Five reasons to be optimistic about Blackhawks in 2018-19

Five reasons to be optimistic about Blackhawks in 2018-19

Listen. There are many question marks surrounding the Blackhawks this season. We get it.

But let's not think about that ahead of Opening Night. Instead, let's look at some reasons for optimism.

Here are five of them:

1. Corey Crawford could return earlier than expected

If somebody told you after the Blackhawks Convention in July that Crawford would likely return in mid-to-late October, would you have believed it? If you did, it was undoubtedly wishful thinking. 

Crawford has progressed extremely well over the past three weeks, and it appears he may not miss as much time as originally believed.

Out with a concussion since Dec. 23, 2017, the Blackhawks are "optimistically" hoping Crawford could make his season debut by Oct. 18 against the Arizona Coyotes. If that perfect scenario comes true, that means he would have missed only five games to start the season. That's the best news the Blackhawks could get, considering how much of this season depends on his health and how quickly he's able to recapture that elite form.

2. Special teams can't be any worse, right?

It was a disastrous 2017-18 campaign for the Blackhawks when it came to special teams. They finished 28th in power play percentage (16.0) and 20th in penalty kill efficiency (79.1). That simply can't happen again.

To help change their fortunes in that area, the Blackhawks took a page out of the lethal defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals playbook by adapting to a 1-3-1 scheme and are loading up the top unit, like the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins do. It's why they're so successful and the Blackhawks are hoping they can have that same success.

Here's the good news about the penalty kill: When Crawford went down with an injury on Dec. 23, the Blackhawks had the seventh-best penalty kill unit in the league with an 83.0 percent success rate. It makes you wonder how much of that was because of Crawford, the ensuing dramatic drop-off in goal when he was injured or whether the effort wasn't as high when he was out. Maybe it was a combination of all three.

But with Marcus Kruger back in the fold and the addition of another defensive specialist like Luke Johnson, it's not unreasonable to think the Blackhawks can go from being a bottom 10 penalty kill unit to a top 10 one.

3. Henri Jokiharju is here

Yes, the blue line looks thin in terms of impact-type players. Gustav Forsling and Connor Murphy out with injuries until November and December, respectively, doesn't exactly help the situation either.

But all summer long Chicago had hoped Jokiharju would make the big club out of training camp and emerge as a possible rookie breakout candidate, like Charlie McAvoy did with the Boston Bruins. And all summer long Chicago was dreaming for Jokiharju to play with Duncan Keith on the top pairing, like McAvoy did with Zdeno Chara.

Well, it's happening.

Ready or not, Jokiharju is getting thrown into the fire and coach Joel Quenneville will try to put him in the best possible positions to succeed, such as occasional power play time to maximize his offensive ability where he can gain confidence. Now it's up to the 19-year-old to take advantage of that opportunity. And if he does, it could be a real game-changer on the back end knowing Adam Boqvist is also in the pipeline.

4. Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz are poised for breakout seasons

These are the two players the Blackhawks are depending heavily on to take the next steps in their development. DeBrincat led the team in goals a year ago with 28 while Schmaltz tied DeBrincat for third on the team with 52 points.

The third season in the NHL is usually the breakout one for up and coming stars, because you know you belong in the league, what your role is and how you can flourish by learning from the previous two years. That's where Schmaltz is at right now. Starting on a line with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad will only help elevate his offensive production, along with playing on the top power play unit. Schmaltz is also a restricted free agent at the end of the season, so he's playing for a new contract. That's typically when you get the best out of players, because they're looking to cash in on a big payday.

With DeBrincat, it's amazing to think he nearly cracked 30 goals by averaging only 14:48 of ice time. By playing on the first line with Jonathan Toews and power play, that should increase significantly, much like Schmaltz when he went from 13:16 in Year 1 to 18:14 in Year 2. DeBrincat will certainly draw tougher matchups, but good things happen when he's on the ice, so the more he's out there the better it is for the Blackhawks.

5. The Blackhawks are still among NHL's best at 5-on-5 numbers

The Blackhawks seemingly outshot their opponent every night last season. They had the fourth-best 5-on-5 possession numbers in terms of shot attempts and second-most scoring chances. Their high-danger scoring chances, however, ranked 16th and high-danger goals for percentage 28th, according to The quantity was clearly there, but the quality was not.

But that can be corrected.

There were way too many games last year where a majority of the shots were coming from the perimeter without much of a net-front presence for second and third scoring opportunities. In today's NHL where scoring unconventionally is most effective, the Blackhawks must make more of an effort to go to the greasy areas to get those chances. And they can do that without seeing their 5-on-5 numbers suffer.

SportingNews Top 50 NHL Prospects lists Boqvist at 10 and Kirby Dach at 13

USA Today

SportingNews Top 50 NHL Prospects lists Boqvist at 10 and Kirby Dach at 13

NHL draft analyst Steve Kournianos released his list for Top 50 players in NHL pipelines for the upcoming 2019-20 season. To the delight of Blackhawks fans everywhere, Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach were ranked at number 10 and 13 respectively.

Kournianos described 19-year-old defender Boqvist as a dominant rookie with 40 assists and 20 goals during his tenure with the London Knights. Fans speculate whether the Blackhawks will keep Boqvist on his junior squad for another year or pull him up to play with the American Hockey League Rockford Ice Hogs.

Kournianos said Dach was one of Team Canada’s top players at the World Junior Summer Showcase. The 18-year-old center is sure to be one of Canada’s main forwards during World Juniors and Dach has the flexibility to play anywhere in the Blackhawks lineup. Dach’s entry-level contract allows him up to nine NHL games this season, giving him the chance to return to the AHL or NHL after his junior season in the Western Hockey League is finished.

Both Boqvist and Dach are key player for the future of this team and it will interesting to watch the Hawks develop these younger players.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: An inside look at the Blackhawks Hockey Ops department with Senior VP Al MacIsaac

USA Today

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: An inside look at the Blackhawks Hockey Ops department with Senior VP Al MacIsaac

On the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle catches up with Senior VP of Hockey Operations, Al MacIsaac. They discuss the process the Blackhawks took in transforming the roster this off-season. MacIsaac is entering his 20th year with the Blackhawks and talks about the organizational changes over the last two decades. He also weighs in on the role analytics plays in evaluating current or potential Blackhawks and he explains why the team made a commitment to make its new practice facility the “gold standard” of the NHL.

0:45 – MacIsaac on changes within the Blackhawks organization in the last 20 years

4:00 – How the Blackhawks have added great depth this summer

5:25 – A good problem to have with two good goaltenders

6:23 – How the hockey ops meeting went at the end of last season

8:45 – How much the Blackhawks use and rely on analytics

10:27 – The importance of the Blackhawks strength and conditioning programs

12:24 – The planning behind Fifth Third Arena’s development

14:40 – The dynamic between hockey ops and business ops

16:37 – Agreements and disagreements within the hockey ops group

18:32 – MacIsaac’s longtime relationship with Mark Bernard

20:27 – Looking ahead to training camp and the regular season

22:42 – Tough decisions will need to be made when the season starts

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Blackhawks Talk Podcast