Be careful in writing the Blackhawks off


Be careful in writing the Blackhawks off

“I’ve seen this movie before…”

I love the aforementioned phrase and I use it often – not so much on Twitter, but more in real life. You know the gist of it: You think you know how a situation is going to unfold based on the story you’ve seen thus far. But just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, there’s a twist, leading to an ending you didn’t think would occur.

When I use that phrase, it’s usually when someone asks or talks to me about the Blackhawks. “They’re down by too much.” “They don’t have it this season.” “This team won’t get out of the first round.” Heard that last one quite a bit last spring. My response to most of that is, yes, “I’ve seen this movie before…”

[MORE - Blackhawks take away positives despite fourth straight loss to Flyers]

The Blackhawks haven’t looked good lately. They suffered their fourth consecutive loss on Wednesday, a 3-2 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers. They’ve been inconsistent since completing their franchise-best, 12-game winning streak. The problems have been the same: They’re giving up too many goals on one end and not scoring enough on the other. The lines have been inconsistent, as has the defense. Coach Joel Quenneville has tried a myriad of combinations to try and stoke both. Corey Crawford, so great through most of his season, has had more bloated numbers in recent starts. Whether it’s because Crawford is just struggling or he’s worn down – he is currently day-to-day with an upper-body injury and will not go to Winnipeg – remains to be seen.

But in each season/lengthy postseason, the Blackhawks have had concerns.

In 2013, they were down 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals. Most had them done – I’m sure if I looked hard enough, I could find the half-completed “eulogy” I had written after that Game 4 loss.

Last season, the Blackhawks had line consistency issues until they hit upon the Kris Versteeg-Brad Richards-Patrick Kane combination in November/December. They lost four straight heading into the postseason. Losing Michal Rozsival after the second round was supposed to be their undoing. So were the Anaheim Ducks.

You get the point.

The Blackhawks have succeeded in the postseason for various reasons. They’ve clicked at the right time. They’ve relied on core players to push them through – please see Jonathan Toews vs. the Ducks, Game 7 – and they’ve maintained mental toughness. That last one is particularly important. Mental toughness is an underrated necessity in the playoffs, when players have to get past the physical grind, and as of now only the Los Angeles Kings match the Blackhawks in that category.

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I’m not saying the Blackhawks will win the Cup this season. They could very well come up short. It’s a pretty damn hard trophy to win once let alone three times in the past six seasons as the Blackhawks have done. There’s also a reason no team has repeated for nearly 20 years – again, it’s pretty hard to do so, even when problems are at a minimum.

But the bottom line is this: the Blackhawks have usually found ways, even when it seemed they were done.

The Blackhawks have issues right now, ones they have to correct sooner rather than later, or it will be a short postseason. There’s no denying that. But even with what’s happening at the moment, be very careful about writing an ending you think is supposedly obvious.

I have seen this movie before. So have you.

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade


Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks


Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."