Dec 30, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling (33) comes out of the locker room at the start of the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
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No one knows what exactly will happen for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017, but that doesn’t mean I won’t guess
As I went over in two previous posts, the year of 2016 had its ups and downs for the Chicago Blackhawks. The men in the Indian Head entered 2017 on top of the Central Division and Western Conference, though that’s only thanks to uber-hot Columbus knocking off almost-as-hot Minnesota last night.
So there we go. We already have an up and a down for the Blackhawks to start a new calendar year. The Blackhawks have 43 regular-season games left in the current season before a hopeful playoff run. Then, hosting a draft, more regular-season games … plenty of hockey to enjoy.
With that in mind, today I’m going to make some bold (and not so bold) predictions about the Blackhawks for the calendar year 2017. I’ll apologize in advance — they aren’t all going to be positive predictions.
Chicago Blackhawks beat Winnipeg Jets at least once this season
We’ll start small here. The Jets — specifically goaltender Connor Hellebuyck — seem to have Chicago’s number this season. Winnipeg already has three wins against the Blackhawks, allowing just two goals in the process.
The two teams meet up twice more this regular season, and since I have no idea how many times they’ll meet up in the 2017 portion of next season, I’m just going to go off these two games. The first is at the United Center on Jan. 26, and the second is in Winnipeg on Feb. 10.
I think the Blackhawks will win that home game, at the very least. It comes right before a four-day break, so coach Joel Quenneville will have no problem rolling his best players frequently during the contest. It’ll lead to a Chicago win, though one that will probably be way tighter than it should be.
I don’t necessarily think the Blackhawks need to make a ton of moves at this year’s deadline. They sold a nice portion of the farm last year, and it didn’t work out. While I think that could be a reason for general manager Stan Bowman to be gunshy, I also think the Blackhawks already have in place have most of the pieces to make a long playoff run.
But the bottom six is one area that could be shored up. Guys get shifted in and out pretty consistently, and not all of them have scoring prowess. Plus, we still have to see Jordin Tootoo and his no points playing. (Yes, Andrew Desjardins also has no points, but at least he plays defense.)
P.A. Parenteau briefly was a Chicago Blackhawk at the beginning of his career, and he’s been a minor trade target in recent years. I think this is the year the Blackhawks acquire him, even if just as a rental.
Pareanteau is playing for a bad New Jersey team (second to last in the East) but has a solid 16 points (10 goals) in 35 games, as well as a 50.8 Corsi-for mark. Parenteau is also a veteran guy at 33, but he’s a veteran guy with useful attributes. I like this as Bowman’s trade-deadline deal.
He’s only 18 points away, so if the captain doesn’t hit 600 by the end of this regular season, he either got hurt long-term, or something went horribly wrong.
Chicago Blackhawks win Central Division
I realize the Minnesota Wild are flying high right now, posting the most goals in the Western Conference (with games in hand on everyone except Nashville) and allowing just 76 goals, second-fewest in the league (Pittsburgh, 73).
But I think the Blackhawks’ star power at the top of the lineup (offensively, defensively and in the net) will separate them in the end. It may just be by two or three points, but I think the Blackhawks will capture the Central Division for the first time since 2013.
Though Marcus Kruger is now out due to injury, hopefully Marian Hossa‘s impending return means the Blackhawks’ offense can get a leg up from where it’s recently been. Corey Crawford and Scott Darling will continue to rule the net, and the defense has had far more bright spots this season than last.
Chicago Blackhawks represent West in Stanley Cup Final
Again, there are obvious threats. The San Jose Sharks returned essentially an entire Stanley Cup Final team, and they’re atop the Pacific Division right now. The Anaheim Ducks will always linger. The Los Angeles Kings still have some of that championship pedigree. The Edmonton Oilers could surprise.
And then there’s teams like the Wild and St. Louis Blues. And what if the Dallas Stars and/or Nashville Predators find themselves in the second half of this regular season and surge into the playoffs?
All that said, I think the Blackhawks still have the fewest questions. Sure, they could get some more offensive production from the bottom six. And sure, Q doesn’t know who he wants to play 5D and 6D on a given night. And we can all worry about Toews’ lack of offensive production (though that finally seems to be turning).
The Blackhawks are a known quantity with a championship pedigree and a closing title window, though. This team knows what it takes to get the job done in the postseason, and I think it will do so. Matching up against an East team, however, is another story.
Dec 11, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Artemi Panarin (72) is congratulated for scoring a goal during the third period against the Dallas Stars at the United Center. Chicago won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Artemi Panarin finishes top five in league MVP voting
While guys like Crow, Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov and others have been important to Chicago’s success so far this season, Panarin is just on another level. He’s having the exact opposite of a sophomore slump, averaging just shy of a point per game.
Panarin’s 38 points are tied for fifth in the league with Tyler Seguin and Phil Kessel. That’s some good company. I think Panarin will continue to roll at this pace for the rest of the regular season, and it will ultimately lead him to a top-five finish in Hart Trophy voting.
Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are probably already penciled into the top three, and it’s going to be hard to unseat them. But even if Panarin finishes inside the trophy’s top five vote receivers, that’d be wildly impressive.
Marcus Kruger goes to Las Vegas
The Blackhawks will have to expose a few players to the expansion draft, and I think the Golden Knights will select one of the league’s top defensive centermen in Kruger.
Assuming Kruger’s health is satisfactory, I feel like no one else the Blackhawks will expose, besides maybe Darling in net, will intrigue the Knights as much as Kruger. He’s a great guy to build a steady two-way line around in your bottom six.
While I’ve previously said Darling could be a target for the Knights, I also think there are going to be other exposed goaltenders who they could comfortably select, while there won’t be many (if any) other guys like Kruger on the market.
Now while we’re talking about Darling, I should note I still don’t think he’ll be in Chicago next season. The Blackhawks are going to need to save as much cap space as they possibly can, and the raise Darling will command hurts that. He’s already earned a bigger contract elsewhere.
This is another issue of cap space. While Campbell is signed for just $1.5 million this season and would probably take a similar deal next season, I feel like Chicago will go to some of its younger guys on the blue line as a means of improving their salary cap situation, and to get these guys set up for, hopefully, long-term runs in Chicago.
The likes of Michal Kempny, Erik Gustafsson, Ville Pokka and, yeah, probably Trevor van Riemsdyk project as cost-affordable pieces of the blue line moving forward. They’re also young pieces. Campbell is entering the twilight of his career, and he hasn’t given the Blackhawks quite as much offensive push as they were likely expecting.
Best case scenario, Campbell wins the Stanley Cup once again this year with the Blackhawks. He could ride off into the NHL sunset after that.
The Blackhawks, despite all their trade-deadline wheeling and dealing in recent years, have 10 selections in the upcoming NHL draft, which will be held in Chicago. You just know Bowman and Co. are going to find a Chicago-area kid, even if it’s in the later rounds, to rile up the crowd in attendance.
Hopefully he’s as good and useful as some of the current “local boys” (Darling, Vincent Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman) have been.
One of Alex DeBrincat and Alexandre Fortin makes 2017-18 roster
Fortin was very close, it seemed, to making Chicago’s opening night roster this season. The 19-year-old ultimately was a last-minute cut, and he’s posted 20 points in 24 QMJHL games with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.
DeBrincat, a draft pick in 2016 (seems like just yesterday), has been lighting up the OHL for the third consecutive season, posting a silly 64 points in 30 games so far this season.
Both of these guys have some development to achieve before becoming NHL regulars, there is no doubt. But I think the Blackhawks will be intrigued enough by both of these players to give at least one of them an early shot next season.
Fortin has the inside track since he already had one impressive training camp. But both of these guys have some solid offensive skills, and the Blackhawks could certainly use a little more of that in their lineup.