This year’s Chicago Blackhawks could be compelling to watch for a variety of reasons. Here are five of them.
First, they are going to still be quite entertaining
Chicago was far from dull last year. As anyone who watched their games quickly realized, it was wide-open hockey out there. Think back to the days of the 1980’s where this was normal. Chicago often enough played 7-6 and 8-5 games win or lose.
Now, the Blackhawks did beef up their defense a little bit, but this is a team that relies on pushing the pace. They will tend to still make mistakes. Also, this was a team last year that, at one point, hit the first period over in 22 of 25 games (including 16 straight). These were odds rarely ever hit to this extent (again since the 1980’s).
The first-unit power play will be much the same and this was a unit that converted at around 28% over the second half of the season. If they come anywhere close to that for an entire season, the Chicago power play alone may be worth the price of admission.
Second, how does Robin Lehner adjust to Chicago?
It is a question that must be asked. Lehner enjoyed a fairy tale season last year behind a worst to first defense in the New York Islanders. Lehner had a goals-saved above average of 26.3 in 46 games along with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. That included a .934 save percentage at even strength.
The question is this. How does Lehner adjust to a more wide-open style in Chicago. No matter how much the Blackhawks try to tighten their team defense, it almost must attack to win because their defense is even more devoid of puck movers now. Lehner will see far more dangerous shots and scoring chances than he did in Brooklyn (Long Island).
The “B” question is how much does he play? Corey Crawford’s health was concern enough for Chicago to go out and pay $5 million for a “backup” goalie. Lehner being available was rare but it does happen. It will be some gamble and something to watch all year long.
Third, how do Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome fare this year?
This is the one that may determine Chicago’s fate ultimately. When Dylan Strome was traded from the Arizona Coyotes, few could have expected the outburst of scoring that followed. What do they do for an encore? Last season, Strome tallied 51 points in 58 games with Chicago – including 17 goals on 105 shots. He is a selective shooter but was that way in Arizona as well. The difference is Alex DeBrincat.
The winger may be short in stature but tall in the goals department. He also shoots at a high percentage compared to most sniper (18.6% last year and 15+% his rookie year). Both players saw their ice time jump up to over 17 minutes a night and they handled it well. Playing with Patrick Kane helps but Strome and DeBrincat were able to maintain a positive possession rate relative to the team. That was not easy to do considering Chicago’s defense.
Based on the numbers, it is plausible that the second line for Chicago can do this again – provided they stay together of course. They will equally drive opponents nuts along with their own team at times. However, the trio gives Chicago the best chances to score on a nightly basis. Again, one cannot say they are dull.
Fourth, does Erik Gustafsson take a step back this year?
One of the biggest breakouts was from Chicago’s blueline last year. Erik Gustafsson surprised the hockey world with 60 points and 17 goals in 78 games. The Swedish defenseman carried the puck up the ice with reckless abandon and is a big reason why Chicago has hope again of replicating last year. He played almost 23 minutes a night (25+ most of the second half) and maintained his composure for the most part.
The only concern Is teams will play him differently now. On the other hand, he might be able to do even better than the 18 power-play points from 2018-19. Gustafsson clearly is the offensive leader of this team now for better or for worse. His above-average shot and quick hands should serve him well.
Finally, depth was added to help things along.
Andrew Shaw can score 35-40+ points in the right role with Chicago. Even Brendan Perlini presents some nice potential (as soon as a deal is negotiated of course). Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta were brought in to help stabilize the defense a bit. It looks like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will still be among Chicago’s six defensemen. Seabrook especially will make things interesting as his defensive skills keep eroding. Keith’s also suffered last year, and neither is getting any younger.
That is why the younger players must step up for this team along with the goaltending. Crawford and Lehner must stay healthy in order to avoid the circus of goaltenders last year. Hopefully that depth will help from an entertainment and team defense standpoint. Yes, those two can co-exist.
Either way, 2019-20 expects to feature a ton of the unexpected for the Chicago Blackhawks once again. It certainly will be far from dull in “The Windy City”.
By Chris Wassel