The Chicago Blackhawks are in an exceedingly precarious situation heading into the 2017-18 season. The star-filled roster fans and opposing teams have come to know, respect and fear, looks drastically different from recent years, thanks to the beloved salary cap.
But that’s what the salary cap does — increases competitive balance within the league. We know what it does, and we’ve seen how effective it can be. But we can’t conveniently blame every problem on the salary cap.
When a team fails to win a single game in the playoffs after finishing with a conference-best 109 points, would it really make sense to blame that particular collapse on the cap?
Sometimes a team loses in a reprehensible manner, which sparks change throughout an organization. After losing ineptly to the Nashville Predators in the playoffs last April, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman was irate, and rightfully so.
With considerable changes to the complexion of the Blackhawks and Central Division over what seems to be an excruciatingly-long offseason, one could predict that the boys in red and white won’t be the formidable force we’ve seen in recent years. The Hawks are going to face numerous tests in the 2017-18 season.
Massive Test From the Central Division
The Central Division has been well represented in the playoffs over the years. The majority of such representations have come from the Blackhawks, as we all know. But they didn’t fulfill their goal or live up to their reputation last April; in fact, they didn’t even come close.
The four teams to watch out for in the Central, excluding the Blackhawks, are the Predators, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, and Dallas Stars. The Blues and Wild will undoubtedly make noise in the division and challenge the Blackhawks, as one should expect.
But with the long playoff run last April by the Predators and several key additions made by the Stars, these are two teams to look out for during the 2017-18 season.
First and foremost, the reigning Western Conference champs are going to be a force in the division in the 2017-18 season. The Preds underachieved during the 2016-17 regular season, no doubt about it. But they figured it out in the playoffs and finished just two wins shy of capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
The re-energized, wildly-entertaining Predators will look to express their dominance early in the division.
In what is disconcerting for the entire Central Division, the Preds were able to reach an agreement with Center Ryan Johansen on an eight-year deal worth $64 million. A lineup that consists of Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson is enough to wreak havoc on any team.
The reigning Western Conference champs also added veteran Nick Bonino to bolster their lineup and provide much-needed experience. Also, just as important, the Predators are incredibly deep defensively — P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Alexei Emelin, seriously?
The Blackhawks finished with a regular season record of 4-1 against the Predators in 2016-17. They’ll need more of the same for the upcoming season. The Predators exude confidence, and why shouldn’t they? They’ll be a force in the division once more as they are poised for a huge season.
The Stars made significant improvements to their team during their long and thought-filled offseason. After finishing the 2016-17 season with an underwhelming 79 points in a sixth-place finish, something needed to be done to reassert themselves amongst the division’s best. And, wow, did they deliver.
The Stars’ key additions revolve around Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Marc Methot and Martin Hanzal. Add those four to a lineup already consisting of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, and we’ve now got something scary brewing down in the Lone Star State, provided they can stay healthy.
The Blackhawks took advantage of a team that struggled mightily to find its identity and finished with a head-to-head record of 5-0 during the 2016-17 season. Needless to say, the Stars won’t be a pushover this year. Deep up the middle and now with a true number-one goaltender, the Stars may be able to return the favor to the Blackhawks this upcoming season.
Key Losses for the Hawks
Aside from the challenges the Blackhawks will face in their own division, they are going to face numerous obstacles within their own lineup. After losing three big pieces in Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Marcus Kruger (among others), the roster looks much weaker when compared to years past, especially defensively.
Hossa’s loss cannot be overstated. For a man who is 38-years-old, he looked younger than most as he finished the season with 26 goals, 19 assists and 45 points.
Finishing the season with 47 takeaways and a plus/minus of plus-7, Hossa looked as though age wasn’t slowing him down, which made it even more devastating when news broke on his skin condition. The Blackhawks are losing his offensive production as well as his exceptional defensive play.
Kruger’s necessary departure also comes as a huge loss for the Blackhawks. Arguably the most reliable penalty killer, he found himself on the ice during the game’s most crucial moments.
He wasn’t on the ice to score goals, he was on the ice to prevent them. The Blackhawks finished the 2016-17 season with a PK of 77.7%, which ranked 24th in the league. How will the PK look without Kruger?
Another punch in the stomach came when Bowman traded Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Laurent Dauphin and defenseman Connor Murphy. Losing a three-time Stanley Cup Champion who was arguably the best, pure shutdown defenseman on the Hawks is going to hurt for a while. A player who gave everything he had and was fearless when blocking shots is hard to come by.
The Hawks are certainly in unsettling territory heading into the 2017-18 season. Back-to-back first-round exits in the playoffs, coupled with the improvement of the Central Division and several key losses to their own lineup, will provide a steep hill for the Blackhawks to climb. When the season starts, they’ll need to climb quickly.