Despite concerns, Blackhawks doing well through first quarter

Despite concerns, Blackhawks doing well through first quarter

The Blackhawks played their 23rd game on Saturday night, a 2-1 overtime loss the Los Angeles Kings.

The game was a microcosm of the season: getting outplayed early, struggling with special teams (this time the power play), with a great goaltending performance giving them the chance at points. But coach Joel Quenneville says the Blackhawks are heading in the right direction.

“I think it’s progressed here,” he said of the team’s identity. “I think it’s been better as far as how we played defensively. We’re getting a little more predictable in some areas without the puck. I still think we can be better with it. That’s the area where we have room for growth.”

The Circus Trip (3-3-1) usually gives the Blackhawks a good idea of where they are at this point but we’re going to look at the whole picture thus far. So as the Blackhawks head back to Chicago, here is a breakdown on how they are looking a quarter into the season.

What’s been good: Goaltending. When the Blackhawks have struggled in various aspects of their game, Corey Crawford or Scott Darling have given them the chance to collect points. Darling was the latest to help in this department, recording a 27-stop outing to end the Circus Trip on a semi-positive note. Crawford’s record of 10-6-2 includes a 7-0-2 streak from Oct. 24 to Nov. 13. He recorded two shutouts during that run.

What’s been underwhelming: the penalty kill. The usual stuff wasn’t working for the Blackhawks when they started the season. The kill was dreadful, allowing 15 goals through the Blackhawks’ first eight games. It improved after that, although it’s still showing off nights – please see Edmonton, when it was just 2 for 4. The Blackhawks will not end this season with glowing penalty kill numbers; their awful start insures that. But going forward it has to be a lot more reliable.

Who has been hot: Marian Hossa. Remember when we all thought Hossa’s best days were behind him? Well, we were wrong. Very, very wrong. Credit the long offseason for most of it – and getting that 500th career goal put him at ease, too – but Hossa is having a renaissance season. He was at his best as part of the Blackhawks’ second line with Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov, but his strength on the puck and his defensive game have never wavered. Through 22 games Hossa has 11 goals. He had 13 all of last season.

Who has not: Jonathan Toews. Offensively, the captain has been frustrated. He had four goals in a five-game stretch in late October/early November but has no goals since Nov. 6. Reunited with Hossa in San Jose, Toews said he had to mimic the veteran: “I think you look at the way Hoss has been playing, he’s been so strong on the puck, keeping plays alive. I think for myself, if I wanted to get more chances and create more offense, I’ve got to do much of the same. I have to be harder on the puck.” On the flip side, you realize how valuable Toews is when he’s out of the lineup. He’s by far the Blackhawks’ best faceoff man. The lines were very altered in his absence. Toews does plenty but there’s no doubt he needs to start producing again.

What’s been surprising: The Blackhawks’ overall record. Despite the ups and downs, slow starts and dependence on comebacks, the Blackhawks are doing damn well in the standings. They finished the Circus Trip not just atop the Central Division, but also the Western Conference with 31 points. Again, goaltending gets a big pat on the back through this first quarter of the season. So did a heavy early home schedule; the Blackhawks are currently 8-1-2 at the United Center. But good teams find ways to win, or at least get a point, and the Blackhawks are still doing that.

Blackhawks mailbag: Goaltending situation and how draft could affect free agency

Blackhawks mailbag: Goaltending situation and how draft could affect free agency

Every Friday this offseason, Charlie Roumeliotis will look to answer your Blackhawks and hockey-related questions. Be sure to chime in using the hashtag #HawksMailbag on Twitter for a chance to have your question answered in the next edition.  

When are the Blackhawks going to announce their recent signings?

This question came on Wednesday and the Blackhawks officially announced the signing of 26-year-old Swedish forward Anton Wedin on Thursday. Wedin, who's a 5-foot-11, 194-pound winger, had a breakout season in the Swedish Hockey League and is expected to battle for a full-time roster spot for the Blackhawks in 2019-20.

The other one to watch for is Dominik Kubalik. He has reportedly agreed to an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks, but word is it won't be made official until the 2019 IIHF World Championship ends. He's currently representing the Czech Republic, which advanced to the semifinals on Thursday. Kubalik's rights were acquired by the Blackhawks from Los Angeles in January for a 2019 fifth-round pick.

Does Crawford get extended during the summer?

Corey Crawford has one year left on his six-year contract that carries a $6 million cap hit. The expectation is that he will be re-signed — and he should be. When that comes remains to be seen.

Given his health situation, the Blackhawks may prefer to see how the 2019-20 campaign plays out before diving into contract negotiations with their two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie. Or they could try ironing one out starting on July 1 so that it doesn't hang over his head all season long. 

Crawford will be 35 in December, but that should not be the primary concern. It's whether or not the Blackhawks can count on his availability. When healthy, he's still one of the best in the game and the importance of the goaltending position is at an all-time high. Term will be the thing to watch for when it comes to Crawford's next contract.

Outside of the number 3 pick, what players or positions should the Hawks target in the draft?

The Blackhawks' philosophy is to take the best available player, especially in the first round of the NHL Draft. In 2018, the hope for the organization was that they would come away with a forward and defenseman in Round 1 but instead landed two defensemen (Adam Boqvist at No. 8 and Nicolas Beaudin at No. 27). Same with 2017 when they ended up Henri Jokiharju (No. 29) and Ian Mitchell (second round, No. 57 overall).

The later rounds (4-7) are where that thinking gets trickier because there isn't as much separation between the best available players. At that point — if it's close — positional need might be the deciding factor. 

Given the surplus of high-end defensemen in the pipeline, it's easy to say the Blackhawks should focus more on forward depth and the goaltending position. And that's probably true. But you still want to take the player with the highest ceiling because there's value in developing players the right way and making them attractive trade pieces down the line if there's no room for them on the Blackhawks roster. 

Favorite UFA targets? How do those affect your draft, if at all?

This is an interesting question, and the cliché answer is that it shouldn't impact the draft at all. In fact, the draft may have more impact on what the Blackhawks do in free agency more than vice versa.

The top of the draft is loaded with centers (Dylan Cozens, Kirby Dach, Jack Hughes, Peyton Krebs, Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras). The other name generating buzz is Bowen Byram, who's a defenseman. If the Blackhawks pick one of those centers at No. 3 overall, which is very possible, they'll be adding that player — whether he's NHL ready next season or not — to a center group that already includes Artem Anisimov, David Kampf, Jonathan Toews and Dylan Strome. 

Toews is going to retire a Blackhawk. Strome is likely going to earn a long-term contract as well. And Kampf appears to be the perfect fourth-line center. Which leaves one center spot left. 

The odd man out may be Anisimov, but even so, there might be less of an inclination to sign a center to a long-term deal this summer if they draft a center at No. 3 because they will have filled that long-term need through the draft. If it's still an area they'd like to address in the short-term, then that could change the Blackhawks' way of thinking going into July 1.

Is Collin Delia the best option behind Crawford or are there other goalies in the system who are ready?

The Blackhawks are very much invested in Delia as Crawford's backup for the 2019-20 season. GM Stan Bowman said as much during exit interviews.

"I think Delia has taken a nice step as a pro this second year," Bowman said. "He didn't play a lot of NHL games, but certainly early on when he was playing a lot, he was really, really good. The hardest part for someone like Collin is trying to adjust to the NHL to not playing every night. I think when he came up and played in a few consecutive games, he was really good. And once we started rotation a bit, that's an adjustment for a young goalie. He wasn't sharp. But now he goes back to Rockford and I think he's the No. 1 or No. 2 in the American League in all his statistics. So he's doing all he can do to show that he's ready. That's nice knowing we have him signed for a couple of years and his best years are ahead of him." 

Kevin Lankinen is somebody that's quietly emerging as an intriguing prospect for the Blackhawks. He was put in tough spot this past season, starting with the Indy Fuel of the ECHL then rotating in and out with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL, where he had a 2.50 goals against average and .910 save percentage in 19 appearances. 

At the 2019 IIHF World Championship, he's been a big bright spot for Finland. He has a 1.83 GAA and .916 save percentage in six games. The Blackhawks want to see him handle No. 1 responsibilities in Rockford before putting him into the conversation as a potential NHL backup.

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Blackhawks fill assistant coach vacancy with hiring of Tomas Mitell


Blackhawks fill assistant coach vacancy with hiring of Tomas Mitell

One month after "mutually" agreeing to part ways with assistant coach Don Granato, the Blackhawks have hired 38-year-old Tomas Mitell as his replacement on Jeremy Colliton's staff. 

Mitell spent the past two seasons as head coach of AIK Hockey (Allsvenskan) in Sweden, where he guided the team to an overall record of 64-27-13. He led AIK to a league-best 35-8-9 record during the 2018-19 campaign, with their 35 wins and 109 points each setting franchise records.

Perhaps more notably: Mitell served as an assistant coach under Colliton with Mora IK (Allsvenskan) during the 2016-17 season, so there's obvious familiarity between the two. 

Mitell rounds out Colliton's staff that also includes assistant coach Sheldon Brookbank and veteran goaltending coach Jimmy Waite. It's a young group behind the Chicago bench, with Colliton (34), Brookbank (38) and Mitell (38) each having little NHL coaching experience but offer a new-school way of thinking.

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