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The Blackhawks Have Playoff Potential

Questions abound in the net and on defense. But the Hawks, who open tonight in Ottawa, can score.

Right wing Patrick Kane: embracing the underdog role   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

It would be an understatement to say there are question marks surrounding the Blackhawks’s 2018-2019 season, which opens tonight in Ottawa. The Hawks did, after all, miss the postseason last year for the first time in a decade. And the two years prior, they were knocked out in the first round.

Chief among the Hawks’s uncertainties is whether veterans like Patrick Kane can help the organization’s young players adapt to the pace and level of talent in the NHL. There are obstacles beyond youth and inexperience with this team, though, that bear examining.

In the net

Two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford hasn’t played in a game since December 23 in New Jersey. Crawford has been dealing with lingering concussion symptoms, but progressed nicely in on-ice workouts during training camp and began practicing with the team on Monday for the first time since February.

“I’m still not 100 percent clear, but it’s almost there,” Crawford said after the practice. “We’re pretty close.”

It’s likely the goalie could miss the first handful of regular season games, but he’ll be traveling with the team for practicing purposes to start the season. The longer their starter is out of the net, the worse off the team will be. 

Goalies Cam Ward and Anton Forsberg have yet to prove they can rack up wins on their own, so expect Crawford back sooner rather than later. 

Will the blueline be better? 

The Hawks defense is as uncertain as their goaltending, if not more. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook appear to have had offseason success recovering and training. The alternate captains will do everything in their power to show they’ve regained the steps they lost last season to today’s younger, speedier NHL.

Rookie Henri Jokiharju, who Chicago picked 29th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, will need all the help he can get. The 19-year-old Finnish defenseman has an arsenal of weapons — scoring prowess, skating ability, puck-handling — but for a player his age, growing pains are inevitable. 

Jokiharju suffered a few costly losing battles in the preseason, but finished camp strong. If he continues to pair up with Keith once the games start counting, he’ll learn quickly. There’s tremendous upside to the young blueliner, it may just be a bit till we see it.

“I think he’s good, I think he’s smooth,” Seabrook said of Jokiharju following Saturday’s 4-1 preseason victory over the Blue Jackets. “His skating, it’s a lot different than mine. I’ve got to play a little more positionally. He can get himself in trouble a little bit and make up for it. So it’s impressive to see a kid come in at an age like that and play as well as he has in training camp.”

Can they score?

Jonathan Toews has looked lighter on his skates in training camp, and if Alex DeBrincat stays on his line, the center will greatly benefit from his play-making.

Patrick Kane also put serious work in this offseason. Along the way, the dynamic winger worked to develop a dangerous chemistry with forward Nick Schmaltz that opponents ought to fear. 

Meanwhile, the Hawks need Brandon Saad to rebound offensively — and if he’s placed on one of the Hawks’ bottom two lines, like he was at times during the preseason, that could prove difficult. In the Hawks’ final preseason game Saturday, Saad played on the second line alongside center Nick Schmaltz and opposite Patrick Kane, and he was there again at practice on Monday. If he sticks with Kane and Schmaltz, rebound he will.

Barring a fluke, it’ll be the Blackhawks’ offense that makes them a playoff contender this season. But it could come down to the wire.

“I think we want to play fast,” Seabrook said of this year’s group. “We want to play quick and get guys in front of the net. We want to be a hard working team that doesn’t give up much defensively and plays both sides of the ice.”

Toews is equally optimistic.

“We’ve had a lot of turnover these last number of years. But I think we got a lot of young guys that have shown a lot in training camp, and guys that are excited to take part [in] a team that’s looking to bounce back.”

Kane says the team has a lot to prove, which could be easy given their still somewhat foreign underdog status.

“I like it,” he said. “It’s a young group, but you look around the room [and] a lot of the younger guys have a lot to prove, [and so do] the older guys. You kind of embrace the underdog role.”

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