Blackhawks

Scott Darling “reassures” Blackhawks during Corey Crawford’s absence

Scott Darling “reassures” Blackhawks during Corey Crawford’s absence

Scott Darling had been there and done this not too long ago, albeit not at this pace.

The Blackhawks’ backup goaltender started 11 consecutive games near the end of last season; as he recalled on Friday, “it wasn’t as condensed as this was, though.”

OK, so the 10 consecutive games he just completed wasn’t such a stretch. Still, it was a busy and rather successful stretch. So as a now-healthy Corey Crawford reclaims his net on Friday night against the Colorado Avalanche, the Blackhawks are grateful for the work Scott Darling did in Crawford’s absence.

“It reassures our team a whole heck of a lot. I think we’ve always known since Day 1, even a couple of years ago on our [2015] Cup run, what Scotty did for us,” Jonathan Toews said. “We all know it’s a tough thing to just step in and play when you haven’t played in a while or often. To play the way he has is huge for our team especially going forward, knowing we have that depth. It goes with the same situations where we’ve missed guys like Duncs [Duncan Keith], Hoss [Marian Hossa], Seabs [Brent Seabrook], whoever, and the rest of the guys pick up the slack. Scott’s definitely been one of those key guys.”

Darling went 6-3-1 in his stint and the Blackhawks sit atop the Western Conference standings as the Christmas break approaches. For Darling, it wasn’t so much of a prove-something-to-yourself moment as it was enjoyable.

“It was just a lot of fun,” Darling said. “Obviously it was an unfortunate situation and happy Crow is back and healthy. But for me, I don’t get too much opportunity other than back to backs for me. It was huge for me to get some starts.”

The Blackhawks gained trust in Darling over the past two seasons, from when he first won the backup job and helped the team get through that first-round series against Nashville in 2015.

“We’ve had a lot of games and he’s really been stepping up,” Kruger said earlier this week. “He’s been playing more than every other day. That just tells you he can play a lot and be consistent. He’s been great.”

Normally, Crawford would get the bulk of the starts, injury or not. Now, considering how well Darling did in Crawford’s absence, coach Joel Quenneville admits he’ll think about how he splits goalie time the rest of the season. If nothing else, it keeps Crawford from getting worn down heading into any potential postseason work.

“It will get some discussion knowing that we’ll keep an eye on Corey. I think going into this season you anticipate him playing all the back to backs and getting more based on performance and gauging how Crow is handling it as well. I think that will come into the decision,” Quenneville said. “Certainly, [Darling] has enhanced how we view the opportunity, him getting a little bit more and making it tough when we’re making decisions on who’s in net.”

Darling doesn’t get sizeable workloads like that often, and he’s thrilled Crawford is back. Still, he enjoyed the opportunity. Considering how he did during it, that’s understandable.

“I have faith and confidence in my abilities. I think last year was more the first time taking the reins and playing that many games, I was a little bit more nervous,” Darling said. “But this year it was a lot of fun.”

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

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USA TODAY

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

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."