Blackhawks

Scott Darling shines in fill-in duty as Blackhawks break late tie to best rival Blues

Scott Darling shines in fill-in duty as Blackhawks break late tie to best rival Blues

Scott Darling found out at 8 a.m. Sunday that he was starting for an ailing Corey Crawford. Considering he did this back in December for a few weeks, adjusting quick for one game was fine.

"It's kind of my job," Darling said.

And Darling, once again, did his job.

Darling stopped 30 of 32 shots and Patrick Kane scored his 24th goal of the season as the Blackhawks beat the St. Louis Blues 4-2 on Sunday night. The Blackhawks have won nine of their last 10 games. They're one point behind the Minnesota Wild, who made their splashy trade-deadline move in acquiring Martin Hanzal on Sunday. But the Blackhawks, thanks to veterans regaining their form, a top line finding its rhythm and youth consistently improving, are just rolling right along.

"We had a great start to the game. I thought Darls was excellent all night, great stretch there in the last 10 minutes where we fight through some tough shifts, particularly in the last couple of minutes in our end. But good win," coach Joel Quenneville said. "You look at the nice plays on the goals, it was kind of a comparable ending to the outdoor game: tied and about the same time they scored, we scored (tonight). Big two points for us."

Jonathan Toews scored his 16th of the season and Artem Anisimov scored the game-winning goal with 5:20 remaining in regulation. Tanner Kero added an empty-net goal with 2.6 seconds remaining in the game.

The Blackhawks already knew they'd be without Niklas Hjalmarsson (upper body) for at least a day or two when they found out Crawford couldn't go this morning. As Quenneville said Darling was strong once again, denying the Blues all but twice (a 2-on-1 goal from Magnus Paajarvi and a power-play goal from Alex Pietrangelo).

Toews and Kane (power-play goal) staked the Blackhawks to a 2-0 lead early before the Blues tied it in the second. But late in the third period Anisimov took the feed from Artemi Panarin to give the Blackhawks a 3-2 lead.

"I saw the puck all the way. It was easy to pick up," Anisimov said. "When you don't see the puck at the last moment and it comes, it's hard to receive and prepare for the next move. But I saw it all the way. Easy to prepare for the next move."

Speaking of next moves, do the Blackhawks make any more before the trade deadline. General manager Stan Bowman said on Friday, following the acquisition of Tomas Jurco, that he'll keep talking and listening but likes the group he has right now. If Bowman's made moves it's for what the Blackhawks have needed, not because of another team's trades. The Blackhawks like what they have right now. Winning nine of 10 and continuing to trend in the right direction, they should be careful not to disrupt what they've got going.

"I think we're, as we've said lately, trending the right way. We're playing solid. I think all four lines are contributing in every which way," Toews said. "I love our group right now. Everyone is getting better individually, contributing more and more and it's a lot of fun to see the way we're playing right now. We know that the ceiling is way higher and we can keep getting better too."

Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

In an effort to protect the players, the NHL will not disclose injuries in Phase 4, deputy commissioner Bill Daly revealed in a Saturday afternoon video call with the league and player representatives.

"Medical privacy is important in this process," Daly said.

Normally, teams are allowed to share injury-related information but are not necessarily required to. The Blackhawks are one of the teams that have become more transparent in that area after changing their policy going into the 2018-19 season.

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In this situation, the NHL is prohibiting clubs from doing so to keep the process confidential and eliminate speculation between a hockey-related injury and positive COVID-19 test results. The NHL, instead, will release the overall number of players who test positive for COVID-19 over the course of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but will not disclose the names of those infected.

The policy is strictly for the rest of the 2019-20 season and not a new long-term policy, although it remains unclear how things will be handled for the 2020-21 campaign.

It's the right move but will obviously present challenges if a star player on a contender is suddenly not available for a series, especially once we get into the later rounds.

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

There's good news and bad news for the Blackhawks as the NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed to a new six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement extension that runs through the 2025-26 season and includes an escrow provision that could add one additional year to the deal.

The good news is, hockey is back and the Blackhawks have a shot at making a Stanley Cup run after the league generously included them in the 24-team Return to Play format. And if they get eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round, the Blackhawks will have a 12.5 percent chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick and drafting stud winger Alexis Lafraniere. Not a bad consolation.

The bad news? The upper limit of the salary cap will stay flat at $81.5 million for the 2020-21 season and remain that way until hockey-related revenue reaches $3.33 million, and only increase by more than $1 million per year until HRR surpasses $4.8 billion again, which could take several years.

For reference: One week before the league put its season on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly announced the salary cap for the 2020-21 campaign would be in between $84 and $88.2 million. Now it won't come close to the low end of that mark for at least three or four years, which is a tough pill to swallow because teams were preparing for the ceiling to reach a different level following a new U.S. television deal and the addition of Seattle as the 32nd team for the 2021-22 season.

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Only six other teams had fewer cap space available at the regular season's pause than the Blackhawks, who had $175,558 to spare. And their financial situation is about to get way more complicated.

Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome are among the most notable restricted free agents who are due fairly significant pay raises, along with Drake Caggiula on a smaller scale. And then there's Corey Crawford, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Blackhawks may have some difficult choices to make, but ones that won’t happen until the offseason.

“My conversations with them have been more checking in, see how they’re doing,” GM Stan Bowman said on June 11 of the pending RFAs and UFAs. “As far as future signings and contracts and whatnot, I’ve told their agents that at this point, it’s premature. There are too many uncertainties to know what the salary cap or what the format for the future will be. So we’re just going to wait until we have more information.

"In my conversations with other managers around the league, everyone’s taking the same approach. It’s really difficult to be signing contracts for the future when we haven’t even finished this season yet, and we don’t know what the next year’s going to look like. I imagine that’s all going to happen in the offseason, whenever that might be.”

While the Blackhawks are trying to navigate through their financial challenges for next season, equal attention must be placed on the future during these unprecedented circumstances.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are all scheduled to become UFAs at the end of the 2022-23 season, which is the same year Alex DeBrincat will be seeking a new deal as a pending RFA. Top prospects Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach, both of whom were slide candidates, played in more than nine NHL games this season, which means the first year of their entry-level contracts were burned and will be due new contracts following the 2021-22 campaign instead of the 2022-23 season. 

Here's another hurdle: Unlike in 2013, there will be no compliance buyouts handed out to provide cap relief for teams in desperate need of it. The Blackhawks would’ve certainly welcomed that.

Yes, it’s exciting that hockey is finally back. And yes, it’s exciting that the Blackhawks have a chance at making a Stanley Cup run, no matter how slim their odds may be.

But for the long-term future of the Blackhawks, it's more important than ever for the front office to precisely map out what the roster could look like for next season and beyond and break down how the puzzle pieces can financially fit under the salary cap for years to come.