Here are five bold (and not so bold) predictions for the Blackhawks in 2017-18:
1. Brandon Saad will set a career high in goals and points.
We'll start with the most important acquisition of the offseason. There are many reasons to believe Saad will take a giant step forward, none more obvious than reuniting with Jonathan Toews. The two clearly bring out the best in each other by playing that same two-way style of game, and it showed in previous years. Also, reuniting with head coach Joel Quenneville who really believes in his abilities and trusts him in all situations is key.
And that's really why we expect Saad to have a huge year. He'll get the opportunity to be a consistent top liner, something he struggled to nail down in two seasons under John Tortorella, who bounced Saad up and down the lineup after never quite getting on board with him.
Saad averaged a career high 17:15 of ice time with the Blackhawks in 2014-15, and that number dipped a bit in consecutive seasons in Columbus. For reference, Toews averaged more than 20 minutes last year. We expect Saad to be in that ballpark, with Quenneville using him as a horse.
That's almost an extra three minutes per game, a handful of which will come on the power play and penalty kill. So expect his offensive production to hit career numbers, surpassing the 31 goals he scored in 2015-16 and the 53 points he hit in both seasons with the Blue Jackets.
2. Blackhawks power play will finish in top 5
The Blackhawks power play went from No. 2 in 2015-16 to No. 19 in 2016-17 for a variety of reasons, whether it was the lack of net front presence, always looking for that perfect pass or perfect shot, or being too top heavy. It wasn't a good recipe for success.
It certainly doesn't help losing a top offensive player like Artemi Panarin, but it may not be the worst thing. He and Patrick Kane often looked for each other a little too much on the man advantage, and it sometimes impeded the flow among the five players on the ice.
With the emergence of Nick Schmaltz, the reacquisition of Saad and Patrick Sharp, along with offensively-gifted rookie Alex DeBrincat making the big club, the Blackhawks will have two solid units and won't be as reliant on the first one this year.
3. Corey Crawford will set a career high in wins
For the first time in a while, there's some uncertainty surrounding the Blackhawks' backup goaltending situation. Anton Forsberg is quickly starting to eliminate those concerns, however, after looking really sharp in the preseason and flashing his potential.
But can he continue that level of play on a consistent basis? It would be asking a lot of him to immediately fill the shoes of Scott Darling, who went 18-5-5 in 27 starts (32 games played) last year.
We anticipate Forsberg getting in between 20-25 starts, but Crawford could handle as big of a load as he's ever carried in his career if the race starts to get tight down the stretch.
Crawford's heaviest load came in 2015-16 when he started in 58 games, the same season he set a career high in wins with 35. We expect him to be in that range once again with a few more starts, and see him picking up an extra few wins because of it as well. Let's say 36 or 37.
4. Nick Schmaltz will finish top 5 in team scoring
Is there a player on the Blackhawks roster that noticeably looks like a different player than last year? He looks bigger, faster, stronger, and is extremely confident with the puck, stemming off the second half of last season after his stint in the American Hockey League. There is no doubt in his mind that he can compete at a high level in this league, and it's why he's slotted in at the second-line center position going into the year.
He's got a history of taking a big leap from his first to second year, too.
In his freshman campaign at North Dakota, he registered 26 points (five goals, 21 assists) in 38 games. In his sophomore year, that total jumped to 46 points (11 goals, 35 assists) in 37 games. The same went for the World Juniors, when he recorded one point in five games two years ago for Team USA then bounced back with eight points in seven contests.
Factor in that he'll be playing with Patrick Kane on a nightly basis, and you have yourself a sneaky underrated duo.
Kane, Saad, Toews and Duncan Keith will likely be among the top of Chicago's leaderboard, but expect Schmaltz to be right there in that mix.
5. Blackhawks won't crack 100 points, but they'll make it out of the first round
Alright, so picking the Predators to beat the Blackhawks last April understandably didn't sit well with many of you (water under the bridge), but there may be a better outlook on this season than people may think.
Don't expect the Blackhawks to compete for the No. 1 seed, though, which is fine. Because last year proved it doesn't really matter. Just get in.
The Blackhawks' top-nine forward group actually looks pretty solid, to go along with a two-time Norris Tropher winner anchoring the blue line and a world-class goaltender as the last line of defense. The blue line could use some additional help if it becomes an area of concern down the road, but they'll have plenty of cap space to work with at the trade deadline to patch up any of those defensive inefficiences.
Finally, the Western Conference is wide open, in a weird way. There are a lot of very good teams, but nobody sticks out from the pack unlike previous years. The opportunity for a deep run is there for the taking, but you can't look too far ahead. Find a way to get past Round 1 and it's anybody's game.