It was jaw-dropping, it was devastating, it was embarrassing. After just the second 50-win regular season in franchise history, the Blackhawks were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round for the second straight year—in a four-game sweep.
Blackhawks vice president and general manager Stan Bowman promised there would be change. No one could have imagined just how much. This offseason, he set out to mold a team with more offense, more size, and more pushback.
Once invaluable core players Niklas Hjalmarsson and Marian Hossa won’t be seen sporting Indian Head sweaters this year, but sophomores ready to take the next step, capable acquisitions (some with very familiar faces), and a prospect with generational talent will aim to keep Chicago from being eliminated in the first round for a third straight year.
With the team’s first preseason game (a 5-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets) on Tuesday, and just two weeks until the season starts, we take a look at what Hawks fans can expect this year.
New (and old) faces
Hjalmarsson, a shot-blocking warrior and three-time Stanley Cup champ was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Connor Murphy, a 24-year-old six-foot-three, strong, physical defenseman. If Murphy plays alongside Duncan Keith, which has been the case at training camp, Keith can be more mobile, jumping in on plays with the forwards to create offense, while Murphy uses his size and reach to cover more ice. It also won’t hurt having the big D-man knock people silly to free up some pucks.
Patrick Sharp returned to Chicago on a one-year contract after playing the previous two seasons with the Dallas Stars. Sharp, another member of Chicago’s three-cup club, showed up to training camp last week in top shape after recovering from a March hip surgery.
Forwards Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman already look to have improved their game heading into their second season. Expect last year’s rookie sensations to reach another level this go around.
As far as prospects go, Alex DeBrincat looks to be the Chosen One. The 19-year-old winger tallied an astonishing 127 points in the Ontario Hockey League last year. Hawks head coach Joel Quenneville has been giving DeBrincat ample opportunity to skate opposite Patrick Kane on the second line at camp. If DeBrincat can stick with Kane and adjusts quickly to the NHL, the duo will put on a season-long scoring clinic.
Perhaps an even bigger surprise than 2017’s first-round sweep was the Blackhawks’ announcement that future hall-of-famer Marian Hossa wouldn’t be returning this season due to a “progressive skin disorder.” Hossa’s on and off-ice contributions will be missed dearly.
“Intimidating" top line
The Hawks brought back two-time Stanley Cup champ Brandon Saad, stopping the revolving door at the top line’s left wing position that had been spinning so haphazardly it threw Hawks captain Jonathan Toews off his game the past few seasons. Expect Toews and Saad’s chemistry to pick up where it left off. It won’t hurt to have Richard Panik on the right, who can be a set-up man, agitator, and net-crasher.
That creates an “intimidating” top line in Saad-Toews-Panik, according to Kane. Presuming Kane can rack up points whether he’s playing with Sharp or DeBrincat, Chicago’s offense is in skilled hands this season.
Will D run deep?
The top defensive pair should be good to go with Keith and Murphy, and the squad has another three-time cup-winner in Brent Seabrook. But they’ll likely need Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling, who were in and out of the lineup last season, to elevate their game.
The Blackhawks have always been able to count on Corey Crawford in the net. Crawford has always been able to count on backups who can play around 25 games to leave him fresh for the playoffs.
With former goalie Scott Darling leaving the team for Carolina, Anton Forsberg (who came in the same trade as Brandon Saad) will have his work cut out for him. The 24-year old goalie only has 10 NHL games under his belt, but had a strong showing in Tuesday night’s preseason game in Columbus stopping 38 of 40 Blue Jackets’ shots. The tandem could be this season’s X-factor.
Give it to me straight
You can throw on your favorite player’s red sweater with optimism this year. Will they be start-to-finish juggernauts like the 2010 and 2013 Hawks? Probably not, but you won’t want to run into them in the playoffs.
No one in the locker room or front office is happy with how the last two seasons ended. They have a lot to prove, and the offseason trades and amped-up training regiments were the first steps. If all goes according to plan, we’ll see second-year players improving, new additions shining, and the remaining core leading.