Are the Chicago Blackhawks contenders or pretenders?
Greg Wyshynski: For better or worse, I had the Blackhawks as a playoff team in the Western Conference. In October, it was worse. In November, it's been better, as the Blackhawks (11-8-3, 25 points) are on a 4-1-1 run against decent teams and looking a lot better.
"I think we're starting to settle in as a team," captain Jonathan Toews told the Chicago Sun-Times. "We're starting to see what it takes for us to be a good team and what it's going to take to win games the rest of the season [with] how tight our conference and division [are]."
The Blackhawks have scored 23 goals in that six-game run after scoring that total in their previous 14 games. They've settled on lines that are clicking, including a Patrick Kane-Artem Anisimov-Nick Schmaltz trio that has produced points in six straight games. Alex DeBrincat and Toews have six points each during that run as well. Corey Crawford, despite a couple of hiccups, has been superb, with a .935 save percentage and a 2.16 goals-against average.
Are they contenders? I still think the Blackhawks have some systemic problems in that lineup -- particularly on the back end -- but I also think there's still enough on that roster to hang in the playoff race and eventually make the cut. Especially with Crawford playing Vezina-level hockey.
Sure, they're probably a first-round bye for whoever plays them, but a playoff berth is a playoff berth.
Emily Kaplan: These are bleak times for sports fans in Chicago. The Bulls (3-15) sit dead last in the Eastern Conference. The Bears (3-8) are hopeless in the NFC North. The Blackhawks (11-8-2) are smack in the middle of the Central Division, chasing the red-hot St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets, not to mention the defending Western Conference-champion Nashville Predators. But, if I'm buying stock in one Chicago team, no question it's the Blackhawks.
I go back to a conversation I had during the preseason with a veteran player who spent the summer determining where to sign a player tryout. His assessment: "When I look at the Blackhawks, I see Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and pretty much all the same pieces that they had when they won the Cups. I know they didn't do well in the playoffs last year, but they're still very dangerous."
It's certainly easy to write this team off as a pretender. The truth is, the Blackhawks have acted like pretenders for the first quarter of the season. Coach Joel Quenneville has juggled his lines so often, I've wondered if he'd run out of combinations. The power play wasn't scaring anyone. Defensive depth was (is still) shaky.
It must be especially frustrating if you're a Blackhawks fan because (a) Chicago has been healthy and (b) Crawford is playing some damn good hockey. Are they squandering away the prime of Kane and Toews? I say no. I've attended a bunch of Blackhawks games so far, and it feels like they are on the cusp of breaking through, but they're just missing an "it" factor. As I've checked in on them over the past six games, they look like they have turned a corner. Not only are they 4-1-1, averaging four goals per game against tough teams such as the New Jersey Devils, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, but they've found continuity. Coach Q has finally kept the lines together, and the spark that was bustling under the surface might just be lighting up.
That veteran player I talked about earlier -- he was right. The Blackhawks have pretty much all the same pieces as when they won three Cups. It's not exactly the same roster, but enough of it is there that this team must be treated as a threat.
Chris Peters: This Blackhawks team has been fascinating to watch. They can look like world-beaters one minute and borderline inept the next, but if they could find the middle of that, they'll be fine. The Blackhawks remain playoff contenders -- but I'm not so sure they are serious Stanley Cup contenders.
It is generally, and I think correctly, accepted that this team is not the same as contenders of years past in Chicago. Specifically, the blue line remains a bit of a question mark. For years, Chicago has leaned heavily on Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but it looks like that time is starting to catch up to them -- particularly Seabrook, who is underwater in the possession numbers (a minus-5.1 relative Corsi for percentage) and failing the eye test as well. Meanwhile, it's been a bit of a revolving door behind them. More recently, additions Cody Franson and Connor Murphy have proved more effective as they've gained more trust from Quenneville. Those two, with Jan Rutta, Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny, have essentially been trading off top-four minutes as Chicago continues seeking a way to adequately replace Niklas Hjalmarsson (who hasn't quite been himself with the Arizona Coyotes, either). This is the biggest area of concern for the Blackhawks, because it influences everything, and I'm not sure how long it will take them to get it settled.
Offensively, there probably isn't a ton to worry about, even though the top six hasn't been quite as potent as a whole. Kane has put together another strong season, averaging a point per game. Meanwhile, I think youngsters DeBrincat and Schmaltz still have a lot to give this season and should produce more consistently. Brandon Saad has been a little snake-bit lately and could see an uptick as well. Scoring should not be a problem for this team down the stretch.
The one thing that is tough to get past, though, is that Crawford is having a career year and Chicago is still only just outside of a wild-card spot. What happens in the very likely event that he can't keep this kind of performance up? This is a really tricky team to figure out this season, but I still think it makes the playoffs.