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Central Division Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

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This Central Division preview series begins at the bottom with last year’s cellar dwellers, the Chicago Blackhawks.

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Chicago Blackhawks David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

By any and all measures, the Chicago Blackhawks had a disappointing season last year. Many pundits believed that the Blackhawks would drop to maybe fourth in the Central Division, but all the way to the bottom? The thought was laughable. In fact, in our preseason predictions last year, Marya, George, and Corey all picked the Blackhawks to win the Central Division.

However, as we learned in middle school science, for every reaction, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Just as the Vegas Golden Knights had an incredible season, the Chicago Blackhawks had a horrific season. Just as William Karlsson shot 23.4%, Duncan Keith shot 1.1% while firing his highest shot volume since the 2013-14 season. Just as Marc-André Fleury was spectacular in net, the Blackhawks’ goaltenders were so injury-riddled that they had an everyday accountant man the crease in a game. Just as the Golden Knights had the perfect combination of veterans, future Hall of Fame forward Marián Hossa developed a mysterious skin condition that did not allow him to play.

In short, everything that could go wrong for the Blackhawks did go wrong, and then even more unforeseeable problems occurred. One can look at last season and point to all of these freak occurrences, or one can acknowledge them and also point to issues on the back end, like how Brent Seabrook was called on to be the second-best defenseman in Niklas Hjalmarsson’s absence and failed miserably.

Want to score a rebound in the slot? Play against Brent Seabrook today!
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After a historically bad season for the current core of the Blackhawks, what have they done to move back up in the division, and was it enough?

Key Additions

The past few seasons, the Blackhawks have gone about their off-season business reminiscing on their teams that won three Stanley Cups this decade, while also desperately trying to clear some cap space. This summer was no different for general manager Stan Bowman. Accordingly, he traded Marián Hossa’s contract, along with Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle, to Arizona for former Blackhawk Marcus Kruger and a few other prospects and AHL players.

Hinostroza is much younger than Kruger and put up better numbers last season, so the trade is a little bit of a head-scratcher. Furthermore, Hossa was on the infamous long term injured reserve and not counting against the Blackhawks’ salary cap, so they do not even receive any cap relief from trading his contract.

In free agency, the Blackhawks went out and signed Cam Ward. Corey Crawford reached elite status as a goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks, but suffered a severe concussion and later vertigo as a side effect. Anton Forsberg did not provide an answer in net, and he also had injury issues. The number one item on the Blackhawks’ off-season shopping list was a consistent backup goaltender.

Of course, Cam Ward has been the epitome of inconsistent his entire career, so signing him fails to solve that problem.

NHL: Boston Bruins at Carolina Hurricanes
Cam Ward, the once-great champ, now a study in moppishness.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

They also signed forward Chris Kunitz, most commonly known for his time spent on a line with Sidney Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins and with Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics. However, Kunitz has only posted 29 points each of the last two seasons and will be 39 years old when the season begins. Maybe Kunitz can still be useful in a limited role, but maybe a limited role would be better for one of their younger players hoping to break into the NHL.

Speaking of young players, Victor Ejdsell—whom the Predators traded to the Blackhawks along with a first-round draft pick to acquire Ryan Hartman—has been impressive at rookie camp so far, and many think he could jump into a top-9 role. The Blackhawks are set up top at center with Jonathan Toews and Artem Anisimov, but Ejdsell could find himself on their third line.

Key Departures

As already mentioned, losing Chicago native Vinny Hinostroza is a tough pill, but one that the Blackhawks willingly swallowed to re-obtain Marcus Kruger. Other than Hinostroza, the Blackhawks only lost Anthony Duclair, who moved on and signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency.

Best Case Scenario

The Jonathan Toews of old reappears and Chris Kunitz outperforms his expectations. Victor Ejdsell shows great promise and stabilizes a bad third line. Patrick Kane eclipses 90 points. Duncan Keith’s shooting percentage, no longer cursed by the hockey gods, returns to above average for him.

However, the defense still horribly misses Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook cannot keep up with his responsibilities, and the other four relatively young defensemen still have growing pains. The Blackhawks finish 5th in the division and miss the playoffs.

Worst Case Scenario

The aging core of this team continues to be a plague, with the contracts of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane binding Stan Bowman like manacles that cost $10.5 million dollars per year. The pains of trading young players away and replacing them with older veterans for cap reasons are prominently on display, as this becomes the slowest team in the Central Division.

Speaking of the Central Division and how good it is, the Blackhawks just get buried alive by every other divisional rival. Brent Seabrook continues to let opponents waltz into the slot like Wrigleyville bouncers letting underage students into bars. None of their problems have been solved and the Blackhawks finish 7th for the second consecutive season.

Prediction: 7th in the Central Division

The Central is too deep and too good for a team like the Blackhawks to succeed and make the playoffs. If they were in the Pacific Division, they could finish 4th, but with their obvious flaws, the Blackhawks have little to no chance of making the playoffs.

For more in-depth talk about the Blackhawks and the Central Division, check out Bobby’s recent central division preview for his podcast Two For Podcasting with Alex Daugherty joining as a guest: