-game point streak.

Chapter 9: What's next?

While the Blackhawks have been playing solid hockey lately, I still find it difficult to project them as a playoff team as currently constructed. While they are currently only six points out of a playoff spot, they’re a Western Conference-worst minus-32 in goal differential.

I also don’t see Bowman making a trade to upgrade the roster this season. He may trade a veteran for a prospect or pick here or there, but it’s hard to envision him making a "go for it" move. However, as the Blackhawks continue to clear up cap space and roster spots, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him make a splash in free agency this coming summer. Artemi Panarin’s name won’t seem to go away, but he’s going to command at least $8 million -- and likely closer to the $9.5 million or $10 million range -- in free agency. Will the Hawks want to commit close to $30 million to three players (Kane, Toews, Panarin), especially with Alex DeBrincat needing a new deal after next season? It’s hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened.

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Bernstein & McKnight Show on 670 middays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m and a columnist for 670 The Score. He's also the co-host of the Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcast, which is available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify or your preferred podcast app. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.​​​