John McDonough

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.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Did John McDonough make right decision in retaining Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville?

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AP

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Did John McDonough make right decision in retaining Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville?

In the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Adam Burish and Charlie Roumeliotis weigh in on whether John McDonough’s decision to bring back GM Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville next season was the right one.

They also discuss which areas both Bowman and Quenneville can improve in, what structural changes to the special teams should be made and a possible change in the hockey operations department?

Take a listen here or in the embedded playlist below. 

Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

ST. LOUIS – Eddie Olczyk’s morning at Scottrade Center was full of hugs and handshakes, of questions and encouraging words, of smiles and even some tears.

It was a busy morning but a good one for Olczyk, who Wednesday night will do his first hockey broadcast since being diagnosed with colon cancer in August. For the first time in a while, Olczyk felt like himself.

“It feels normal. It feels comfortable,” said Olczyk, who will be alongside Doc Emrick when the Blackhawks face the St. Louis Blues. “I just feel invigorated. Seeing a lot of familiar faces, guys busting chops and a lot of well wishes.”

Olczyk went through his usual game-day routine, including quick chats with Blackhawks players following skate. On Wednesday those talks were that much more special, for both sides.

“Great to see him,” said Ryan Hartman. “When I first saw I was pretty excited to see him back. It’s definitely a presence you know when you’re watching games, that voice you heard growing up. He looks good, looks healthy. He’s in a battle but he looks really good.”

Olczyk will also be in the booth on Thursday night when the Blackhawks host the Edmonton Oilers. Past that, he’ll play it by ear. He’s talked to NBC and Blackhawks president John McDonough, who Olczyk said gave him an “open canvas” in terms of scheduling. If Olczyk feels good on Saturday and the Blackhawks play on Sunday, he’ll try to get back in the booth.

“We think about him every day and we’ve had the pleasure of having him come by a couple of times. Having him be here today for a road game is great to know,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But he has a tough battle ahead of him and he’s doing everything he can to fight it. We support him every single day.”

Olczyk started chemotherapy treatments in September and he has his good and bad days. Those will continue for a while. So will his fight to completely beat this. But for at least the next two nights Olczyk gets to return to a normal routine, and that’s the perfect panacea for a trying time.

“I’m overwhelmed with everybody,” Olczyk said. “But this is the best medicine I’ve had in a long time.”