Dietz: 4 pressing issues facing the Blackhawks

 
 
Updated 3/5/2019 7:10 PM
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  • Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat, left, is congratulated after scoring a goal by centers Jonathan Toews, back right, and Dylan Strome in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Denver.

    Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat, left, is congratulated after scoring a goal by centers Jonathan Toews, back right, and Dylan Strome in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Denver. Associated Press

With the Blackhawks' playoff odds nearly at zero, I thought we'd take a moment to address some issues that will affect the team's near and distant future.

First up: What will it take to extend the contracts of Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome?

1. DeBrincat and Strome

Both players will be restricted free agents at the end of next season, so everyone has plenty of time to agree upon extensions.

But the sooner the better for the Hawks when it comes to DeBrincat, whose hockey IQ is off the charts and whose shot is as quick and accurate as anyone in the league.

There are many factors that go into contract negotiations -- length, money, signing bonus percentage, no-movement clauses, etc. -- and the potential for labor unrest after next season is looming large.

Will owners will be able to buy out bad contracts in the future? Will the 2020-21 season be affected if -- as many expect -- the players opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in September? How much is the salary cap expected to rise in the coming years?

There's a lot going on.

As far as DeBrincat goes, it's fair to compare him with David Pastrnak, Boston's 22-year-old scoring machine who has put together three straight 30-goal seasons. Pastrnak is in the second year of six-year, $40 million deal ($6.67M cap hit).

If the Hawks and DeBrincat don't want to max out at eight years, then it makes sense for him to sign something like an extension of 5-6 years with a similar cap hit.

As for Strome, he's a tougher nut to crack. He was the third overall pick in 2015, but did next to nothing for the Coyotes. Since coming to the Hawks on Nov. 25, however, Strome has 14 goals and 26 assists in 42 games. That's better than Ryan Dzingel, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron, Max Domi, Ryan Johansen and Tyler Seguin.

Unless GM Stan Bowman comes at Strome with an offer he can't refuse, it's probably wisest for him to wait a bit. If he proves this is the kind of player he's going to be for years to come, it will only pay off in a sizable deal in the not-too-distant future.

Asked how deals with DeBrincat and Strome might affect the Hawks' ability to acquire top-notch free agents this off-season, Bowman said the Hawks have "things modeled out many years in the future" and added that "the fact that they're both thriving is a great thing. They've made a big difference to our team. Look at our offensive production. We're a pretty potent team as far as scoring goals and they're a big part of it."

It will be interesting to find out just how big a part of it they'll become in the months ahead.

2. Crawford concerns

It's beginning to look like all the time Corey Crawford missed over the past 15 months has caught up to him. The two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie was awfully shaky at Anaheim and Los Angeles in his first two appearances since returning from a concussion he suffered on Dec. 16.

While Crawford did set Brendan Perlini up with a gorgeous 80-foot pass in the second period against the Ducks, he also twice misplayed the puck behind the net. The second miscue led directly to a goal that gave Anaheim a 3-2 lead in the third period.

Three nights later, Crawford gave up 6 goals to a Kings team that averaged 2.4 goals in their previous 10 games -- all of which were losses.

Blame the defense in front of him or untimely penalties if you want, but the bottom line is Crawford hasn't looked sharp in many of his 25 starts this season.

Among the 54 goalies with at least 750 minutes of 5-on-5 play, Crawford ranks:

• 53rd in save percentage (.900);

• 53rd in goals-against average (3.22);

• 39th in average goal distance (23.37 feet from the net).

He does rank a respectable 21st in high-danger save percentage (.841), but he's allowing too many goals on shots he normally stopped.

It could just be rust.

But it could also be that two long layoffs after two terrible concussions have hurt Crawford's reflexes and confidence to the point where we won't ever see him at his best ever again.

3. Call-ups coming?

With the playoffs nearly out of reach, it's fair to wonder if the Hawks may give a few of their minor-leaguers a look down the stretch.

Forwards Luke Johnson (8 goals, 7 assists last 15) and Jordan Schroeder (8G, 8A last 16) have been red hot, and perhaps it would be nice to see what D-man Lucas Carlsson can do at the NHL level.

Of course, Henri Jokiharju is also still in Rockford growing his game.

The thing is, the IceHogs (63 points) are in a fierce battle with Texas (63), Milwaukee (61), San Antonio (60) and Manitoba (59) for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division. Third-place Grand Rapids has 71 points.

Playoff hockey at any level is a great learning experience, so don't be surprised if Jeremy Colliton and GM Stan Bowman elect to keep Rockford's roster as-is.

4. Lottery odds

Through Monday's games, the Blackhawks had the league's eighth-worst record. According to tankathon.com, their odds of ending up with the No. 1 pick are currently 6.5 percent. Odds of drafting second are 6.8 percent, third 7.1 percent, seventh 27 percent, eighth 39.5 percent and ninth 13.1 percent.

It is widely accepted that Jack Hughes will be the top pick this June. Hughes, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound center, is a generational talent in the mold of a Jack Eichel or Auston Matthews. He could easily jump right into a team's top line next season and turn around a team's fortunes for more than a decade.

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