Blackhawks

Blackhawks' confidence grows as series progresses

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Blackhawks' confidence grows as series progresses

The Blackhawks sat at Tuesday’s media session assessing their current situation, down a game to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Not great, for sure. But not new either.

“It's not necessarily a situation you want to be in. The fact [that] this group of players and this organization has been down that road a few times, has been able to persevere has been good for us,” Patrick Sharp said. “We're going to try to draw from that experience and play better games going forward.”

There’s a reason the Blackhawks are still confident heading into Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final: they get better as series continue. In Games 4-7 during coach Joel Quenneville’s tenure here, the Blackhawks are 40-14. It’s a nice number, one that shows how much the Blackhawks get better as a series progresses. Since the 2013 postseason began they’ve trailed in four series, including the 2013 Cup final, when they were down 2-1 to the Boston Bruins. They only failed to come back in one of those four series – last spring against the Los Angeles Kings, who they trailed 3-1 before losing in Game 7.

“I think maybe it's part knowing what we're up against, part just us raising our game, getting better and better as the series go along,” Jonathan Toews said. “Obviously we don't draw it up in some situations when we get down in a series; it's not part of the plan. But I think we have confidence when we get in those situations that we can take it one game at a time, focus on the next game and continue to put pressure on the other team.”

The Blackhawks have strung together some good moments and some good periods against the Lightning. Their two goals in two minutes during Game 1 was a reminder of how quickly this team can turn the tables in its favor. They were dominant in the first period of Game 3, battering an injured Ben Bishop with 19 shots. The problem is, they haven’t been consistent. They’ve had miscues, they’ve allowed opposing goals not long after they’ve scored and they’ve trailed early in each of the first three games.

But they went down this road against Anaheim, who was blocking a ton of Blackhawks shots through the first few games. Then the Blackhawks broke through, got big contributions from top players – Toews led with four goals in the last three games – and upended the Ducks on visiting ice.

Maybe it’s a feeling-out process through those first few games sometimes. But the response has nonetheless been there late.

“We always want to start off the series good. I don't know, I just think it's a thing we have on our team: when the game is on the line, it matters more, we usually find a way to elevate our game a little bit,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “Hopefully we can do the same thing here in the last couple games.”

The Blackhawks have starred in this movie before, the one that has that slow start, the buildup in the middle and the flourish at the end. Whether or not they manage the same script against the Lightning remains to be seen. The Blackhawks usually have an edge in how they’ve dealt with postseason pressure, but so far, the Lightning have done well in that department, too. Still, the Blackhawks have the confidence they can find a way as a series continues. They’ve got the great record to show for it, too.

“The guys in the room, we want to be out there and win. We want to be out there in those situations and play in big games,” Brent Seabrook said. “For whatever reason, I think we play our best games when our backs are up against the wall.”

UPDATES

  • Coach Joel Quenneville said Johnny Oduya, who missed some time with an upper-body injury in Game 3, “looked all right today. We'll see how he is tomorrow.”
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk had a solid outing in his first NHL game since November. Said Niklas Hjalmarsson, “he made some really, really nice plays and showed patience and calmness with the puck. To just come in like that in the Stanley Cup Finals, play the way he did, was nothing else than impressive.”
  • Quenneville said, “we’ll see” when asked if the Blackhawks will have any lineup changes in Game 4.

The next wave of Blackhawks defensemen is coming

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USA TODAY

The next wave of Blackhawks defensemen is coming

It seems like yesterday the Blackhawks were scraping for young, impact defensemen prospects. Just one, even.

Oh, how that's changed significantly over the last 12 months.

In 2015 and 2016, the Blackhawks did not own a first-round pick. And before that, they hadn't drafted a defenseman in the first round since Dylan Olsen — 28th overall — in 2009. Luckily, they had already hit on Duncan Keith (second round in 2002) and Brent Seabrook (first round in 2003) in back-to-back drafts, and two years later on Niklas Hjalmarsson (fourth round in 2005).

That was a long time ago. Keith is turning 35 in July and Seabrook turned 33 in April. The Blackhawks have gotten that second wave of talent up front with Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Dylan Sikura. The same can't be said for the defense.

But it's coming.

Since last June, the Blackhawks have added defensemen Henri Jokiharju, Ian Mitchell, Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin to their pipeline and used each of their three first-round picks in the past two drafts to do it. Mitchell was the lone second-round pick, and he had an oustanding freshman season at Denver, meaning he could be ready sooner than later — probably after his sophomore campaign.

Despite the need for defensemen, the Blackhawks never wavered on their draft approach and the desire to add instant help didn't impact how they went about this past weekend. Draft the best player available and you can't go wrong.

The good news for the Blackhawks is, the players that were rated highest on their board when their picks rolled around were positional needs. How fitting.

"Coming into the draft, we're just looking for the best value players we have; guys ranked the highest at their spots," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said on drafting Boqvist and Beaudin. "It just so happened they're both defensemen, which is great because that's a very important position. I think they're the highest valued assets.

"Calling around this week about potential trades and looking for players and they're the hardest things to find. We didn't draft them just because they're defensemen. We like both of their style of play, their skill set. I think they both play the modern NHL game. Both have bright futures."

There are high hopes for all four of them.

Then you look deeper inside the organization and you'll find Gustav Forsling, who was once considered the Blackhawks' top defensive prospect and currently finds himself in the five-spot. Yet, he's the most NHL ready and could have a full-time role with the Blackhawks next season.

Peel the next layer and you'll see Blake Hillman, who showed promise and great situational defensive awareness in his brief stint last season. Dennis Gilbert, who brings size and physicality, offers a different element and will continue his developement with the Rockford IceHogs. And then there's Lucas Carlsson and Carl Dahlstrom, both of whom could make things interesting in training camp.

Suddenly, the Blackhawks are faced with having, what you would call, a good problem to have by putting together one of the best young defensive farm systems in the league.

Now, that's not to say that each of these guys are going to pan out the way the Blackhawks are hoping they will. But you're increasing your chances by collecting a number of players with high-end talent and creating competition.

The real question is when they'll all be ready.

While there may be temptation to push them along to help the Blackhawks in the short term, it's important to resist that because the future on the back end looks promising if they each grow at their own pace.

Boqvist has the potential to be Erik Karlsson as a best-case scenario. Even if he can be half of that, that's a win. Jokiharju's ceiling is whatever he wants it to be, and throwing Boqvist into the mix perhaps alleviates some pressure off his shoulders. Beaudin and Mitchell each have top-four potential and should develop as such.

Knowing what they could be capable of with proper development, there shouldn't be any reason to rush it. Just be excited they're on the way.

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

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USA TODAY

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

The NHL Draft is over. Farm systems have been restocked and now the focus has shifted to free agency, where the fun is just beginning.

The biggest fish on the market is John Tavares, a franchise-changing center in the heart of his prime. For a little bit, it seemed like the loyal New York Islanders captain was ready to move on after they took another step back by missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But then Lou Lamiorello became available and was snatched up by Long Island. His first order of business was relieving GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight of their duties, the first real sign that significant changes were coming. The next was securing Barry Trotz as head coach after he couldn't agree to terms on an extension with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

For the first time in a while, there appears to be structure in the front office and coaching staff.

Yet, Tavares has remained committed to visiting with reportedly five teams in Los Angeles during the free agent negotiating window that opened Sunday. And he's absolutely earned that right. San Jose and Toronto are believed to be two of the teams. The rest is unclear.

When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle at the end of the draft on Saturday, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wouldn't confirm nor deny that they were one of the teams scheduled to meet with Tavares.

"I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile.

Whether or not they are, could the Blackhawks realistically even make it work?

They actually have the cap space to do it. Or at least they can make room without shuffling too many cards.

As of Sunday, the Blackhawks have $9.225 million in open cap space to fill out six roster spots. If you can find a trade partner for Marian Hossa's contract, that creates an extra $5.275 million, which brings the total up to $14.5 million. That's without subtracting any real bodies from the roster. 

Tavares is likely to command in the $10 million range for average annual value over the next seven years, and the latter part is key. While it would certainly be challenging to have three players eating up at least $10 million each in cap space — with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million — they could make it work in the short term.

But signing Tavares to a seven-year deal would probably get in the way of the Blackhawks' longer-term goals, which includes re-signing Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz when their entry-level deals expire and even Vinnie Hinostroza when his new two-year contract ends.

Are the Blackhawks willing to risk that?

For Tavares, maybe. But Toews is 30, Kane is 29 and Tavares will be 28 by the time this upcoming season starts. At some point, an infusion of youth would be required to remain competitive for the long term.