At this time of year, many teams are in the business of selling hope they have no real business selling. The Chicago Blackhawks appear to be one of them.
It was a virtual lock that any potential two-years-missing-the-playoffs scenario would lead to a coaching change and media members who remember the dynasty years a little too fondly making excuses. The coaching change came earlier than many might have expected, after last season’s slow start, but the new guy, Jeremy Colliton, didn’t improve all that much in the team’s processes.
But the team changed coaches pretty early in the season, after just 15 games, rather than over the summer or later in the year when more people might have been inclined to write off the last few months as a wash. As such, we’re now getting assurances that all that may be separating Chicago from its first playoff appearance since 2017 (a humiliating sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators) is a full camp learning Colliton’s system from the ground up and some key additions this summer.
Those additions were positive in the aggregate. Last year’s goaltending was a mess, with Cam Ward inevitably imploding, Collin Delia proving little better, and Corey Crawford missing the entire stretch from mid-December to late February. The take here, then, is that the goaltending is stabilized now, through adding Robin Lehner as the 1a or 1b (depending on your feelings about Crawford’s health) to the battery and keeping Crawford. The former was a legit Vezina contender last season and always played well behind bad teams with worse defences, while the latter went .919 in his appearances post-injury, though that was effectively garbage time for the entire team and the schedule was pretty soft.
Crawford, though, will be 35 on New Year’s Eve and he’s played just 67 games in the past two seasons, so this is a load-sharing partnership at the very least.
The other assurances we’re getting these days about how this team could be Officially Back without a serious PDO bender is that Stan Bowman rejiggered the defence. Now, to be fair, that defence needed rejiggering in a very bad way: Collectively, the team was one of the worst in the league by expected-goals against, not only unable to limit quality, but also unable to kill penalties more than 73 per cent of the time.
The big reason why was Duncan Keith’s ever-quickening decline as he reached his mid-30s. He turned 36 over the summer, and Brent Seabrook (who’s 34) has been washed for even longer. That Connor Murphy trade simply hasn’t worked out; most teams have defenders in the AHL who would be just as effective in his role as he was last season. Erik Gustafsson put up points on the cheap last year, but that was so far outside his previous production at literally any level that you’d be skeptical.
The big additions, then, need to be extremely reliable guys who can straighten things out for their aging pairing partners. And boy, if you ever needed a reliable defenceman, why wouldn’t you go out and get Calvin de Haan (a perfectly-acceptable-and-that’s-it middle-pairing defenceman who wasn’t particularly effective for one of the best possession teams of the era last year) and…….. Olli Maatta? Both are guys who can succeed if you kind of hide them deeper down the lineup, but how many defencemen on this roster is Colliton even capable of hiding, mathematically?
As for the offence, which was predictably above-average last season, you can probably forecast more of the same. Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat are going to produce, and the hope is to get more out of a full season from Dylan Strome after a great start with the organization. Maybe Drake Caggiula can be a decent bottom-six forward, but that’s about it. But bringing back Andrew Shaw and giving Zack Smith a shot is not going to go particularly well.
Moreover, to expect another big offensive season from Jonathan Toews is all well and good, but why put that on a guy who, at 30 years old, went from three straight seasons under 60 points to 81? Not to say he can’t be valuable, because he obviously can, but he’d need a lot of help to replicate that success. Players tend to be who they tell us they are over the long haul, and letting their most recent results cloud your reasonable expectations is a good way to end up disappointed.
Is there reason to believe the team will be better than it was last year? Of course. The addition of Lehner alone all but assures more points coming their way. But almost everyone else in the division also improved to one extent or another over the summer, and this team ended the year at a minus-22 goal difference. It’s hard to see where they added 20-plus goals to their total, when we account for the potential for a step back by the offence in particular.
You always had to assume this team would continue to get the benefit of the doubt from observers who remember the glory days as being more recent than they actually were. But now, with two straight years of no playoffs and just three wins in their last 11 post-season games, that much leeway based on who they were five seasons ago all seems a bit much.
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