Blackhawks

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 2017-18 season

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 2017-18 season

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks season in 2017-18 after finishing with a 33-39-10 record and 76 points:

1. Corey Crawford's injury

There are many different reasons as to why the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, none more obvious than the injury to one of the best goaltenders in the league. There's no way around it.

Crawford was 16-9-2 with a 2.27 goals against average, .929 save percentage and two shutouts before essentially being shut down for the rest of the season after Christmas. To the Blackhawks' credit, they never used that as an excuse but the numbers clearly don't lie.

Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and J-F Berube each held their own for a while but could never seize the opportunity down the stretch. Collin Delia looked sharp in his NHL debut, and heck, even 36-year-old Scott Foster managed to find himself between the pipes, a fitting event given how the season unfolded in goal.

Stan Bowman said Friday on NBC Sports Chicago that "we don't have any concerns" about Crawford's long-term health and "there's no reason for us not to be expecting him back," echoing team president John McDonough's comments from a few days earlier.

That's a great sign, because Crawford has masked most of the team's deficiencies since they won their last Stanley Cup in 2015.

In a way, his injury could be viewed as a silver lining because it magnified the real flaws and gave the Blackhawks an opportunity to know exactly what they need to address in the offseason while expecting their Vezina-type netminder to be 100 percent healthy and return to top form.

2. The next generation

If there's one positive to take away from the 2017-18 season, it's the emergence of the younger players like Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz, all three of whom established important roles with the club going forward.

DeBrincat finished with a team-best 28 goals and ranked tied for second in points (52). Only Patrick Kane (76) had more points than Schmaltz (52). And Hinostroza was fifth in points-per-game (0.50).

Bowman singled out DeBrincat and Schmaltz on Friday as "the next guys we're going to really commit a lot of dollars to," reaffirming the desire to get younger and build from within. Add top prospect Dylan Sikura into the mix up front, and the Blackhawks have speed and youth sprinkled all over their roster.

This is the future and the present. The second wave of talent is here.

3. Special teams disaster

The Blackhawks usually have a decent special teams unit under Joel Quenneville. If it's not the power play, it's the penalty kill and if it's not the penalty kill, it's the power play. This season was rough in both departments.

They finished with a 16.0 percent success rate with the man advantage, which ranked 28th in the league, and a 79.2 percent success rate on the penalty kill, which ranked 20th. The former in particular is a staggering number when you look at the core group leading the charge.

Even if the Blackhawks power play was just average, their spot in the standings might look different. But it was a momentum killer all season long, and an area that needs to get better if they want to turn things around quickly.

The penalty kill is fine structurally and will probably have a bounce-back season.

As late as Dec. 14, 2017, they were ranked fifth with an 83.8 percentage — nine days before Crawford played his final game of the season. So that unraveled quickly in large part because of their goaltending. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding someone other than Jonathan Toews to take a defensive faceoff.

It's difficult to stay above water and in the playoff race when you're special teams is dragging you down from both ends, and that's exactly what happened for the Blackhawks.

4. An inexperienced blue line

The Blackhawks gave up the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play this season, and a lot of that had to do with inexperience on the back end.

After Duncan Keith (34) and Brent Seabrook (32), there was a significant drop-off: Before this season, Jan Rutta hadn't played in an NHL game, Erik Gustafsson had 41 games under his belt, Gustav Forsling had 38, Jordan Oesterle had 25 and Carl Dahlstrom and Blake Hillman each were among the defensive crop that made their debuts. 

It made for some heavy growing pains, ones that you hope will pay off in the long term and serve as learning lessons for next season and beyond.

Offensively, the production wasn't there, either. 

The Blackhawks had only 18 goals from their defensemen in the first 57 games, with Keith scoring only two all season long. It put a ton of pressure on the forwards to score.

That's a position that should be No. 1 on the offseason priority list, and Bowman said "it's possible" the Blackhawks will explore landing a Top 4 defenseman. But they won't mortgage the future to do it.

"The things that would factor into those decisions would be where the salary cap is at, how much room you have and probably the biggest thing is just the term," he said.

5. Patrick Sharp's farewell

When Sharp re-signed with the Blackhawks last offseason, he made it clear he wasn't simply coming back for a victory lap. He wanted to contribute to a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations.

Unfortunately for the reasons listed above, plans changed and it turned out to be exactly that.

But his send-off in his final game at United Center was a perfect way to go out given the circumstances, allowing the city of Chicago to celebrate what he did for the organization and community: Three Stanley Cups, a four-time 30-goal scorer and alternate captain.

No. 10 will forever be known as playing an integral part of putting the Blackhawks back on the map.

Five takeaways from Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

We're going to be a little honest. The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs could've been better.

It didn't help that the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks swept their series', wiping out those West Coast games for the last week and a half. There were also only five overtime games, four of which came in the Washington-Columbus series, compared to 18 in the first round last season.

But having said all that, we might be in for one of the most entertaining second rounds in recent memory.

Before we get to that, here are five takeaways from Round 1:

1. Artemi Panarin is a playoff performer.

We're not going to rehash whether the Blackhawks made a mistake in trading away one of the best offensive players in the league.

Instead, let's talk about how the Bread Man proved to skeptics that he's a superstar in his own right, yes, even without Patrick Kane.

It was fair to wonder whether Panarin's production would be on par with what it was in his first two seasons in Chicago, because it was also fair to do the same for Kane, who put up his best point totals in each of those two seasons as well playing alongside Panarin — 106 points in 2015-16 and 89 in 2016-17, respectively.

But the idea that Kane made Panarin was always a lazy narrative, because they both benefited from each other. In fact, Panarin set a Blue Jackets record by registering a 82 points in a single season without Kane, proving he could thrive in a role where he was "The Guy."

Panarin finished the regular season with five straight multi-point games, and opened the playoffs with seven points (two goals, five assists) in three games, including the overtime winner in Game 1. He went pointless in the final three games, but he admitted after the Blue Jackets were eliminated that a knee injury sustained early in Game 5 played a role in his effectiveness — or lack thereof — over the final two contests. That's not an excuse, just a fact.

He now has 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 17 postseason games for his career, which is nearly a point-per-game average. Panarin is a big-game player, and anybody that thinks otherwise is reading too much into the Blackhawks' first-round sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators last season, where every single member struggled.

2. Do the Penguins have what it takes to three-peat?

The Penguins became the first team in the salary cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Now they can become the first to make it three in a row, and there's a realistic chance of that happening after they became the sixth team in NHL history to win nine straight playoff series following their first-round win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

There's one major caveat, as there is to almost anything: Can they stay healthy?

Evgeni Malkin will miss Game 1 against the Washington Capitals with an apparent leg injury, and Carl Hagelin has already been ruled out for the first two games.

That's a huge factor in all this, because the Penguins still have three more rounds to go if they want to make history and would need to do it with their second-best player clearly not at 100 percent and probably won't be for the rest of the playoffs.

If there's a year the Capitals can finally slay the dragon having lost nine of their past 10 playoff series against Pittsburgh, it's this one. They've got home-ice advantage, they're healthy, playing well in all phases and don't have the expectations that have seemed to weigh on their minds in the past.

3. Vegas, baby.

Has there been a more fun bandwagon to be a part of than the Golden Knights' during their inaugural season? They racked up 109 points, won the Pacific Division and swept the Los Angeles Kings when many perceived that to be a coin flip.

Marc-Andre Fleury was ridiculous, recording a 0.65 goals against average, .977 save percentage and two shutouts in four games against the Kings. Vegas as a team allowed only three goals and scored seven, with each of those seven goals coming from a different player.

It's been an incredible story.

The next stop will be against the San Jose Sharks, which certainly won't be a cakewalk. Expect that to be an evenly-matched series between two teams that aren't satisfied with how far they've come already, especially the Golden Knights. They want to make history by winning a Stanley Cup in Year 1 of existence.

Would it surprise anyone at this point?

4. Boston-Toronto lives up to the hype.

The script was set up perfectly.

Five years after the Maple Leafs overcame a 3-1 series deficit but collapsed in Game 7 at TD Garden by squandering a three-goal lead in the third period, the opportunity to rewrite history was right in front of them.

The Maple Leafs again fell behind 3-1, rallied back to win two straight, had three separate one-goal leads in Game 7 at TD Garden but couldn't seal the deal. It also could've served as a healing moment for the city of Toronto, which was hit with tragedy when a van drove onto a sidewalk and killed 10 people and injured 15 others, the same way Boston came together following the marathon bombings in 2013.

Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, destiny did not prevail and they're still seeking a first-round series win in the salary cap era.

It was as riveting a Game 7 as you'll see, and the hockey gods rewarded fans after a dull first round. But...

5. Get ready for Round 2.

Nashville vs. Winnipeg. Vegas vs. San Jose. Tampa Bay vs. Boston. Washington vs. Pittsburgh.

Close your eyes and pick a series and that could be the most entertaining of the second round. Each of them have the potential to be great.

It's the first time in NHL history the final eight teams standings compiled at least 100 points in the regular season, meaning it truly is the best of the best that's left. So enjoy it.

And good luck with your predictions, because going 0-for-4 looks more likely than 4-for-4.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Attempting to rebuild Blackhawks into a Stanley Cup contender

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Attempting to rebuild Blackhawks into a Stanley Cup contender

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Adam Burish joins Pat Boyle to answer your mailbag questions. Among the questions they tackle: What was your favorite moment from the Blackhawks’ past season and were you surprised that Joel Quenneville didn’t make any changes to his coaching staff? 

They also discuss re-signing Vinnie Hinostroza, backup goalie options for Corey Crawford and who do they like in the Jets-Predators second-round series?

Plus, Burish looks at the Penguins roster and sees some similarities to the Blackhawks’ situation and attempts to rebuild a Stanley Cup contender.

Listen to the full podcast right here: