The off-season saw the Blackhawks shift some bigger contracts for some smaller ones, they signed some key free agents and all of a sudden, the pieces put together made up a very competitive team in the Central Division, the toughest division in the game this past season.
When the regular season concluded, the Blackhawks were 3rd in the division, only 4 points back of the Blues and 6 points back of the Stars, which is a fairly small margin, given the length of the regular season.
The good regular season couldn't translate into a better playoff run, however, as the Blues, who were their opening round opponent, were just a little bit more willing and managed to defeat the Blackhawks in seven games in a very entertaining series.
Nevertheless, the Blackhawks managed to have a very solid year, just one Summer after winning the Cup and they are still in a position of power, heading into the season after. This management team has done everything in their power and maybe a little bit more, to make sure the Blackhawks don't suffer through any lulls as a franchise.
Being the defending champs, means that you're going to be very popular at the hockey pool draft and even with all the moves that were made in the off-season, there was still a lot of excitement for how this team was built. At the draft in September, there were 16 Blackhawks taken, but only one was taken in the 1st round, goaltender Corey Crawford. 16 players was too many, as a couple were dropped at the Week Nine Waiver Draft, but the late season tinkering saw one more added at the Week Eighteen swap. The Blackhawks made a few moves at the deadline as well, then finished with 14 active players on pool rosters.
The hockey pool MVP was Patrick Kane, as he finished atop of the pool rankings, scoring 46 goals and 106 points in all 82 games for the team and he wasn't taken until the 3rd round of the draft, thanks to his off-ice legal troubles, which had him in hot water and his participation was in question at the start of the season. Of course, he was cleared of all of his problems and continued to have a magnificent season.
Only 13 Chicago players finished as worthy when the season ended, including Kane, but that late season tinkering in the pool added a late addition to the club, which wasn't going to help the numbers too much. Rookie forward Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, Andrew Ladd, Artem Anisimov, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrew Shaw and Marian Hossa all finished as worthy up front, while Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson were good enough at the back end for a mention. The goaltending split was very beneficial for both goalies, as Corey Crawford and Scott Darling were each worthy, certainly a varying levels, but Crawford did have a 1st round-type season, finishing 7th overall and 4th among goalies.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
Back-to-back Cups are nearly impossible in this day and age, but if there was ever a team to do it, it would be the Blackhawks. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Crawford and company have the pieces signed on and ready to go for next season, so it will be a matter of who they let go of to gain some flexibility in the off-season. Will Chicago return to the off-season, I'm pretty sure that it won't be a problem. Will they be able to put enough around this core to push for another Cup? Maybe not in the off-season, as the numbers don't seem to be pointing in their favour, but once the season gets started and the trade deadline rolls around, I don't see why they couldn't make that push. There are a lot of variables to consider, but the constants should give this team lots of confidence.
Amazingly, it was an off-season signing that vaulted the Blackhawks from possibly doing something good to being in the conversation for a long playoff run, no matter how long they actually lasted. The signing of Artemi Panarin, an undrafted Russian forward, that made all the difference. Even without Panarin, one could argue that the Blackhawks were likely going to make the playoffs, but they were not able to tinker enough with their lineup, even with the acquisition of Andrew Ladd, to really push through the St. Louis Blues in the opening round of the playoffs.
2017 Pool Outlook
|Patrick Kane||10.500||Brent Seabrook||6.850||Corey Crawford||6.000|
|Jonathan Toews||10.500||Duncan Keith||5.538||Scott Darling||0.588|
|Marian Hossa||5.275||Niklas Hjalmarsson||4.100|
|Bryan Bickell||4.000||David Rundblad||1.050|
|Marcus Kruger||3.083||Ville Pokka||0.925|
|Tyler Motte||0.925||Trevor Van Riemsdyk||0.825|
|Gustav Forsling||0.873||Carl Dahlstrom||0.751|
|Ryan Hartman||0.863||Robin Norell||0.718|
|Andrew Desjardins||0.800||Dillon Fournier||0.709|
|Vincent Hinostroza||0.718||Erik Gustafsson||0.668|
|Luke Johnson||0.718||Nolan Valleau||0.668|
|Tanner Kero||0.668||Cam Schilling||0.575|
Coming out of a tinkering season, it does mean a lot, when you still have 11 pool worthy players signed on for your roster for the next season. There is a full expectation that their rental players will be moving on, so there will likely be a few more adjustments made to the full lineup, when the season starts in October. Nevertheless, the Blackhawks will be a popular team next year.
It doesn't seem very likely that the Blackhawks are going to hit a home run, like they did with Panarin with much of their youth in their system, but they will likely give it a try. The Blackhawks may have to promote one or two youth players from somewhere in their system and by the numbers, Ryan Hartman or Tanner Kero, each appeared briefly in 2016, may have the edge. Neither would be penciled in for a big role on the team, but they have a shot at making it in camp. I would keep an eye on their camp, just in case they have some more surprises up their sleeve.
Needs at the 2016 Entry Draft
The Blackhawks are another team without their 1st round pick, having dealt that to the Jets in the deal that brought Ladd to town and they are also without their 2nd round pick as well, dealt to the Flyers in 2015 for Kimmo Timonen. Free agency has been what has kept this team afloat over the last few years, while the draft has been relying on the long shot players, hoping that their scouting staff finds some gems late. This year will be much of the same.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Salary cap constraints and the Chicago Blackhawks... synonymous since 2010. Today, if the Blackhawks were not allowed to spend any more money, they would be able to ice a team, which would be fairly competitive on a nightly basis, but there is still lots of work to be done here. The 11 pool worthy players are coming in at $55.7 million, which would leave 10-to-12 open spots in the remaining $15.7 million, assuming the cap ceiling doesn't go up this year. You start checking off Bryan Bickell and Marcus Kruger and you're already down to $8.7 million for 8-to-10 players and it gets a little hairy after that. And let's not forget that we'll have other bonus issues to contend with here, so the math gets even worse.
Andrew Ladd is certainly finding a new home, as a pool worthy forward ready for the open market with dollar signs in his eyes. On the restricted side of the ledger, Andrew Shaw is in need of a new deal and he won't come cheap as a 24-year old, already through a bridge deal. There is a good chance that the Blackhawks find a deal for him and get more assets in return.
It'll be a tough Summer for Stan Bowman and company, but as he proved last year, nothing is impossible.
It's hard to bet against this team, especially with what they already have signed on for next season. Yes, the Blackhawks will struggle to put the best lineup they can out on the ice next season, but it's hard to look at a roster with Kane, Toews, Keith and Seabrook and not think they are going to do well next season. Panarin has established himself as a prime time player in the NHL and he's not a teenager, so I don't see the jinx falling on him too much. This Blackhawks team will be good again for the regular season, no doubt, but they will struggle with their depth, it may cost them some games here and there and it will culminate into an early opening round playoff loss, unless the math works in their favour, through a ceiling raise and some LTIR help, so they can add some more at the deadline. Good team to pick from for your hockey pool, but I wouldn't get my overall expectations too high here.