Five Things from Blackhawks-Hurricanes: Marcus Kruger will 'miss some time'

Five Things from Blackhawks-Hurricanes: Marcus Kruger will 'miss some time'

RALEIGH, N.C. – Another night, another one-goal game. This time the Blackhawks couldn’t pull out the comeback like they did in Nashville on Friday.

That’s the way it goes, but the Blackhawks aren’t ending this year as they hoped. Lulls will happen, and the Blackhawks are certainly in one right now.

So before we head to another outdoor game and close out 2016, let’s look at Five Things to take from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

1. Marcus Kruger injured. The Blackhawks will lose another player, and this time it’s looking more long term. Kruger suffered an upper-body injury in the second period and coach Joel Quenneville said the center is, “going to miss some time”. So as of now, it’s looking like a few weeks. The Blackhawks may get Marian Hossa back for the Winter Classic; he’ll meet the team in St. Louis. With Kruger they’ll lose a good defensive player and a good penalty killer. Remember what the PK looked like in his absence last season? Yeah, others will have to step up.

2. One costly lapse. Over a 65-second span the Blackhawks went from leading to trailing. The Hurricanes scored both goals on rebound opportunities. Perhaps it was the more rested Hurricanes taking advantage of the Blackhawks, who played the night before in Nashville. Then again, the Blackhawks getting off to a sluggish start isn’t new, or dependent on whether or not they played the previous night.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

3. Michal Kempny scores his first NHL goal. The Czech defenseman has had to be patient, as he was a healthy scratch five consecutive games before playing against Nashville on Thursday. Playing for the second consecutive night, Kempny looked good and gave the Blackhawks an early lead. Coach Joel Quenneville approved. “He played a great game. Very active, had a couple of nice shots from the point, good one-timer, good play off the rush. Great game.”

4. Jonathan Toews collecting points. Toews’ frustration seems to be diminishing, and for good reason. He recorded two assists on Friday night, and now has four points in as many games. Said Scott Darling, “we were never worried about it. Only you guys were. Even when he’s not getting points he’s doing great things on the ice, stuff that doesn’t end up on the scoresheet. But I’m sure for him it’s a weight off his shoulders, contributing multiple games in a row like he has been.”

5. Onto the Winter Classic. We think so, anyway. As of now, the weather for Monday’s game isn’t looking so good (80 percent chance of rain). We’ll see how that goes but considering how they’ve played lately this game is a little bigger for the Blackhawks. They finished 2016 losing some momentum. They want to get it back soon.

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Jeremy Colliton had difficult shoes to fill. That's an understatement.

He replaced a three-time Stanley Cup winner and the second-winningest NHL coach of all-time in Joel Quenneville. And Colliton jumped in at the age of 33 just days after he and his wife welcomed their third child.

To make things even more complicated, Colliton took over as Blackhawks head coach just one month into the season and had to implement some new components of his system on the fly. That took a while for the veterans who had been playing one way for the last 10-plus years to adjust.

Colliton's No. 1 priority when he came to Chicago was to help fix a power-play unit that ranked third-worst during the 2017-18 campaign with a 16.0 percent success rate and 26th through the first 15 games of the 2018-19 season with a 14.0 percentage. It wasn't getting any better.

But from the day he got hired and on, the Blackhawks finished with the seventh-best power play (21.8 percent). It dried up down the stretch, but that was after a two-month span where it was converting at nearly a 40 percent clip. It was bound for regression.

The penalty kill, however, is something that stayed in the basement of the NHL all season long. They were 23rd under Quenneville through the first 15 games (76.6 percent) and finished last with a 71.7 percent kill rate under Colliton in the remaining 67 games. You can overcome a struggling power play, but it's almost impossible to overcome a bad penalty kill.

At 5-on-5 play under Quenneville this season, the Blackhawks had an expected goals for percentage of 45.8, a scoring chances for percentage of 49.2 and high-danger chances for percentage of 43.6, according to Under Colliton, they had an expected GF percentage of 45.8, SCF percentage of 46.9 and HDCF percentage of 42.6.

The sample sizes obviously aren't the same (15 games vs. 67) and, as we mentioned above, it took a couple of months for the Blackhawks to really get comfortable with Colliton's defensive structure. They certainly went through growing pains.

But with the Blackhawks expected to be active this summer in free agency and adding players that fit their new head coach's style, coupled with the fact that Colliton will have a full training camp to iron out the kinks and incorporate even more elements into his system, and the team could hit the ground running for the 2019-20 campaign rather than playing catch-up all season long. 

"I think as you go you get more comfortable, you gain confidence, you go through experiences and deal with situations that come up and they're challenging at times," Colliton said. "You get through it. And then the next time stuff comes up, you feel more confident, you feel better about what you're doing. I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress. It took longer than we all would have liked, but I think I'm a better coach now than when I walked in, and I'm going to use that going forward. 

"There's going to be challenging circumstances next year too where maybe doesn't come easy. But I think all the best coaches get better all the time. Every day they're bringing new ideas and new energy and looking outside for inspiration. That's what I expect to."

Coaching: B-

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What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

After falling short of a Frozen Four championship with Denver, the attention in Chicago turned to defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell and whether he'd sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. It felt like it was only a matter of time before he would do so, but as the days passed, there seemed to be growing speculation that that may not be the case.

On Wednesday, Mitchell made it official and announced his decision to return to college for his junior season by releasing this statement on Denver's website:

"In the past few days since our season ended, I have had the chance to reflect on the year and the season our team had. It became clear to me during that time that I did not feel ready mentally or physically to leave Denver. I believe this is the best place for me to become a better hockey player and as a team we have an opportunity to do something very special next year. I would like to thank the Chicago Blackhawks organization for being so supportive and respectful of my decision to remain in school and continue my development. I am looking forward to next season."

So what does this mean for the Blackhawks?

For one, it immediately eliminates Mitchell from the equation of making the 2019-20 Opening Day roster even though he might be the most pro-ready of the three top Blackhawks defensemen prospects that haven't appeared in an NHL game yet (Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist). It's probably a wise move for his long-term development.

But with Beaudin and Boqvist also in the same boat as far as maybe needing some more time to develop, it's entirely possible all three won't be in the NHL next season. Which is fine. The Blackhawks have always preached patience when it comes to prospects developing at their own pace.

But it puts the Blackhawks in a position the following season where they could be breaking in several young defensemen at once depending on where they're at in their timelines. Maybe that's a good problem to have. It also depends on the number of roster spots available, which is a conversation for a different day.

In going back to college, Mitchell, a second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in 2017, pushes back his eligibility to sign with the Blackhawks to the spring of 2020. And yes, it's too early to start wondering whether the Blackhawks could lose his signing rights if he returns to college for a senior season and elects to go to free agency. 

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