By Adam Hess
For weeks now, I’ve been saying that despite many of the concerning trends and statistics regarding these 2015-16 Blackhawks chances come playoff time, there are still plenty of reasons to believe in the Blackhawks. The best and most obvious being that this core has been through these regular season struggles several times and still managed to have playoff success.
However, as the regular season continues to wind down and the playoffs grow nearer, the pit in my stomach hasn’t exactly subsided. So I’ve decided the best way to attack these concerns is to embrace them, and see if there is a way to debunk them.
One of the biggest concerns with this team might just be the team itself. As easy as it is to say that the Blackhawks have been-here-done-this, the fact of the matter is that several of this team’s key players have not.
Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, Tomas Fleischmann, Richard Panik, Christian Ehrhoff, and Erik Gustafsson are all players that are essential to this team – albeit to varying degrees – but are lacking experience in a deep playoff run.
Anisimov has been largely invisible for most of the past month. Panarin has seen a stark decrease in production of late, as well. Neither player has ever had to find the extra gear for an extended playoff run. What reason is there to believe that they will be able to do so this year?
Still, this team’s core players have won three Stanley Cups together, and been to three straight conference finals as well. They’ve done all these things with varying supporting casts that have featured key pieces with little to no past playoff success. That’s reason enough to believe that this team can still make a Cup run.
Another concern that has been lingering now for some time is the struggles of the Chicago blue-line. While it was obvious that this team would miss Johnny Oduya, how much they miss him now is something that many people may not have anticipated. Without Oduya to pair with Niklas Hjalmarsson as a shutdown defensive pair, Joel Quenneville has had to put together patchwork defensive pairs for months.
The only combination that represents any sort of defensive ability strong enough to handle most of the strong offensive lines that they will see come playoffs is Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith, but then Keith’s offensive abilities are extremely limited.
Furthermore, under absolutely zero circumstances should Joel Quenneville ever pair Brent Seabrook with Trevor van Riemsdyk come playoff time. That pair has been among the NHL’s worst in terms of shot attempt shares all year. Seabrook has been better when paired with Gustaffson, and at his best when with Keith.
Should Q decide to rotate Keith’s defensive partners a la last season’s playoffs, putting him between Hjalmarsson and Seabrook could put the Blackhawks in a position of strength defensively rather than weakness. Keith’s missed time from November could come to pay off in May and June.
There are certainly personnel issues with this team that may come to bite them come playoffs. There is reason for concern over those issues. However, there are still ways for the Blackhawks to minimize or eliminate those concerns.