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.

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

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AP

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

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AP

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

The second wave of Blackhawks defensemen is on the way. That's exactly where all the attention was when prospect camp opened up Monday at MB Ice Arena.

Nicolas Beaudin. Adam Boqvist. Henri Jokiharju. Ian Mitchell. Call it the Big Four. Where are they all at in their development? When will they be ready to make an NHL impact? Who's the most pro ready? 

Lots of questions. Those will slowly start to get answered and it begins now.

While there may not necessarily be an open competition among the group right away, there's certainly a desire to make a strong first impression in front of the upper brass that included Stan Bowman, John McDonough and Joel Quenneville watching on Day 1.

"Every NHL team has a lot of good defensemen prospects, so I mean obviously when you want to go out there you want to showcase yourself as best as you can," Mitchell said. "Obviously you want to be the best defenseman here so that's my goal going into this, I want to prove to everyone that I'm a good defenseman, I deserve to play at the next level. Obviously there's lots of good players here, but you're trying to all succeed."

Said Beaudin: "There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of good, young defensemen. I think you just need to be different when you play when you show what you can do."

Said Boqvist: "I'm trying to be better every day. Of course I will play in the NHL one day and win Stanley Cups, so that's my mindset."

The theme? Focus on your own game, take what you learn out of this week and apply those tools in your game when advancing your development next season. The rest will take care of itself.

Mitchell will go back to Denver for his sophomore campaign to continue his development. Beaudin is expected to return to the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Boqvist signed with the OHL's London Knights, where he will look to get accustomed to the North American style of play.

For Jokiharju, the goal is different. This is his second development camp. He signed an entry-level contract in June. Making the big club is a real goal and a legitimate possibility for a Blackhawks team looking for young, impact defensemen immediately.

"I think if Henri has a really good summer of training, comes into camp, I certainly thinks he gets a good look," Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NBC Sports Chicago last month.

Jokiharju showed poise and confidence with and without the puck during drills, like someone who knows this is only the first step towards that ultimate goal.

"Yeah," Jokiharju responded when asked if the expectation is to make it to the NHL this season. "You want to set the bar high, you don't want to set the bar too low. I want to dream big and that's the dream."

That's the dream for everyone. When that happens, it's up to them. This week is a chance to set an early tone.