NHL Pre Playoff Preview: Chicago Blackhawks
After a marathon week leading up to the trade deadline, and a “meh” deadline day (a la Revenant hype vs the actual movie), the playoff picture seems nearly set, and the teams in the driver’s seat more or less cemented their place in the lead. As we move toward the playoffs, I will be taking a look at each team that’s moving onto the postseason; their strengths, weaknesses, and their chance at pulling off the opportunity to awkwardly receive the cup from Gary Bettman. Since the wild card’s aren’t 100%, let’s start with the teams that are sure-fire locks for the playoffs. And there’s no better team to start with than the Chicago Blackhawks.
I know; how could I not pick the runaway President’s Trophy winner in the Washington Capitals to start this off? Before last week, they were the headline here. And then Stan Bowman, Chicago Blackhawks General Manager, decided to fill nearly every hole this team could perceivably have in the playoffs. The big deal with the Winnipeg Jets started off the trade frenzy which took the ‘Hawks from contenders to favorites. This trade saw the ‘Hawks deal Marko Dano (and their 2016 1st round pick, and a conditional pick in 2018) to the Jets for winger and former Blackhawk Andrew Ladd, Matt Fraiser, and Jay Harrison. In addition, Bowman acquired Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann from Montreal, which locks up the offensive firepower for Chicago. After a year of seeing Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa stuck with Left Wingers that weren’t necessarily up to snuff, Andrew Ladd makes that front line even more star studded and strong. Also, Ladd is no stranger to this team, having won the cup with many of these guys in 2010. That changes this deal from really solid for Chicago (as well as Winnipeg!) to an amazing deal. Ladd has the potential to be a viable replacement to Patrick Sharp, who left in the offseason to Dallas due to Cap struggles (or, not re-signed after causing dressing room problems regarding a certain defenseman’s wife).
That’s all great, but what does that mean in the greater sense? When you looked at Ladd’s advance stats, they are solid but not necessarily jumping out at you. However, you cannot take away the fact that he’s been to the Cup finals, and he’s been a really solid winger for the past 7+ years. The numbers are one thing, but watching him play shows the confidence and back-checking that will be crucial in the playoffs. If that line weren’t enough, the second line of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane is offensively deadly. Kane is having a year for the record books, and Panarin and Anisimov (really strong players in their own right; which the stats bear out), are feeding off that and creating crazy numbers. When you see that line on the ice, it always seems like a goal is coming. Also, Crawford is putting up Vezina numbers, as I’ve stated many times before, and it would be unfair to ignore the year he’s having. Much like the Golden State Warriors in Basketball, the Blackhawks are champions with something to prove. With a crazy first two lines, the remaining forwards continue to prove themselves and make a push for more recognition (which is deserved). Guys like Andrew Shaw, Teravainen, and the Montreal duo I mentioned, definitely add to that solid core, which is quietly dominating as the media focuses on strong teams like Washington and Los Angeles. Unlike those teams, however, the Blackhawks have the best leader in Hockey in Jonathan Toews.
When building a championship roster, I always tend to think that defense is the place to start. Everyone knows the saying, “Defense wins championships”, and the data shows that (unless you’re the 2006 Hurricanes or Oilers, thank you Lockout!). That said, I would still pick Jonathan Toews to be the centerpiece of my team. On top of being a stellar playmaker and force both offensively and defensively, he has every single intangible you would want in a leader. Leading by example, team first, and insanely competitive; he’s the hockey version of Larry Bird. His Corsi has been a shining example for his entire career as well; and in the playoffs, there’s no offensive player you’d want on the ice more. While those other elite teams I mentioned have great leaders as well (Ove for Washington, Jamie Benn for Dallas, and Anze Kopitar for LA), Toews has proven, year in and year out, that he is the best of the bunch.
The Defense has me slightly hesitant. Yes, Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson are some of the best defensemen in hockey – but the back end of that blue line isn’t necessarily the strongest. While the best D core is and has been clearly Anaheim (Chicago doesn’t really meet that group), the team has still proven to be able to succeed with a less than lights-out third pairing on the blue line. The biggest problem is the ice time for that aforementioned trio. In each playoff run going back to 2010, Keith has averaged around 30 minutes of time on the ice, while Seabrook and Hjalmarsson averaged around 25. The concern is obvious: will this be the year that one of these guys gets injured? Will one (or a combination) of them go Kevin Garnett post 2009 and start to show a little age? Personally, I don’t anticipate that, but the possibility is there. That’s why I thought the most obvious trade for Chicago, outside of the Ladd move, was to get Dan Hamhuis from Vancouver to shore up that Defense. If that happened, this long piece would just be a video of Toews skating around with the cup on a loop for ten minutes.
If you can’t tell, Chicago is my pick, as of right now, to take the Cup. That offensive powerhouse, overall team experience and leadership, and depth, are the tools you need for a championship. If they win this year, and make it 4 Cups in 6 years, this team could potentially pass the 1970’s Canadians and 80’s Oilers in terms of greatest teams of all time.