Best-case and worst-case scenarios play a large role in sports speculation, and with that in mind we’re going to take a look at three of each for the Chicago Blackhawks ahead of the 2017-18 season
In my mind, there are three trains of thought when it comes to the Chicago Blackhawks, or any sports team for that matter. You primarily can view them positively, negatively or somewhere in between.
We’re reaching for that middle ground today with the Blackhawks by outlining three best-case and three worst-case scenarios for coach Joel Quenneville‘s team ahead of the 2017-18 season. There is tons of speculation and concern after an offseason filled with turnover, so there are certainly plenty of possible situations to be addressed.
Of course, there are plenty of “best” and “worst” things that could happen regarding the Blackhawks this upcoming season. But I’m just going to highlight three on each side of the ledger that I think really stand out in terms of importance, both in the near and far future.
Best: Nick Schmaltz breaks out
Schmaltz’s rookie season was an interesting one. He had two stints with the Blackhawks, separated by a short run with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.
The first stint in the NHL was rough for Schmaltz, as he seemed to struggle with confidence and knowing when to put the puck on net. However, when he returned from Rockford, he looked like a brand new player.
That sort of tapered off as the season wound down, but if Schmaltz can find that confidence-filled form on a full-time basis in 2017-18, the Blackhawks should be extremely excited.
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Schmaltz is one of the key pieces of the future core, at this rate. Additionally, he’s also an important part of this current roster, both as a center and as an offensive threat. You’d hope Schmaltz can boost his 30.9 percent faceoff success mark, and if he surpasses the 28 points he put up last season, that’d also be a fantastic boost for Chicago.
If Schmaltz can grab the bull by the horns in 2017-18, he could really fortify the bottom six and give the Blackhawks another option on the top six (albeit at wing instead of center, because Jonathan Toews and Artem Anisimov aren’t going anywhere). It’d also give both Schmaltz and the Blackhawks hope that the 21-year-old can grab an enhanced role on this team in the near future.
Worst: Corey Crawford falters/gets injured
This would be the worst on-ice event that could happen for the Blackhawks in 2017-18, and that’s no exaggeration. There are so many question marks at forward and defense — and even at backup goaltender — that the Blackhawks need Crow to be stellar from pillar to post.
He has struggled with injuries, both natural (concussions) and freak (falling down some stairs, appendectomy). And while those happen, the Blackhawks need to beg and plead with the hockey gods on a nightly basis for Crow’s health to hold as well.
Having a struggling or missing Crawford for anything length of time could really spell doom for this team. Unless everything else just comes together — quite the stretch at this point in time — there will be little to stop opposing teams from running wild on the Blackhawks if Crow is in the doghouse or on the shelf.
You’d be looking at a defense that has two aging stars (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) mixed with a bunch of guys in their first or second year in Chicago’s system trying to prevent Anton Forsberg, he of nine NHL starts, from getting pelted with vulcanized rubber. All the while, you’d have an entirely uncertain bottom six trying to support a top six that would constantly draw the opponents’ best defensive pairings.
So, yeah. Crow needs to be both really good and really healthy in 2017-18.
Best: Patrick Sharp finds some of his old form
There’s widespread speculation on what the Blackhawks can actually expect from 35-year-old Sharp. He’s back in Chicago on a one-year deal and recovering from offseason hip surgery, as well as multiple concussions suffered with the Dallas Stars.
Sharp notched 55 points in 76 regular-season games during the 2015-16 campaign with the Stars. But his injuries led him to just 18 points in 48 games last season, as well as major uncertainty about his durability.
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If Sharp can find even half of the form he had prior to these injuries, however, that would be a real bright spot for Chicago. Right now, it appears Sharp will be a leader on the bottom six. He could potentially moonlight on the second line, but his presence is probably more required on the third or fourth line.
Should he start racking up points, it would mean something is clicking in that bottom six and relieve a lot of pressure on the top six. Likewise, it would relieve pressure on Sharp to live up to his past performances with the Blackhawks. Any additional scoring options in Chicago would be appreciated this upcoming season.
Worst: Patrick Kane falters/gets injured
Coming in just behind Crow in the “can’t struggle/can’t lose him” category is the Blackhawks’ scoring star. He’ll be without Artemi Panarin for the first time in three seasons, but Kane has proven over 10 NHL seasons that he can produce alongside anyone.
However, that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss how awful it would be for the Blackhawks should Kane struggle for an extended period of time or suffer some sort of injury. It would be the worst possible blow to Chicago’s offense.
Kane racked up 195 points over the last two regular seasons. That’s not production you can easily replace, even on a loaded team. The Blackhawks are far from a loaded team right now, so Kane needs to perform at or above his recent results or the Blackhawks will need to find some supporting-cast scoring in a hurry.
Best: Jonathan Toews gets a second wind
Perhaps the Blackhawks captain and top-line center is getting worn down after consistent playoff runs, abuse suffered by taking on the team’s top competition and various other hockey ventures (Olympics, World Cup, etc.). If that was the case, it’d be great for the Blackhawks if he can find his proverbial second wind.
Brandon Saad was certainly brought in to help with that, but you know Toews isn’t in need of constant assistance just yet. Sure, his consecutive 58-point regular seasons weren’t terribly impressive. And his 54.9 percent faceoff success rate last season was his worst since 2008-09. But we’re talking about a 29-year-old multi-time Stanley Cup champion here.
Toews said at the beginning of the offseason he’d work on a new offseason program that would, in theory, improve his play in the speed and skill areas. So he’s clearly committed to doing all he can to get this team back to the promised land.
If the Blackhawks see Toews get anywhere near the point-per-game status he was working at during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, that would be a major kick in 2017-18. It’d not only give the Blackhawks a once-again-threatening top line, but all boost Toews’ confidence. And a confidence captain is a dangerous one.
Worst: The “younger” defensemen struggle to adjust
I put younger in parentheses here because I’m not just referring to age. I’m more so referring to the guys who are entering either their first or second year in the Blackhawks’ main system. So right now, that’s Connor Murphy, Michal Kempny, Gustav Forsling and Jan Rutta, at least.
The Blackhawks cannot afford for more than one of these guys to struggle adapting to the way Chicago plays at any given time. It’s clear the team won’t be able to get away with Keith and Seabrook carrying as much of a load as they used to. These four guys, plus Michal Rozsival and whoever else comes from the AHL, will need to carry their weight.
This isn’t just important for the upcoming season, but also future campaigns as well. The Blackhawks, you’d figure, are going to try to keep the aforementioned four “youngsters” in the system as long as they can. Murphy has a long-ish contract, while the other three are all cost-effective options.
There’s major player development on the table, and it all starts this season. Crow could use the support in front of him, and Keith and Seabrook can’t be playing 30 minutes a night right off the bat. So if we see extended struggles from more than one of these younger defensemen, there is some concern to be had.