playing in a large television market the NHL wanting to have an even 24 teams competing in the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks, who had no realistic aspirations of contending at the time of the pause, have been thrown into the dance.
As far as we know, the Oilers will be facing off against the Blackhawks in a five-game play-in series to determine who moves on to the actual playoffs. It probably isn’t fair that the regular season has been largely tossed out the window and the Oilers and the Blackhawks, who were separated by 11 points in the standings, have an equal chance of moving on, but here we are.
Let’s get to know Edmonton’s expected opponent.
The Blackhawks are still nursing the hangover of their mini-dynasty and are obviously nowhere near the team that won three Stanley Cups over the span of six seasons in the first half of the 2010s. They had a 32-30-8 record at the time of the pause, good for seventh in the competitive Central Division, and would have missed the playoffs for the third-consecutive season if everything had carried on as normal.
Despite ignoring a full-on rebuild and favouring more of a retool-on-the-go approach, general manager Stan Bowman opted to sell at the trade deadline, moving goaltender Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights and defenceman Erik Gustaffson to the Calgary Flames for draft picks. So, with that in mind, the Blackhawks’ roster is now a tad weaker than their already-mediocre record suggests.
Weakness: Terrible Team Defence
One of the team’s biggest strengths this season was its goaltending. Lehner and Corey Crawford formed a strong tandem, posting a combined .917 save percentage. But this strength was overshadowed by the team’s greatest flaw, which is terrible team defence.
Despite having the fourth-highest team save percentage in all situations (behind only the Bruins, Stars, and Coyotes), Chicago ranked 21st in the league in goals-against at the time of the pause. According to Natural Stat Trick, they allowed the most shots on goal against and high danger chances against at even strength in the league.
Duncan Keith is still the team’s No. 1 defender at the age of 36. Back in the good old days, Keith formed an elite top pair alongside Brent Seabrook. Over the past few years, Seabrook’s game has massively declined to the point where he’s barely an NHL-calibre defenceman anymore. Regardless, Seabrook had surgery on his hip back in December and very likely won’t be ready by the time play resumes.
Behind Keith, Chicago’s blueline is pretty much in flux. Keith’s most common partner was Gustafsson, who, of course, was traded. Otherwise, his most frequent partner was rookie Adam Boqvist, who has dealt with a concussion this year.
The rest of the blueline is rounded out by the unspectacular group of Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, Slater Koekkoek, and Dennis Gilbert. A big boost could be the return of Calvin de Haan, who suffered what was expected to be a season-ending shoulder injury back in December. de Haan was arguably Chicago’s best defenceman in the 29 games he played this year as the team scored 63 percent of the goals when he was one the ice.
Still, even with a healthy de Haan back in the mix, Chicago’s defence leaves a lot to be desired. They also now only have half of their goaltending tandem, so, if Crawford falters, they have to fall back on Malcolm Subban rather than Lehner, which is a steep decline.
Another thing to note is that Chicago’s terrible team defence isn’t entirely the fault of its ho-hum blueline. They also don’t boast forwards with good two-way prowess or feature quality shut-down bottom-six guys like the Oilers do with Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald.
Jonathan Toews is the one name that stands out as a classic two-way player, but he isn’t the same player he was in his Selke days. Toews was actually on the ice for more high danger chances against at even strength than anybody else on the Blackhawks this year.
Strength: High-end Talent
The best thing the Blackhawks have going for them is the game-changing presence of Patrick Kane. This is a player who simply knows how to win and has a knack for scoring clutch goals. Now on the wrong side of 30, Kane has shown no signs of slowing down and is still one of the league’s elite producers offensively. Through 70 games this season, Kane led the Blackhawks with 33 goals and 84 points.
Beyond Kane, the Blackhawks have a very formidable top-six. Jonathan Toews had another productive season, netting 60 points in 70 games. And, like Kane, Toews is a player with all the experience in the world when it comes to the playoffs.
The rest of the top-six is rounded out by rookie Dominik Kubalik, who randomly broke out for 30 goals this year, veteran winger Brandon Saad, who produced a solid 21 goals this season, and the young duo of Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat, who, despite down seasons from where they were at in 2018-19, have plenty of skill.
After that group, though, Chicago’s lineup is more of a question mark. Kirby Dach, the No. 3 overall pick from the 2019 draft, is the team’s third-line centre. While he had a nice rookie showing, you really don’t want a 19-year-old as your third-line centre in the playoffs.
Getting feisty wingers Andrew Shaw and Drake Caggiula back from injury would be a plus to the bottom-six, but it isn’t a guarantee that either will be available. Caggiula suffered a hand injury in a fight and should be back, but Shaw was shut down in February due to a concussion. The other bottom-six options, like Ryan Carpenter, Alex Nylander, and David Kampf, leave a lot to be desired.
Again, I would also consider Crawford to be part of this high-end skill category and a strength of the team. He had an excellent season, posting a .917 save percentage in spite of Chicago’s poor team defence. Though often overlooked as a key member of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup teams, Crawford also owns a .919 career save percentage in the playoffs. Like Kane, Crawford is a player who could take over a game.
What does it all mean?
The worry for the Oilers is going up against a battle-tested, experienced Blackhawks core in a five-game series where there isn’t much room for error. The presence of Kane, Toews, and Crawford is worrying because amazing play from those two forwards and strong goaltending could flip a short series on its head.
But still, the Oilers are a much, much deeper team than the Blackhawks are. As much as Kane is a worry for the Oilers, Chicago has no solution for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Dach and Strome simply can’t be used to shut Edmonton’s attack down so that role would fall on the veteran Toews.
But now that the Oilers boast two elite scoring lines, it isn’t possible for one player to shut them down. If you line-match Toews against McDavid, then you’re also leaving the trio of Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Kailer Yamamoto to feast on young and inexperienced competition in Strome or Dach.
There’s a reason the Oilers finished much higher than the Blackhawks in the standings this season. While there’s reason to be anxious about the randomness of a five-game series, I like Edmonton’s chances.