Simply put, the Chicago Blackhawks weren’t supposed to be all that good this season.
If you listened to any pre-season prognostications — The Hockey News’ included, as we picked them to finish seventh in the our annual Yearbook — the outlook was bleak. An aging core, mid-level prospects and few impactful off-season signings left Chicago looking lean in a Central Division that appeared primed to once again be the NHL’s powerhouse, a division where points came at a premium. It wasn’t even all that bold to suggest the Blackhawks would end up in the running for the top pick.
A funny thing has happened through the early season, however. While it’s admittedly early and the standings through the first three weeks of the campaign can tell a few fibs about the fates of various franchises, the Blackhawks have hung tough through nine games. Matter of fact, as they wake up in the Windy City on Wednesday, Joel Quenneville and Co. find their team sitting in the Western Conference’s top wild-card spot, not all that far back from projected Stanley Cup contenders such as the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators. And while it would be borderline idiotic to use that as some sort of indication that the Blackhawks, too, are top-tier Stanley Cup contenders, it’s not as far-fetched to assert that this team may have what it takes to actually hang in the Western Conference.
The early season resurgence in Chicago, if you can call it that after one season outside the post-season, has been led in large part by the offense. A cursory glance at team performance through the early season tells us as much. With 33 goals through nine games, the Blackhawks’ offense is tied for the NHL’s fifth-most productive on a per-game basis and only two teams, the Carolina Hurricanes and San Jose Sharks, have mustered more than Chicago’s 35.3 shots per outing. What sticks out most about the Blackhawks’ offense, though, is who’s contributing.
Through nine games, Chicago’s attack has been paced by a three-headed monster of sorts, led by Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Jonathan Toews. And while Kane and DeBrincat sitting atop the scoring list comes as little surprise — they finished one-two in goals and points last season — Toews’ apparent revival has been the most pleasant surprise in Chicago. It’s not just that Toews is scoring, though, as it is his actual play. His five goals and 10 points through nine games, which would seem to indicate he’s well on his way to eclipsing last season’s disappointing 20-goal, 52-point performance, are impressive, but as welcome is that he’s looked confident and composed with the puck on his stick, he’s looked strong on his skates and, truthfully, faster and more elusive than he has in recent years.
The secondary scoring is coming through, too. Dominik Kahun has looked to be a worthwhile summer addition, even if he might get the “who?” treatment outside Chicago. Nick Schmaltz has provided his usual playmaking prowess, Erik Gustafsson has had moments of brilliance from the blueline and even Brandon Saad might finally be coming alive on the heels of Tuesday’s two-goal performance.
But the biggest boon for the Blackhawks might not be the offense but the fact that Corey Crawford has returned and his immediate impact has been as advertised, if not better. Sidelined for nearly 10 months as the result of a concussion and lingering symptoms, Crawford saw his first start of the season in the Blackhawks’ outing against the Arizona Coyotes last Thursday. And while he lost the contest, allowing three goals on 30 shots in a 4-1 defeat, he looked steady, confident in the crease, and he’s only built on that performance. Saturday in Columbus, he stopped 37 of 38 shots as the Blackhawks downed the Blue Jackets, and Tuesday, with Chicago hosting Anaheim, he turned aside all but a Rickard Rakell breakaway attempt in the Blackhawks’ 3-1 victory.
True as it may be that we shouldn’t go jumping to any grand conclusions about Crawford given he’s only appeared in three games, and it would be foolish to proclaim that he’s back to being a Vezina Trophy-calibre keeper based on three starts in mid-October, the early returns have been promising. Is Crawford going to maintain his current .946 save percentage across 40-odd starts? Short of the spirit of prime-aged Dominik Hasek somehow inhabiting Crawford’s body, probably not. But Crawford has given reason for hope that he can be the difference-making netminder the Blackhawks need him to be.
And in a lot of ways, Crawford putting an end to the stopgap rotation of mediocre-at-best netminders in Chicago can really be the difference between the Blackhawks flirting with and earning a wild-card berth and falling flat on their faces en route to a high first-round pick. With all apologies to folk hero Scott Foster and the rest of the ragtag group that tended goal in Chicago last season, the abysmal goaltending the Blackhawks received last season all but sunk the team. As we noted in mid-September, a healthy Crawford last season probably could have saved the Blackhawks somewhere in the range of 50 goals against. Whether that would have been enough to make the playoffs is up for debate, but it certainly didn’t help the cause in Chicago.
What gives hope beyond Crawford’s play and the overall offensive output, however, is that the underlying numbers seem to suggest the Blackhawks can be a middle of the pack club. Sure, it’s only nine games, but Chicago ranks 11th in Corsi for percentage (51.3) at 5-on-5, and they’re a mid-range squad in shots for percentage (49.7) and scoring chances for percentage (48.9).
None of this is to say the Blackhawks are without their issues. The latter two underlying numbers indicate a lack of strong team defense and blueline depth, though that comes as no surprise. Defensively, Chicago has been exposed against top teams and that shouldn’t be expected to change all that much. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 55-shot outing, which included an NHL record 33-shot period, against the Blackhawks on Sunday was evidence of the defensive shortcomings of this team when they’re matched up against the league’s elite outfits.
Beyond long-tenured defenders Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who are known quantities at this point in their careers, Gustafsson, for all he’s done offensively, has had some lapses early and rookie Henri Jokiharju is learning as he goes while logging heavy minutes. Meanwhile, bottom-pairing defenders Jan Rutta, Brandon Manning and Brandon Davidson have been “just OK,” which is language Blackhawks fans will understand after nearly a decade with Quenneville at the helm.
Through the early season, though, it appears the combination of an impactful offense and a healthy, in-form Crawford may be able to mask those shortcomings and propel the Blackhawks into a position to compete for a wild-card berth this season. And while simply making the post-season is a far cry from the Stanley Cup expectations this franchise held for the better part of the past decade, it’s far more than most expected before the puck dropped on the campaign.