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The What Ifs, Part 1

July 31, 2017, 12:45 PM ET [92 Comments]
John Jaeckel
Chicago Blackhawks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

There's probably been no offseason in Chicago that's presented more "hypotheticals" for how the season might play out than this one.

Building on the theme of my last few blogs, there are a lot of ways the season could go—be it good, bad, disastrous, or indifferent. So today, and in my next entry, I'll try to map out a series of things that could go right—and together vault the Blackhawks back into elite company at the top of the league this year (and that measured by postseason results).

In my next blog, I'll go through some things that could go horribly wrong.

Without further ado, things to hope for:

1) Engines firing on all cylinders

There is a measure of proof, a body evidence, that as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith go, so do the fortunes of the Blackhawks.

Not surprisingly, these three individuals have their names on the Conn Smythe Trophy as the drivers of each of the Hawks Cup wins since 2010.

Kane, for the last few seasons, has been old faithful. Healthy, productive, dynamic.

Toews and Keith have both battled injury and some chemistry issues after the cap purge of 2015. Both players specifically seemed to be not quite 100% last year—Keith coming off knee surgery that kept him out of the World Cup and Toews dealing with back issues, stemming from the same tournament.

The Hawks need all 3 players healthy and at the top of their games this season.

2) Back to the future

Stan Bowman did some major work on the left side of his forward corps this offseason, and two critical additions are former Hawks Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.

Saad had great chemistry with Toews in his first Blackhawk tenure, and likely the plan is to try to replicate that this year, albeit with Richard Panik replacing Marian Hossa on the right side of that line. In theory, that should work, especially with a 100% healthy Toews.

As for Sharp, he is likely the odds on favorite to play with Kane and Artem Anisimov to start the year, in place of Artemi Panarin. Failing that, the Hawks are back to the trial and (mostly) error of the last two seasons at one of the top 6 LW spots.

There's no guarantee that Ryan Hartman or Nick Schmaltz (either really playing out of position on the left side) won't make a stronger case in the preseason to play with Kane and Anisimov, or even that a rookie like Alex DeBrincat or Alexandre Fortin won't really surprise. But assuming Sharp is 100% healthy, coming off hip surgery, and he is the guy, then getting say 50+ points from him and a continuation of solid effort through the playoffs would be huge. Another plus for Sharp, he is a pretty good faceoff guy, where Anisimov notoriously isn't.

3) Doing the deal

It's now all but a foregone conclusion that Marian Hossa will go on LTIR after the first game of the season—clearing up at least a few million dollars in cap space.

Whether Hossa finishes out his contract as a Hawk or on some other team's injured list, in all likelihood, he's played his last NHL game. And it is a sad foible of the CBA and the hard cap that he must essentially end his Hall of Fame career as basucally a commodity on a balance sheet.

All that said, the Hawks need this process to go smoothly—and then use that freed up cap space to add at least one useful NHL asset, likely on defense and/or possibly for some faceoff depth or a wing (or both).

Fans need to bear in mind, while the procedural logistics of LTIR and the cap may be a piece of cake, Bowman will likely have to surrender some asset(s) to pry a useful body or two away from another team.

And that will be impacted by another issue: timing. Does Bowman have a deal lined up already? Will he wait and see where the most acute needs are several games into the season or even let the situation drag out to the trade deadline?

This is a big deal and not easy to pull off. The Hawks have (at least on paper) 2-3 holes in their lineup. Bowman successfully utilizing Hossa's cap hit to fill at least one of them will go a long way to determining how good (or bad) this year's team is.

4) Murphy's law

Of all the additions Bowman has made this summer, perhaps none is more pivotal than Connor Murphy.

With Murphy it's simply this: the lights are on, but is anyone home?

He has the pedigree (son of former NHL blueliner Gord Murphy), 1st round draft pick, prototypical size and skating ability. Still, on some bad Arizona teams, Murphy never really put it all together either. He will get every opportunity to do so in Chicago, as he most likely will line up opposite 2-time Norris winner Keith.

The Hawks need Murphy to play a smart, shutdown game—he has that ability—and they need him to do it consistently. But Joel Quenneville expects much of his top defensemen cerebrally—in how they think the game, as much or more so what they take away from the opponent as what they bring. Murphy can block shots and skate—and anything he adds there beyond just playing a bug free game will be added benefit.

5) Good Kempny

Michal Kempny's first year in North America last year was both up and down. Not unlike Murphy, the Hawks will need more from Kempny this year, as the present roster will thrust him into more minutes and more demanding matchups. Kempny can skate and shoot the puck—and he gets to pucks faster than most players can dream of doing. All that said, he struggled last year with overcommitment up the ice and in tight area decisions, although he improved in both areas as the season progressed.

6) Lines in the water

From 5-7 on defense the picture right now is not much more clear or promising. Clearly, the Hawks have added (and continue to try to add) a lot of names with varying degrees of potential to compete for spots here. Along with plodding veteran Michal Rozsival and the talented but also still learning Gustav Forsling, there is highly touted Czech import Jan Rutta, holdovers like Viktor Svedberg and Erik Gustafsson, and possibly a darkhorse who played well in prospect camp in Robin Press.

As I reported last week, the Hawks are in the hunt for likely NCAA free agent, Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher. The team also signed OHL defenseman of the year Darren Raddysh this summer as well. But both of these players would likely be longshots for meaningful NHL time this year.

Unless Bowman can backfill some quality defense depth with Hossa's cap money, the Hawks will be looking hard to see who among this group (and possibly others) can provide some reasonably reliable NHL minutes this year.

7) Organic growth

A big step up season for Hartman, Schmaltz, Richard Panik, (if necessary and called upon) Anton Forsberg, Kempny and/or Forsling would be a nice added benefit.

8) The bottom six

Bowman added a fair amount of "tough to play against" to his bottom six in late June and early July. The team needs these assets (Tommy Wingels, Lance Bouma, Laurent Dauphin) to come together and form a cohesive, high friction unit that will wear down opponents and improve a penalty kill that has regressed over the last two seasons.

9) In the dot

There is no clear candidate to replace Marcus Kruger as the team's primary faceoff option in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill. An answer here (Dauphin, Tanner Kero, or player TBD) will be required.

10) A horseshoe

For Bowman's 2017 Chemistry Experiment to work in terms of on-ice performance, a lot will need to go right (as outlined above). The Hawks will need not just improvement and some in-season additions or growth, but they will also need health and a few bounces of the puck.

Tomorrow, 10 things that could make the wheels come off.

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