The NHL season is one-third over, and after the twists and turns, we still have a few surprises sticking around. One thing that isn’t a surprise, though? The Blackhawks are again looking like a Stanley Cup finalist.
Everything is Awesome
Since we last looked at the ‘Hawks, they’ve put up another flawless week, winning three of three games. One against a solid Eastern team (Montreal), one against a dangerous Western team (Nashville), and one against their archenemy (rookie goaltenders, in the form of New Jersey’s Keith Kincaid).
The Blackhawks are hitting their stride — that is, probability is re-asserting itself. Hossa still makes your jaw drop, Toews still dominates on ice, and Saad is starting to play like the guy who’s up for new contract after this season. The Kane-Richards-Versteeg line is still beastly. The defense is still keeping our opponents’ shots down (usually). The depth players are contributing with aplomb. The ‘Hawks are now in a three-way dance for first place in the Central division with the upstart Preds and the vomitous Blues.
So… nothing else to write about Chicago, right?
What’s that? Jeremy Morin? Really? But I’ve kinda been hitting the Morin note repeatedly of late, so bringing him up is… okay, fine. We’ll talk Morin again.
Jeremy Morin… again
Jeremy Morin was sent down to the AHL on Tuesday. This was a bit of a surprise, since Morin needs to clear waivers, and an NHL-ready forward is not going to clear waivers. Coach Q said it was to build Morin’s “confidence,” and the organization said it wasn’t a send-down but a “conditioning loan.” I guess that works, maybe, if you believe that Morin is out of shape because he’s been a healthy scratch for the last few weeks.
Nobody buys that, of course. It seemed the ‘Hawks were going to give Morin more ice time, until they signed a journeyman “enforcer” and gave him that time instead. Morin has reportedly issued a “play me or trade me” ultimatum. The Chicago hockey writers agree with Morin — if they aren’t going to play him, trade him.
At this point, a trade seems like the only option. Morin was drafted in 2009. The guy the Blackhawks drafted the year after — Kevin Hayes, who stayed in college all four years so he could avoid signing with Chicago — that guy is getting regular minutes with the Eastern Conference champions. Morin is warning sign to Chicago’s prospects: work hard, pay your dues, live up to your potential, and you too can watch your best years waste away in the minor leagues!
It’s like some sort of frustrating game. I mean, if you were a prospect in Chicago’s system, what would kind of career path would you be looking at?
The Prospect Game
Here’s what we know about Chicago: more than half their payroll next season will go to five players — Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, and Crawford. These players are all signed through the end of the decade, so it’ll take retirement or a backhoe to move them. If you’re a new prospect in Chicago’s system, what’s available to you?
Beyond Kane and Hossa, Sharp and Bickell are signed for two more seasons after this one, so spots on the top two lines will be scarce. If Chicago can keep Saad and Smith, then all that’s left are spots on the fourth line. That’s assuming Coach Q doesn’t keep bringing in Carcillo and Bollig-type players to waste your roster spot. You’ll also have to leap over Garret Ross and a few other dues-paying wingers — unless Chicago follows its tradition of trading them away.
Prediction: You didn’t want to sniff the NHL until 2017-18 anyway, right?
Now we’re talking. We know Toews is a franchise player, but otherwise the ‘Hawks have been thin at the center position. Richards is only on a one-year deal, Shaw seems better on a wing, and Marcus Kruger is perfectly slotted anchoring a third or fourth line. As long as you can surpass Finnish super-prospect Teuvo Teräväinen. And watch out for Nick Schmaltz. And if Kruger leaves, Chicago still has a bottom-six Swedish center ready in Joakim Nordstrom.
Prediction: Aspire to be a third-line center or trade bait? Then this is the position for you.
Assuming the ‘Hawks don’t re-sign Oduya or Roszival (because Chicago could really use that $5.5 million of cap space), that leaves them with Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and van Riemsdyk for their top two pairings. If van Riemsdyk continues to play like he did before his injury, that’s a solid group. After that, good news — it’s a bit dicey! Rundblad, Dahlbeck, and Clendenning have all had cups of coffee in Chicago, with mixed results. All of them are RFAs after this season, so we’ll see who sticks around. But Chicago also has Ville Pokka and Stephen Johns in in waiting, both of whom are showing potential high upsides in their first seasons in the Blackhawks’ system.
Prediction: This may seem like the best bet. But defense prospects take a bit longer to develop, and there are a LOT of them ahead of you…
Crawford isn’t going anywhere at the moment, but get him to go to the House of Blues, and it’ll open up a window of opportunity for a few weeks. Antti Raanta is a cardiac arrest masquerading as a dynamic goalie. Scott Darling is a hometown boy who’s impressed the coaches. But after them, the depth chart is wide open.
Prediction: A pretty decent possibility at this position, especially if the ‘Hawks lose a goalie in the inevitable expansion draft.
I’m enjoying this so much, let’s keep playing. How about we look at this season’s unexpected teams, and whether they’ll continue their success or failure into the near future?
New York Islanders
That the Isles are winning isn’t really a surprise. They were a playoff team in 2013. The duo of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo is the team’s cornerstone. Their offseason was brilliant: they added solid net-minding with Jaroslav Halak, veteran minutes with Mikhail Grabovski, and mustachioed assholery with Cal Clutterbuck. They waited for teams with too much payroll (like Boston and Chicago) to dump salary, and acquired a top defensive pair (Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy) for a song.
What is surprising is how often the Isles are winning. No team has more wins than the Isles. They’re only one point behind the Penguins — the team we all assumed would win the Metro without challenge. They aren’t relying on luck (all-situation PDO of 99.67), and they’re getting a breakout season from 2010 1st-round pick Brock Nelson.
Prediction: There’s a challenger to lead the Metro division? Woo-hoo! This should be a fun race to watch.
Nobody expected the Calgary Flames… to still be in the playoff picture. I’d more likely expect a trio of British wise-asses in Catholic garb to skate into the playoffs than this team. But every season has its team that’s lucky rather than good, and Calgary seems to be this season’s incarnation. Sure, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are a pair of hot young forwards. and sure, Jiri Hudler is playing the veteran sniper. Sure, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie may be a defensive pair par excellence, and sure, Calgary upgraded in net.
But the underlying stats are not kind. They have one of the highest luck quotients (PDO) in the NHL, while having some of the worst possession numbers. Hudler isn’t going to shoot 21% all season. When the top players regress, who’ll contribute? Who? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?
Prediction: Everybody expects the statistical regression. Does it happen before they squeeze into the playoffs, though?
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are a different type of surprise: for a while, it seemed like the only thing they might win is the first draft pick in the offseason. Columbus is the karmic opposite of the Flames, needing to play out of their minds to overcome a dismal and injury-plagued start. Before they started to rebound, it looked like Columbus could count on being part of the Jack Eichel / Connor McDavid sweepstakes. But it’s hard to be worse than Edmonton, Carolina, and Buffalo. Especially when this is a team that went toe-to-toe with the Penguins in last year’s playoffs.
Prediction: They’re in a weak division & conference, but that’s still a lot of teams to overcome. And too many teams that are just plain worse. If Columbus misses the playoffs (very likely), time to hope for some Cleveland-Cavalier-level luck with the draft lottery.
Another team that is surprising everyone with their ineptitude. GM Jim Nill made so many big splashes in the offseason: Spezza! Hemsky! Shiny things! Despite the fact the Tyler Seguin is leading the league in points, Dallas still manages to be awful. Their defense is a tire fire and their goalies look defeated. It doesn’t matter how nice your condo, if your backyard is still an acrid trash heap of burning rubber.
Prediction: Ahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Hah.