Storylines to follow in the 2015-16 Chicago Blackhawks season
In a little less than 24 hours, we’ll get to witness the final act in yet another Stanley Cup victory for the Blackhawks, as the 2015 Stanley Cup Champions banner will be raised to the United Center rafters.
Then that’ll be a memory and it’ll be time for a new season. So let’s get right to it: here are some storylines to keep an eye on this winter:
I’ve got Teuvo Teravainen scoring at least 52 points this season: I’ve never hid the fact that I’m a huge fan of the Finnish playmaker. I think we all finally got a good glimpse at what Teuvo can do during the prior postseason, where he posted 10 points in 18 games and displayed all of the tools that have had Hawks fans salivating for three years now. You could even argue that he singlehandedly turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 Hawks victory during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final — all at the age of 20.
Early line combinations have him skating on the top unit with Toews and Hossa, although given Joel Quenneville’s penchant for line juggling, I’d be skeptical about that group remaining intact all season long.
Still, it appears that this will be the first time Teuvo spends an entire season in Chicago, with trips to Rockford no longer necessary. Fifty-two points feels like a conservative estimate, but I think that, at a minimum, he’ll be able to replace the 52 points that were produced by Brandon Saad in 2014-15.
Corey Crawford will again be a very good NHL goalie, and people will still call for his job for no real reason: After any Blackhawks game, I can log on to any social media platform and find some person demanding that the Blackhawks trade Crawford/start Darling/look for goalie help. Why? Great question.
Saying that Crawford is a goalie with whom you can win a Stanley Cup is not an opinion: it’s a fact, and it’s been proven twice. Yet there’s still a section of Blackhawks fans that will do its best to belittle him at every turn.
You can probably expect another solid year out of Crawford, with a save percentage just over .920 and a goals-against average somewhere in the low 2s, which is pretty much where he’s been since for the last three seasons — two of which resulted in a Jennings Trophy.
This guy broke his ankle while attending a local punk rock show and drops F-bombs on live TV during championship rallies. If this were any other athlete, he’d be a cult legend in Chicago. Yet for some reason, it doesn’t seem like he’s ever been fully embraced by this city. I don’t understand it, and I never will.
Defensive depth will be this team’s biggest question mark: Chicago proved a lot of people wrong last postseason when it was able to ride just four defensemen to the Stanley Cup. The indefatigable Duncan Keith returns to lead the group, and I’ve got no reason to believe he’ll slow down even at the age of 32.
Brent Seabrook is just two years younger, but remains another great blue line talent. The ridiculously underrated Niklas Hjalmarsson returns at the age of 28, and again should fly under the radar while again blocking every shot in sight.
I included the ages of that trio on purpose, as asking those three to re-create last year’s postseason masterpiece would be a risky proposition. None of them are necessarily old, but there are plenty of miles on those legs already. With Johnny Oduya now in Dallas, that group will be leaned on even harder, and there’s no heir apparent to Oduya on the roster. Trevor Daley will dazzle in the offensive zone at times, but his defensive skills have always been up for debate.
Behind them, unproven players like Trevor van Riemsdyk, Viktor Svedberg and Ville Pokka remain question marks at best. Kyle Cumiskey was serviceable at times in the regular season and less than that in the postseason. And who knows how well Michal Roszival can skate after last year’s gruesome ankle injury. Whether or not the Hawks can get reliable play outside of that top trio will likely determine this team’s postseason fate.
Forward depth will likely be high on the list at the trade deadline: The third line that was so crucial for the Hawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs is gone. Teuvo is up to the top line, while Sharp and Vermette are no longer on the roster. The third line in practice yesterday was Bickell-Shaw-Baun, a group that inspires far less confidence than the aforementioned grouping.
It’s hard to look beyond the Hawks Top 6 and find players to put on that line who could be expected to produce when the calendar turns to April. That’s why GM Stan Bowman may be looking outside of his own organization to find that type of player before this year’s trade deadline — just like they did by acquiring Vermette last year.
Marko Dano will be this year’s Teuvo: Remember all the demand for Teuvo to get a more extended look with the Blackhawks during the regular season? Remember how the team kept him in Rockford for much of the year anyway? Get ready for Marko Dano to be that guy in 2015-16.
Dano went from opening training camp on the Hawks’ top line to not breaking camp with the parent club. At the age of 20, there’s plenty of time for Dano to cement his skills and become a worthy NHLer, and clearly the Hawks feel that he still has skills to fine-tune. Injuries may prompt Dano to get some time in Chicago, but I’d put the over/under on 25 games with the Blackhawks this year, and I’m taking the under.
At some point in the postseason, the Blackhawks are going to run out of gas: That’s a sentence that hurts to type. Since the 1994-95 lockout, only team has been able to repeat as Stanley Cup champs: the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. That’s about the only feat that the Hawks haven’t accomplished on this current run, and I’d love to see them check that item off the list in 2015-16.
But as I type this on the eve of the season, I can’t find a way to convince myself it’ll happen this year. I see another great team loaded with a ton of talent, but I don’t see as much depth among the forwards or the defensemen. I don’t see the third and fourth liners that provide the crucial contributions in April, May and June. I don’t see enough defensemen to play the lockdown defense that is as responsible for the Hawks’ three Cups as the incredible forward talent. I think this team is going to lean heavily on its core players again, but I don’t think they’re going to have the legs to pull this team to the top of the NHL mountain again. It’s just too damn hard to repeat in the NHL.
I’m just not seeing it this year.
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