Yes, I’m still alive and well here. I know you’ve been worried. You know who else is alive and well? The Blackhawks. They are winners of seven straight games, and have won their last eight road games, which is a new franchise record. They also sit second in the Central Division while owning the league’s third highest point total (89). In a season that I and many others viewed as a stepping stone toward competing for the Cup again in the next two years, the Hawks have, to this point, shocked me.
Coming into this 2016-17 season, it was well known that the Blackhawks were going to have to play multiple rookies each and every night thanks in large part to the salary cap. As has been the case for the last 7-8 years, the Hawks are tight up against the league’s cap due to the fact that they have to pay high annual salaries to some of the NHL’s best players. The only difference this year, however, is that rather than being able to sign some veteran players to cheap one-year deals, the Hawks were forced to build their depth from within their own organization. Enter the likes of Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, Nick Schmaltz, Dennis Rasmussen, and Michal Kempny (signed as a free agent last summer).
You never want to have to place a lot of faith and confidence in a bunch of rookies to help guide your team to the postseason. There is simply too much of the “unknown factor” that comes into play in that scenario. There’s no telling how a rookie or other relatively inexperienced players will handle the pressure of being asked to produce right off the bat. That becomes even more true in the playoffs when the intensity on the ice and in the stands rises to levels that cannot be duplicated in the AHL or junior leagues.
However, the Blackhawks’ rookies have exceeded expectations thus far, and that’s an understatement. Ryan Hartman (15G, 11A) is making this city forget about Andrew Shaw. He’s producing offensively, he has been responsible defensively, and he brings some size and grit that can prove to be quite valuable in May and June.
Tanner Kero, while not a big generator of offense, is becoming Marcus Kruger 2.0. His value on the penalty kill has grown all season.
Nick Schmaltz got off to a slow start back in the fall and was sent down to Rockford to gain confidence and work on shooting more often, and ever since being brought back up to the NHL he has been an entirely different player and now sees time on the team’s first line alongside Jonathan Toews when everyone is healthy.
Heading into the trade deadline, it was clear that the Hawks could have used a top six winger, preferably LW, to play on Toews’ left, but again the salary cap (amongst other reasons) prevented that from happening. While Schmaltz has played well lately, I’m not sure he’s the permanent answer for that top line spot. In the playoffs, you want a guy with some experience to be playing in a role like that.
The Blackhawks did, however, reacquire Johnny Oduya prior to the trade deadline passing. This could potentially be a huge move. With Oduya now back in play for the Hawks, they can roll out the exact same top four defensemen that we saw during the 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup runs. All of a sudden, the Hawks’ defensive corps is one of the strongest in the league heading into March and April.
So overall, here are some of my key observations as we near the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs:
- Depth. The Hawks seem to have it. As I stated, the rookies are all playing quite well and are either meeting or exceeding expectations. Depth, and goaltending, are the single biggest factors come playoff time.
- Speaking of goaltending…Goaltending. Once again Crawford and Darling are both playing like No. 1 netminders. It’s Crawford’s job without question, but in case of an injury or a sudden drop in his performance, it’s good knowing Darling is there waiting in the wings.
- Defense. This might be the strongest group of defensmen that the Blackhawks have had in quite some time. Not only do they have an elite top four with the addition of Oduya, but their fifth and sixth d-men (Campbell, TVR, Kempny, Rozsival) are strong and reliable as well, especially when playing bottom-pairing minutes.
- Richard Panik. Here’s a guy who was hardly seeing ice time with the Maple Leafs before getting dealt to the Hawks last season, and now he’s playing right wing on the first line with Jonathan Toews. He sits seventh on the team in points (17G, 19A). If he can keep up this level of play in the playoffs, that will be huge.
- Special Teams. It’s obvious, but the Hawks need to be better here. The penalty kill is substantially better than it was at the beginning of the year (especially with Oduya now in the mix), but it can still be better. As for the powerplay, it should be a top ten powerplay with the amount of talent on the Hawks’ roster. To win in the playoffs, you need a strong PK and a powerplay that will make the opponent pay for its mistake(s).
- And lastly, Health. The Hawks cannot afford to keep getting bit by the injury bug come playoff time. A sidelined Toews, Kane, Panarin, Keith, Hjalmarsson, or Hossa could be detrimental to this team’s Stanley Cup hopes.
I’ll say it again. I’ve been extremely surprised by the Blackhawks this season. I honestly believe that what we’re seeing is a result, to some degree, of getting an entire summer of rest last year. Just look at Marian Hossa for proof. This team is skating with energy and seemingly a full tank of gas right now, which is something we did not see at this same time of year last season. Exiting after the first round last April could very well have been a massive blessing in disguise.
Moving forward, I think this team has the potential to win the Western Conference and play for their fourth Stanley Cup since 2010. I also believe that the Blackhawks could be knocked out as early as the second round of the playoffs. It will all come down to their depth, which right now seems to be good. But, anything can happen, and that is especially true when talking about a team with multiple rookies in its lineup on a nightly basis.