When you are the defending Stanley Cup champions, every team in the NHL elevates to take you down. You are the stick that the other 29 organizations measure themselves against. This season — as it has been in three of the last six years — the Chicago Blackhawks are the high-water mark.
The Blackhawks had a tumultuous offseason. They were forced to trade Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Patrick Sharp was shipped off to the Dallas Stars. Chicago also had to allow backup goalie Antti Raanta and defenseman Johnny Oduya walk via free agency.
The result was a different looking Blackhawks roster, with Artem Anisimov slated to fill a long-time void as the No. 2 center. Meanwhile, fans wondered what KHL transplant Artemi Panarin would be able to bring to the table. Despite these shifts, expectations were as high as ever in the Windy City.
The Blackhawks have endured a few small rough patches, but for the most part have been able to maintain a high level of play despite noteworthy roster turnover for the third time in six campaigns.
That’s got to be… that’s got to be Kane!
Patrick Kane, that is. We could pretend that someone else on the Blackhawks has been half as good as the 27-year-old has been, but that would be silly. He’s made highlight-reel plays on a nightly basis and leads the team in scoring with 62 points. The next closest is Panarin, who has 39, thanks in large part to playing on a line with Kane.
He’s pushing for a double-digit lead in the Art Ross Trophy race and is responsible for driving the third-best power play in the league. Kane has 13 power-play goals and nine assists.
He also re-wrote the history books earlier this season, hitting the score sheet in 26 consecutive contests. That’s a new record for an American born player. Kane shattered the old mark of 18 straight games with a point, which was shared Eddie Olczyk and Phil Kessel.
There have been a handful of pleasant surprises in Chicago this year. Maybe Kane’s dominance has caught you off guard, or perhaps Corey Crawford leading the league in shutouts past the halfway mark was shocking to you.
The biggest surprise award has to go to Panarin. After spending his entire career playing in the KHL, the Russian forward signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent in April. It’s true that there was a bit of a bidding war going on for the 24-year-old, but no one expected him to be the league’s best rookie.
He was a dark horse for the Calder Trophy at best, lagging behind the likes of Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid in terms of preseason buzz. Now he seems to be running away with the rookie-of-the-year award. It’s fair to point out that McDavid has been injured since November 3, but that shouldn’t take any of the luster off of what Panarin has done.EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS
Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith were front and center during Chicago’s most recent Stanley Cup run. The Blackhawks essentially won it all while icing just four NHL-caliber defensemen, and Seabrook was one of two defenders playing monster minutes. Keith rightfully skated away with the Conn Smythe trophy, but Seabrook seemed to finally get the national attention he deserved.
He’s continued to play at a high level in 2015-16, and is fourth on the team in scoring with 28 points. The 30-year-old is among the top scoring defensemen in the league, outpacing Keith, Mark Giordano and Drew Doughty among others.
Crawford gets another mention here as well. He’s not widely recognized as one of the top-10 or 15 netminders in the NHL, but he’s played like one so far. His six shutouts lead the league, and only two goalies have made more saves than “Crow.” He’s been busy, but he keeps pulling down wins with regularity.
Making Blackhawks fans forget about Saad is nearly impossible, but Anisimov is doing his best to make that happen.
He was the NHL-ready piece that came back from Columbus in the Saad trade, and general manager Stan Bowman hoped that Anisimov could finally cement the team’s center depth behind Jonathan Toews — something that has been lacking for years.
The 27-year-old inked a new five-year, $22.75 million extension before the season began, and he’s made Bowman look smart to this point. Anisimov found instant chemistry with Kane and Panarin, and that line has been among the NHL’s deadliest. His point production may be surprising to some degree, but Anisimov is doing exactly what he was brought to Chicago to do.
FALLING BELOW EXPECTATIONS
If the Blackhawks weren’t pushing for the Central Division lead, we might be hearing more about the struggles of Toews and Hossa. Toews is having a sub-par statistical season despite being named to the NHL All-Star game. He’s been picking up the offensive production lately, but he’s still on pace for just 58 points this season.
That would be his lowest total since 2011-12, when he notched 57 points in 59 games played. “Captain Serious” has been dynamite in the 3-on-3 overtime format, but his quiet start left some pundits wondering if he had hit a wall of some sort.
Hossa is 37 and was going to slow down eventually, but his seven goals and 19 points leaves much to be desired. He’s still a hound in the neutral zone and a good skater, but he’s finishing on just 5.6 percent of his chances right now. That’s substantially lower than his career shooting percentage of 12.3 percent.