Blackhawks have what it takes for a return to the playoffs

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Another strong season by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews will go a long way toward getting the team back into the playoffs.

    Another strong season by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews will go a long way toward getting the team back into the playoffs. Associated Press

  • Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford will need help from new teammate Olli Maatta to keep the puck out of the net and improve the penalty kill.

    Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford will need help from new teammate Olli Maatta to keep the puck out of the net and improve the penalty kill. Associated Press

  • Right wing Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks in firepower, and that isn't expected to change this season.

    Right wing Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks in firepower, and that isn't expected to change this season. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 10/2/2019 9:32 PM

Hockey season is back.

And with it, a sense of optimism for many of the NHL's 31 fan bases.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

After all, nobody at this time last year was predicting a parade through downtown St. Louis to celebrate the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship.

So, clearly anything is possible in 2019-20.

Well, almost anything. Ottawa's still a lost cause, Tampa Bay is a near lock for 100 points and Alex Ovechkin figures to flirt with another 50-goal season.

Closer to home, what can we expect out of the Blackhawks? Is this a contender? Or at least a legitimate playoff team?

Or is it one that will be wondering how the draft lottery balls bounce once again?

Honestly, it's tough to tell.

But let's make our best guess by looking at five reasons fans should be optimistic … and four reasons they might be drowning their sorrows by the all-star break.

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Back in business

1. Shining stars

Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat and the emerging Dylan Strome give the Hawks plenty of firepower. If Brandon Saad can find another level, and Erik Gustafsson comes close to repeating his 17-goal season, the Hawks should rarely be out of a game.

2. Depth defying

Many prognosticators are lamenting the Hawks' lack of depth. And in one way, they are correct in that very little forward help could arrive from the minors if injuries strike.

However, the additions of Andrew Shaw, Ryan Carpenter and Dominik Kubalik; defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta; and goalie Robin Lehner make this a much more well-rounded team than last season. And let's not forget Alex Nylander who will get every opportunity to prove he's not a bust.

3. Kill 'em all

No team was worse on the penalty kill last season than the Hawks. Opponents cashed in on 25.6 percent of their power-play chances in the first half of the season, then went a disturbing 32-for-111 (28.8 percent) in the second half.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

GM Stan Bowman's primary goal in the offseason was to fix this and he's hoping Carpenter, Shaw, de Haan and Maatta are the solution.

If the Hawks improve their kill rate to 80 percent, that's about 15 fewer goals allowed -- and probably up to 6 more wins as a result.

4. Staff infections

Jeremy Colliton has won at every level he's coached, and he's done so by getting everyone to buy into a very simple philosophy: Do the little things right, develop good habits and play for the team. Individual numbers mean absolutely nothing if the W's aren't piling up. That message resonated more and more as last season progressed and the Hawks nearly earned a playoff spot as a result.

Now Colliton can seek the advice of 58-year-old Marc Crawford, who was added to the staff in June.

Add it all up and the Hawks should be a better prepared, more disciplined squad on a nightly basis.

5. Net help

Corey Crawford missed 28 games after suffering a concussion against San Jose at the United Center Dec. 16. The Hawks went 16-9-3 during his absence. New backup Robin Lehner might've helped them win a few more games. We'll never know, but adding Lehner gives the Hawks -- who allowed 5 or more goals 19 times last season -- a veteran tandem few teams can match.

... Or lottery bound

1. Encore … encore?

Jonathan Toews' first 35-goal, 80-point campaign came last season. Patrick Kane eclipsed 40 goals for just the second time. Alex DeBrincat racked up 41 goals. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson poured in 17.

Expecting this quartet to match these numbers or to exceed them seems silly.

A regression by one, two or three of them would be cause for concern.

2. Reduce speed ahead!

If only the Hawks could post a sign like this at their blue line.

The lack of speed on this roster is no secret, so forcing opposing forwards to take indirect routes to the net will be of paramount importance. The Hawks' forwards, meanwhile, must backcheck better than ever to help some of the slower D-men.

3. Devilish division

St. Louis won the Stanley Cup. Nashville's won two straight division titles. Winnipeg just inked holdouts Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new deals. Colorado has one of the scariest top lines in the NHL. Oh, and Dallas added Joe Pavelski.

How the Hawks fare against these five teams will likely determine if they have any chance to make the playoffs. They actually went 11-8-3 last season, but had serious problems with Nashville (1-2-1) and Winnipeg (0-2-2).

4. Terrifying turnover

As mentioned above, Bowman did a commendable job adding veteran help at multiple positions.

But how fast will they gel? And do they all understand how Colliton wants to play?

"It takes time to instill new habits; they don't just happen," Bowman said when camp opened. "You can watch it and we can tell you what we want you to do, but it's got to become a habit so you don't do a lot of thinking. … We have some new players that haven't played here before, and for some of our players last year it was an adjustment to try and play a different way."

Play that way correctly -- especially early on when the schedule makers blessed the Hawks with a seven-game homestand that begins Oct. 10 -- and this team should start strong. Then they figure to bring that confidence into November and beyond.

If not? Well, look out below.

• • •

Prediction

It's about buying in. If everyone plays together and for the greater cause, I think the Hawks go 42-30-10 and make the playoffs with 94 points.

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