Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pool Outlook for Chicago

Expectations for the defending Stanley Cup champions had to be tempered in 2011, knowing full well that the team would have to do some serious remodelling to their line-up, thanks to some extra large cap concerns.  Expectations were still rather high for the core of the team that remained for the 2011 season, realizing most of those expectations by just barely sliding into the Western Conference playoff picture in 8th spot.  The match-up against the Canucks in the first round was quite the nailbiter, as the Blackhawks did come back from a 3-0 series deficit, only to lose in Game Seven.

With all the changes that were in place for the Blackhawks, it seems only fitting that the captain be the one to pick up all the slack for the team, leading by example.  Jonathan Toews did exactly that in the 2011 season, finishing with 76 points (32 goals and 44 assists) in 80 games, ranking him 26th in pool scoring, 12th among all forwards.  Toews has consistently improved his pool ranking in his early years in the NHL, which bodes well for him next season, possibly rising to the elite parts of the scoring table in 2012.

The core group of forwards behind Toews looked pretty good on the scoresheet, which must be why most of them are going to be sticking around for at least another season.  Patrick Kane (73 points in 73 games), Patrick Sharp (71 points in 74 games) and Marian Hossa (57 points in 65 games) all looked very good when they were on the ice together, but as you can see by the games played numbers, there were some stretches that saw key players out of the line-up.  Rounding out the top forwards were Tomas Kopecky (42 points in 81 games) and Michal Frolik (38 points in 80 games between Florida and Chicago).

On the blueline, it was a lot more of the usual suspects holding down the fort, but in a little bit of a different order.  Brent Seabrook led all Chicago defensemen in scoring in 2011, finishing up with 48 points in 82 games, only 3 points better than teammate and Norris Trophy winner, Duncan Keith (45 points in 82 games).  Brian Campbell fell off his usual scoring pace a little, finishing 3rd in blueline scoring on the team with 27 points in 65 games.  There was a significant drop off in blueline scoring after the top two, which could be one of the reasons why the team struggled at various points in the season.

The goaltending story may not have panned out like many had believed it would, but nevertheless, the Blackhawks must be proud of one of their own prospects, Corey Crawford, taking the reins of the starting job and running wild with it in 2011.  The Blackhawks signed Marty Turco in the off-season to help ease the loss of Antti Niemi, but it was Crawford who came up big for Chicago, driving their playoff hopes into the first round against the Canucks.  Crawford won 33 games, had 4 shutouts and added an assist for 75 points in the pool, ranking him 15th among goalies.  The Blackhawks then rewarded him with a brand new deal for his efforts.

2012 Pool Outlook
I don't think anyone can really deny that the Blackhawks do have one of the more promising core groups of players in the league, but it can likely be argued that they may be overpaid or being paid for way too long.  What this group of players will do is test management to see how well they can find quality depth to play with this core group on the cheap.  There is plenty of promise there, it just needs a little bit of help to move forward again.

Jonathan ToewsBrent SeabrookCorey Crawford
Patrick KaneDuncan Keith
Patrick SharpBrian Campbell
Marian HossaNiklas Hjalmarsson
Brian BickellJohn Scott
Dave Bolland

Salary CapTurning back to how expensive this team actually is, the 12 players (six forwards, five defense and one goalie) above that are signed and likely to start the 2012 season, have an annual cap projection of $50.9 million, which is an awfully high mark.  This means that the Blackhawks will have about $11 million to spend on 11 players, which doesn't sound so bad, in theory, but they will need a top six forward in there, which may cost them down the road.

Unrestricted free agency may be a walk in the park for the Blackhawks, as the top players that qualify for the open market are not likely to return, either due to cost or usefulness.  Tomas Kopecky, Marty Turco, Fernando Pisani, Jassen Cullimore and Ryan Johnson may all have the feeling that they've become obsolete in the Chicago system.

The restricted free agents may be a different story, but then again, if the price isn't right in early negotiations, they may not be qualified and then sent free into the open marketplace.  Michal Frolik, Troy Brouwer, Viktor Stalberg and Chris Campoli will all fit under that umbrella, while Jake Dowell, I could see taking what is given to him as a qualifier and just being done with it all.

This year might just be the year that Kyle Beach busts out of his shell and joins the Blackhawks roster out of training camp.  The big gritty forward has not been able to make that leap in a few years of seasoning and with a fair-sized entry-level cap hit, he may still drop a peg or two in the depth chart.  Jeremy Morin looks to be a bit more of a lock for the 2012 season, he played in nine games with the club in 2011 and showed some flashes of razzle-dazzle, which could be put to good use in the team's top six.  Finally, the Blackhawks are expecting to see Marcus Kruger in a full-time role next season, likely getting some solid bottom six minutes.  It may not translate into many points though.

There is plenty of prospects in the system that play along the blueline for Chicago, so if there was anything that the Blackhawks may be looking for with their first pick in the draft, it may be either a flashy forward or a top flight goaltending prospect to help the team with their depth at that position.  I would think that the team would lean towards more scoring, since the goaltending prospects are not as highly touted this year, but with draft picks moving back and forth, they might just move one up.

What I said last year at this time... "For 2011, I could probably offer some guesses as to who would be out the door to make room for others, but I think I will save that for my rumours blog and I might just do that for all of you. Yes, the Blackhawks will be systematically taken apart by only small bits, but what the core is made up of will remain and be good for poolies across the continent. I'm expecting to see some more dominance from the Blackhawks, likely using those young legs to another good playoff run. I think the Penguins are a good example of being able to make those runs for a couple of years in a row. Make the Blackhawks a priority for your regular season draft and likely your playoffs pool as well."

Obviously, not knowing the full extent of how bad the dismantling of the Blackhawks would be in the Summer of 2010, I was very optimistic that the Blackhawks would bounce back from a hard Summer of retooling and cap structuring and then make another big run for the Cup in 2011.  Well, I was admittedly unaware and therefore wrong, as Chicago took a tough one on the chin and picked up enough pieces to make the season relatively bearable and just limping into the playoffs.  In all honesty, I don't mind being wrong about this one.

The 2012 season's success will have a lot to do with the team's depth and their ability to keep the puck out of their own net.  Crawford's playoff success won't likely translate fully in the regular season, as the level of play increases exponentially, so the team will have to help that along with some savvy acquisitions.  Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa and Sharp will all be reasonable picks in the coming year, barring injury, which should keep the Blackhawks as a threat on any given night.  I'm expecting the Blackhawks to be a quick team again in 2012, definitely pushing for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

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