4. Defensive Improvement
This isn’t totally worked out yet, but I have to believe General Manager Stan Bowman is well aware of how bad the Blackhawks defense was last season. It’s a reason why he went out and signed Kontinental Hockey League blueliner Michal Kempny before the Stanley Cup Playoffs had even ended.
While the salary cap projects to stay pretty stagnant — or even go down a bit — you know Bowman isn’t done improving this defensive group. Rest for Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson will be a nice boost, and Kempny projects as a No. 4 D-man early on. The Blackhawks could hardly say they had one of those last season, so that should be a nice boost.
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From there, Bowman has decisions to make on free agents and such, which means he’ll probably have to get creative when carving out space for any potential blue line additions. But if Bowman doesn’t think the Blackhawks have enough reliable options already in the system to fill out the rest of the blue line, there’s a good chance he’ll go outside the organization to find at least one piece.
Coach Joel Quenneville will also be giving every defenseman already in the system a shot to make the opening roster, you’d have to think. Sure, Q is in love with Trevor van Riemsdyk despite TVR’s heavy struggles last season. But it doesn’t always take much to fall out of Q’s favor, and it sometimes doesn’t take much more to gain it forever. The coach will need to keep his eyes peeled in training camp for any semblance of defensive help.
The defensive situation is very fluid right now, but we have to believe it’s going to be better than last season, which rivaled 2011 and 2012 as the worst defensive groups since Q arrived in Chicago. And that could well be good enough for this team to make a Cup run.
3. Corey Crawford
I don’t think I’m stretching too far when I say this: I’m sure there are Blackhawks fans out there who hope Crawford falls apart early in the 2016-17 season so Bowman will consider moving him (because Scott Darling is the answer, you see), thus opening up ample cap space to improve other areas of the team. There is at least one person out there who feels this way.
Even if I’m writing for an audience of one with this line, I’ll say it: Crow is not going anywhere anytime soon. And it would be a death knell for the Blackhawks if he did.
It’s no secret the Blackhawks’ organizational depth at goaltending is … poor. It’s why InGoal Magazine saddled the Blackhawks’ goaltending prospects with a collective “F” earlier this year, the only NHL team to receive that grade.
The Blackhawks need Crow if they have any Cup aspirations next season. Even if his game dips a bit from the stellar numbers he posted in 2015-16, it’s still going to be enough to push the Blackhawks in a positive direction. Remember, Crow was carrying this team through long stretches of last season (along with Kane). And yet the group had a very viable path to the Cup Final if it had gotten by St. Louis.
More of the same from Crow next season would certainly be appreciated, especially if the defensive situation doesn’t improve much. But his experience alone and his seemingly growing confidence will be critical for this club in any Cup run.
Next: Reasons 2 And 1