Friday, May 26, 2017

Pool Outlook for Chicago

The methodology of spending the bulk of your team's cap space on a very established and successful core group of players and then trying to find the recipe for depth to play around them at a cost-effective rate has quickly become the focus in Chicago and the results haven't been poor, by any stretch, but in the 2017 regular season, they were far from flashy, but they still managed positive results.

The Blackhawks didn't quite have the same feel as years before, when their top players seemed to dominate the headlines and the highlight shows most weeks.  No, they were a little bit more blue collar, it seemed, but it still worked in their favour, as they still walked away with the Central Division title and the best record in the Western Conference.

Unfortunately, their prize for being the best in the conference was playing the Nashville Predators in the opening round and the Blackhawks still hadn't quite found any zip to their game, as they were thoroughly out-played and out-worked in that series, getting swept out of the playoffs by the team who is now on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The aftermath of the opening round sweep hit the assistant coaches the hardest, as they were handed their walking papers early on in the off-season and now the winds of change are blowing through the league, as we wait and see what happens with Vegas and the salary cap ceiling, two big factors to how the Blackhawks will be approaching this summer.

First things first though, let's have a quick peek at how much of an impact the Blackhawks had in last year's hockey pool draft, before we look at how they will impact next season's pool.

The Blackhawks have been a steady hockey pool team for a good number of years now and having 11 picks in the draft says a lot more to their core group never really changing and some real uncertainty about the depth around those players.  Two 1st round picks were among those 11, to no surprise, as Corey Crawford and Patrick Kane are usually locks for big points.  There was one key pick-up at the first Waiver Draft, as Richard Panik emerged as quality depth this year, while the second swap was Blackhawk-free.  And just like that, there were only 12 players from Chicago on active teams at the end of the year, somewhat of a boring season.

Kane finished atop the Blackhawks scoring list again in the 2017 season, making it back-to-back years, following his pool MVP season in 2016.  The 28-year old finished 8th overall in pool scoring with 34 goals and 89 points in all 82 games for Chicago, overcoming a fairly slow start, but still finding a way to finish over a point-per-game on the season.  Kane was 3rd among all forwards in scoring and was a bargain pick, if only slightly, taken 12th overall at the draft.

And as if we all knew what we were doing in this hockey pool, there were only 12 pool worthy players playing for Chicago, the exact number we finished with this year.  Joining Kane at the forward position were Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Richard Panik and Ryan Hartman.  Four blueliners were also good enough for the nod this year and there were no surprises here, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell led the way.  The Blackhawks were a little more generous in sharing the net this year (not to mention one injury helped share time), as Corey Crawford and Scott Darling were both worthy of the pool, finishing 12th and 33rd among all goalies.

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

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.

An early opening round playoff loss?  Get outta town!  Now, I'm not entirely sure that it was the team's depth that did in the Blackhawks, rather the big stars didn't quite shine nearly as bright as many thought they would and to me, that's where the Blackhawks lost out to the Predators.  Not to take anything away from Nashville, they were ready to play and played really well.  Nevertheless, the Blackhawks system of keeping their roster, may be getting a bit stale and with the lumps that they have against the cap, it will be hard to move away from it any time soon.

2018 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Patrick Kane 10.500 Brent Seabrook 6.850 Corey Crawford 6.000
Jonathan Toews 10.500 Duncan Keith 5.538
Artemi Panarin 6.000 Niklas Hjalmarsson 4.100
Marian Hossa 5.275
Artem Anisimov 4.550
Richard Panik 2.800
Ryan Hartman 0.863
Marcus Kruger 3.083 Gustav Forsling 0.873 Jeff Glass 0.613
Nick Schmaltz 0.925 Trevor Van Riemsdyk 0.825
Tyler Motte 0.925 Luc Snuggerud 0.768
John Hayden 0.925 Carl Dahlstrom 0.751
Alexander DeBrincat 0.809 Viktor Svedberg 0.750
David Kampf 0.778 Robin Norell 0.718
Matthew Highmore 0.776 Michal Rozsival 0.650
Nathan Noel 0.776
Anthony Louis 0.775
Tanner Kero 0.750
Matt Iacopelli 0.743
Vincent Hinostroza 0.718
Luke Johnson 0.718
Graham Knott 0.718
Jordin Tootoo 0.700
Alexandre Fortin 0.685
Kyle Baun 0.625

With the way the salary cap numbers are already looking, more on that below, I would have to think that something is going to change on this table before too long, as the Blackhawks already have $63 million tied up in pool worthy talent and that's only 11 players.  That would leave $10 million for 12 players to fill out a 23-man roster and that takes an even bigger hit, when you start to include Marcus Kruger.

Potential Losses in the Expansion Draft

The Blackhawks are going to have a lot of decisions made up for them early on in the expansion process, as they have four forwards, three defensemen and Corey Crawford all protected under their no-move clauses.  Thanks to required exposure, the Blackhawks could very well make Kruger available, hoping that Vegas sweeps up his $3 million cap hit... or at least trying to guide them in his direction through bribes of draft picks, to which they have a lot of late picks this year.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

The early cap numbers, according to CapFriendly, are showing that the Blackhawks are in desperate need of a big increase at the cap ceiling and for Vegas to snag a big contract off their books, as they are already $3 million over the 2017 ceiling and holding on to 21 players on a projected roster.  That's starting to get pretty dicey.

Unrestricted free agency helps a little bit, as both Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya come off the list or else they'd be $5.25 million further into the hole, so it would seem unlikely that either of them will be coming back for another spin, barring a cheap contract or flexibility happens elsewhere.

Restricted free agency has the potential of being somewhat difficult as well, but none of their current RFA crop were pool worthy, but that isn't to say they wouldn't be down the road.  Tomas Jurco and Michal Kempny still have some upside with regular minutes, but they need new deals first.

The Blackhawks may need to dip into their rookie pool this year or dive into the college free agent pool to help fill out their roster at a reasonable cost.  Forward John Hayden, a 2013 draft pick out of college, played in 12 games before the playoffs kicked in and had 4 points, he would have a leg up on some of the competition, while Erie Otters forward Alex DeBrincat is having a great year, including playing in the Memorial Cup tournament right now, but with his size, he should still be a couple years away, but given the team's situation, he may be rushed up to fill in a gap.

Needs at the 2017 Entry Draft

The Chicago Blackhawks have not been shy at using a home run swing on some of these late picks, trying to uncover that extra bit of talent that the teams before them have overlooked or underappreciated.  That seems to be the M.O. of Guelph Storm forward Issac Ratcliffe, who has been scouted as having really great hands, but lacks the strength to be an impact player right now.  The Blackhawks are never in a big hurry to move prospects up to the big club, unless they are going to make an impact, but if they can get Ratcliffe to get bigger, add that extra strength, they could have an impact player in a few years.

I don't see the trend lines for Chicago's regular season numbers falling off the edge of the world after a division title in 2017, but there is a lot that needs to happen before we can talk about trending back upwards in the playoffs.  The sweeping loss to the Predators this past season was a sign that things are not moving in the right direction for the Blackhawks and management will have to start getting real creative with what they already have.  It seems improbable that the Blackhawks will trade one of those big contracted core players, unless someone else felt that the player was the difference between winning and losing, because those contracts are daunting.  Unless something drastic changes in Chicago's roster make-up, I believe they are doomed for another early playoff exit in the 2018 season.
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