Blackhawks

Five bold (and not so bold) predictions for Blackhawks in 2017-18

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USA TODAY

Five bold (and not so bold) predictions for Blackhawks in 2017-18

Here are five bold (and not so bold) predictions for the Blackhawks in 2017-18:

1. Brandon Saad will set a career high in goals and points.

We'll start with the most important acquisition of the offseason. There are many reasons to believe Saad will take a giant step forward, none more obvious than reuniting with Jonathan Toews. The two clearly bring out the best in each other by playing that same two-way style of game, and it showed in previous years. Also, reuniting with head coach Joel Quenneville who really believes in his abilities and trusts him in all situations is key. 

And that's really why we expect Saad to have a huge year. He'll get the opportunity to be a consistent top liner, something he struggled to nail down in two seasons under John Tortorella, who bounced Saad up and down the lineup after never quite getting on board with him.

Saad averaged a career high 17:15 of ice time with the Blackhawks in 2014-15, and that number dipped a bit in consecutive seasons in Columbus. For reference, Toews averaged more than 20 minutes last year. We expect Saad to be in that ballpark, with Quenneville using him as a horse.

That's almost an extra three minutes per game, a handful of which will come on the power play and penalty kill. So expect his offensive production to hit career numbers, surpassing the 31 goals he scored in 2015-16 and the 53 points he hit in both seasons with the Blue Jackets.

2. Blackhawks power play will finish in top 5

The Blackhawks power play went from No. 2 in 2015-16 to No. 19 in 2016-17 for a variety of reasons, whether it was the lack of net front presence, always looking for that perfect pass or perfect shot, or being too top heavy. It wasn't a good recipe for success.

It certainly doesn't help losing a top offensive player like Artemi Panarin, but it may not be the worst thing. He and Patrick Kane often looked for each other a little too much on the man advantage, and it sometimes impeded the flow among the five players on the ice.

With the emergence of Nick Schmaltz, the reacquisition of Saad and Patrick Sharp, along with offensively-gifted rookie Alex DeBrincat making the big club, the Blackhawks will have two solid units and won't be as reliant on the first one this year.

3. Corey Crawford will set a career high in wins

For the first time in a while, there's some uncertainty surrounding the Blackhawks' backup goaltending situation. Anton Forsberg is quickly starting to eliminate those concerns, however, after looking really sharp in the preseason and flashing his potential.

But can he continue that level of play on a consistent basis? It would be asking a lot of him to immediately fill the shoes of Scott Darling, who went 18-5-5 in 27 starts (32 games played) last year.

We anticipate Forsberg getting in between 20-25 starts, but Crawford could handle as big of a load as he's ever carried in his career if the race starts to get tight down the stretch.

Crawford's heaviest load came in 2015-16 when he started in 58 games, the same season he set a career high in wins with 35. We expect him to be in that range once again with a few more starts, and see him picking up an extra few wins because of it as well. Let's say 36 or 37.

4. Nick Schmaltz will finish top 5 in team scoring

Is there a player on the Blackhawks roster that noticeably looks like a different player than last year? He looks bigger, faster, stronger, and is extremely confident with the puck, stemming off the second half of last season after his stint in the American Hockey League. There is no doubt in his mind that he can compete at a high level in this league, and it's why he's slotted in at the second-line center position going into the year.

He's got a history of taking a big leap from his first to second year, too.

In his freshman campaign at North Dakota, he registered 26 points (five goals, 21 assists) in 38 games. In his sophomore year, that total jumped to 46 points (11 goals, 35 assists) in 37 games. The same went for the World Juniors, when he recorded one point in five games two years ago for Team USA then bounced back with eight points in seven contests.

Factor in that he'll be playing with Patrick Kane on a nightly basis, and you have yourself a sneaky underrated duo. 

Kane, Saad, Toews and Duncan Keith will likely be among the top of Chicago's leaderboard, but expect Schmaltz to be right there in that mix.

5. Blackhawks won't crack 100 points, but they'll make it out of the first round

Alright, so picking the Predators to beat the Blackhawks last April understandably didn't sit well with many of you (water under the bridge), but there may be a better outlook on this season than people may think.

Don't expect the Blackhawks to compete for the No. 1 seed, though, which is fine. Because last year proved it doesn't really matter. Just get in.

The Blackhawks' top-nine forward group actually looks pretty solid, to go along with a two-time Norris Tropher winner anchoring the blue line and a world-class goaltender as the last line of defense. The blue line could use some additional help if it becomes an area of concern down the road, but they'll have plenty of cap space to work with at the trade deadline to patch up any of those defensive inefficiences.

Finally, the Western Conference is wide open, in a weird way. There are a lot of very good teams, but nobody sticks out from the pack unlike previous years. The opportunity for a deep run is there for the taking, but you can't look too far ahead. Find a way to get past Round 1 and it's anybody's game.

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

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Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

The unrestricted free agent market opens up for the NHL on July 1. Five-time All-Star John Tavares is will reportedly be meeting with five different teams to talk about the possibility of leaving the only team he's played for his entire career, the New York Islanders. 

After a highly disappointing 33-39-10 finish to the 2017-18 season, many expect Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to be very aggressive this offseason. When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle if the Blackhawks would be one of the five teams going after Tavares, Bowman gave a very reticent answer.

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

"No, I'm not going to comment on that, but I know we're gonna have a lot of discussions over the next five or six days and we'll see where it goes."

Reports indicate that the Islanders and Tavares had been trying to work out the terms of a long-term extension, but with so many attractive options out there, it will be a tough decision for him. There are several teams coming off of playoff runs expected to go after Tavares, including Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and San Jose. In addition to those teams, his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be in play as well.

But Chicago's rough year was so out of place for a team so used to winning consistently, that one can imagine their pitch will be enticing.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada had this to say about the Blackhawks potential pursuit of Tavares: "They're not going to tolerate being that bad again, they're going to try something. I think they'll make a run at John Tavares too. I do, I think they'll ask, is there any way we can get him here?"

When taking all of this into account, it is sure to be an extremely exciting free agency period for the Blackhawks. The team is in full "re-tool" rather than "rebuild" mode, and there have been discussions that Kane may be becoming the more vocal leader of the team. But the addition of Tavares to a core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford could boost the Blackhawks back into Stanley Cup contention. 

Blackhawks 2018 NHL Draft capsules: Scouting reports and analysis

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Blackhawks 2018 NHL Draft capsules: Scouting reports and analysis

A recap of the Blackhawks' selections in the 2018 NHL Draft, and their scouting reports, including analysis from Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman and VP of amateur scouting Mark Kelley:

Round 1, pick 8: Adam Boqvist, defenseman

Round 1, pick 27: Nicolas Beaudin, defenseman

Round 3, pick 69: Jake Wise, center

— What you need to know: Wise, 18, scored 11 goals and dished out 32 assists in 38 games for the United States National Team Development Program last season. He also scored a goal and added four assists in seven games during the Under-18 World Junior Championship. Wise will play at Boston University next year.

— Scouting report: Wise is 5-foot-10, 194 pounds and is known to be an excellent skater. He's also responsible in his own end, which is a trait the Blackhawks always appreciate in their younger players.

— Player reaction: "I thought the Hawks were probably one of the teams I was going to go to for the longest time. I don’t know why, but I always had a gut feeling. And to go to the Blackhawks, it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable organization and I couldn’t be happier."

— Analysis from Kelley: "He's just a really smart two-way centerman. He had a great start to the season and then he missed some time and it was ironic when he came back, it was the same time Jack Hughes joined the team and all of a sudden they had a No. 1 and No. 2 center and the team really took off."

Round 3, pick 74: Niklas Nordgren, forward

— What you need to know: Nordgren, 18, compiled 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists) in 28 games for Jr. A SM-liiga in the HIFK U20 league, and produced at a point-per-game rate in the playoffs with six goals and four assists in 10 games. He also reigstered 10 points (eight goals, two assists) in seven games for Finland during the Under-18 World Junior Championship. He plans to return to Finland next season.

— Scouting report: Nordgren is an undersized winger (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) but has the ability to score and can play in any situation.

— Player reaction: "Pretty exciting to get [drafted by the] Blackhawks, one of my favorites teams in the NHL."

— Analysis from Kelley: "He has great instincts around the net, he has a really good stick in traffic. I think if you look and track his goals you'll find they're goal scorers goals. He gets in the dirt, he's not afraid and he's just got a really great release."

Round 4, pick 120: Philipp Kurashev, forward

— What you need to know: Kurashev, 18, recorded 60 points (19 goals, 41 assists) in 59 games for the Québec Remparts of the QMJHL, and added one goal and four assists in six postseason contests. He also scored a goal and added two assists in five games with Switzerland during the Under-20 World Junior Championship.

— Scouting report: Kurashev is 6-foot-0, 190 pounds and is known to be a smooth skater who can blow past defenders during odd-man rushes. There are concerns about his effort level, but the package is there and that's what attracted the Blackhawks.

— Analysis from Kelley: "Really smart, skilled centerman but he's also really strong on his skates. We thought he had a really good year this year. We think he's better acclimated, we expect him to have a real good year this year coming back."

Round 5, pick 139: Mikael Hakkarainen, forward

— What you need to know: Hakkarainen, 20, accumulated 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists) in 36 games for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL last season, and added an assist in three playoff games. He was a member of the Chicago Steel for 16 games in 2016-17, where he recorded four assists. Hakkarainen will play at Providence College for the 2018-19 season.

— Scouting report: Hakkarainen is 6-foot-1, 194 pounds and can be an impact-type player and contribute on special teams.

— Analysis from Kelley: "I think what attracted us to him was, when you went and saw him play, he got on the scoresheet but even if he wasn't on the scoresheet you noticed him play. He played hard. 200-foot."

Round 6, pick 162: Alexis Gravel, goaltender

— What you need to know: Gravel, 18, had a 3.38 goals against average and .890 save percentage in 39 games with Halifax Mooseheads last season, and a 2.70 GAA and .917 save percentage in eight playoff games. 

— Scouting report: Gravel is 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, which immediately stand out because it's the kind of size and big frame the Blackhawks like in their goaltenders. His strengths include his quick glove hand and rebound control.

— Player reaction: "It's amazing. It's probably the best day of my life. I just look down and there's a Chicago Blackhawks logo on the jersey. It feels amazing. It's unreal."

— Analysis from Bowman: "Alexis is a guy we think has a lot of potential. And with goalies you have to be patient with them, they take a little bit longer [to develop]. But he’s got a lot of ability, he’s got the size to be an NHL goalie, and I think that’s part of it. We’re happy that he was there and we were able to get him."

— Analysis from Kelley: "He's going to have a great situation. They're going to host the Memorial Cup next year. We're expecting a peak year out of him. He's been a good goaltender. This year we saw him play some really good games. He's in a good spot. We like the opportunity for him."

Round 7, pick 193: Josiah Slavin, forward

— What you need to know: Slavin, 19, had 42 points (23 goals, 19 assists) in 60 games last season with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, and two goals and one assist in seven playoff games. He is expected to return to the USHL before going to Colorado College in 2019-20. He is the younger brother of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin.

— Analysis from Kelley: "We like the project there. We think where he is on the curve, he's gonna play another year and then go to Colorado College. We just like the whole project."