The 2013 Stanley Cup Final was five, going on six, years ago and a lot has changed with this team and franchise since then, both positively and negatively.
Despite where the Blackhawks are in the standings, there’s a lot to be excited about.
The Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup in 2015
Chicago defeated Tampa Bay in six games to cement their dynasty of three cups in six seasons. The 2015 Cup run marked the first time the Blackhawks managed to win the Stanley Cup on home ice (2010 came in Philly at the then-Wachovia Center and 2013...well I won’t rip open that wound.)
There’s finally cap room
Going on several Stanley Cup runs pressed the Blackhawks against the salary cap. To compensate, the Blackhawks haven’t made many “splash” moves apart from trading Brandon Saad to Columbus, then trading Artemi Panarin to Columbus for Saad.
The Blackhawks have quietly made room to make one or two big acquisitions going forward by getting Marian Hossa’s contract off the books and sending it to Arizona. A medical condition involving a skin allergy forced Hossa to stop playing hockey.
Chicago also traded a struggling Nick Schmaltz for a struggling Dylan Strome. Both players have benefitted from a second chance, and many believed re-signing Schmaltz would’ve costed a pretty penny.
Young talent in the pipeline
When you’re cash-strapped like the Blackhawks, you have to rebuild from within.
Chicago replenished their farm system and talent pool through minor trades and drafts. One draft pick is Alex DeBrincat, taken 39th overall in the 2016 draft. DeBrincat (shortened to “Cat” or “The Cat”) proven to be a vital piece of the new-age Blackhawks core. DeBrincat and Patrick Kane are neck-and-neck for the Blackhawks goal lead.
Another talent is Henri Jokiharju (Yo-Kee-Har-You,) drafted 29th overall in the 2017 draft. Jokiharju’s been playing top-line minutes with Duncan Keith and is viewed as a centerpiece of a slew of talented defensive prospects. Chicago’s got three promising defensive prospects in Adam Boqvist (London, OHL; drafted 8th overall, 2018) Henri Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell (Denver, NCAA; drafted 57th overall in 2017.)
The return of Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad
Since 2010-2015, Jonathan Toews regressed. Some thought it was too much mileage without adequate rest, and others thought Toews had lost his tenacity we were used to seeing every shift. Toews is proving the latter wrong this season. Toews has 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists), which is good for the second-most on the team, and has been resurrected. He is making skill plays we were used to seeing in his early years with the Hawks and is leading by example with his effort level. The Captain is back.
Brandon Saad is another example of regression. Saad is also a victim of one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. After Nashville embarrassingly swept Chicago in the 2017 playoffs, Chicago surprisingly sent dynamic scorer Artemi Panarin to Columbus for Saad. Panarin’s numbers warranted a contract the Blackhawks simply could not afford and Saad provided cost-certainty.
Saad scored a paltry 18 goals last season, compared to 11 goals already this season. That’s not factoring the numerous goal-posts he’s hit this year.
Despite the positive outlook within the next couple of years, there’s quite a bit wrong with this team in the here-and-now.
Joel Quenneville is gone
The Blackhawks fired Joel Quenneville in November after a .500 start to the season. There were rumors of a rift between GM Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville ever since the Nashville playoff series. Some believed the new-age NHL predicated on speed and agility caught up to Q’s system.
Chicago promoted Jeremy Colliton, the head coach of AHL affiliate in Rockford, to head coach of the big club. Colliton hasn’t fared any better, including a massive losing streak in the wake of Q’s firing.
Colliton is a bright, young coaching mind, but only recently have the Blackhawks fully adapted to his new system. The team is trending up, however, winning four of their last five games.
Corey Crawford’s concussion conundrums continue
Corey Crawford suffered a massive concussion right around this time last season. The concussion kept him sidelined for ten months with the Blackhawks only revealing his injury was a concussion this past offseason.
Crawford experienced yet another concussion when Evander Kane knocked Dylan Strome into him at high-speed during a 7-3 loss to San Jose on December 16. Nobody has any idea what Crawford’s timetable is this time around, but another concussion so soon after getting over one is devastating.
In the meantime, backup Cam Ward has assumed starting duties while Collin Delia serves as his backup. Delia, a Merrimack College alum, has been a pleasant surprise, tallying a 2-0-0 record with a 1.50 GAA and .964 save percentage in 2 games.
Special teams are terrible, but getting better
Power play woes have plagued the Blackhawks for as long as I can remember. At one point, the Blackhawks were worst in the league. Now they sit at 27th with a 14.3 percent conversional rate. Leading only Philadelphia, Montreal, Columbus and Nashville.
Things are worse on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks kill a meager 74.4 percent of penalties, 30th in the league in front of only Los Angeles.
The NHL Winter Classic couldn’t be happening at a better time for the Blackhawks. While they’ve had an abysmal start to the season, they’ve started to heat up recently and there’s quite a bit to look forward to. It’s going to be a great matchup at a venue oozing in tradition with two of the most passionate fanbases in the league.
I’ll be at the Winter Classic. It’s going to be cold, loud, raucous and crowded
But guess what? I’m going to love every damn second of it. Here’s to a good, unforgettable game.