By Jacob Wallman
On the heels of superstar Patrick Kane’s injury, which will keep him out until well into the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks were looking to use the cap space freed up by his loss (and that of defenseman Johnny Oduya) to acquire some stop-gaps via trade, and that’s exactly what they did. Before the NHL’s trade deadline passed, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman paid steeply for second line center Antoine Vermette and veteran defenseman Kimo Timonen. They also acquired depth defensemen T.J. Brennen, however that pick-up is less important. The acquisitions of Vermette and Timonen send a clear “win now” message, as they are both clearly rental players, due to Timonen’s commitment to retiring at the end of this season, Vermette’s expiring contract, and the contract extensions of Kane and captain Jonathan Toews, which carry a combined $8 Million markup on an already cap-strapped team. Naturally, this leaves the questions “Have they done enough to stay in the playoffs until Kane returns?” and, if so, “Are the Blackhawks the favorites to win it all?”
First, let’s take a look at how good Chicago was with Kane, and, to a lesser extent Oduya, and what they lose with both of them out of the lineup.
This year, as expected, the Blackhawks have been one of the league’s best teams; as recently as February 24th (the date of Kane’s injury), they were second in the league in even strength Corsi Percentage, third in the league in even strength Offensive Zone Start Percentage, and fifth in the league in even strength Scoring Chance Percentage, as well as drawing 1.3 times as many penalties as they committed. In addition, goaltender Corey Crawford is having a solid year, with an adjusted save percentage that is sixth among goalies with more than 25 games played.
Although many advanced statistics don’t do Kane justice on their own, they are at least respectable considering that Kane consistently plays with just okay linemates, due to the fact that him and Teows are usually split up, and faces the opposition’s top players just as often as the league’s other superstars. As proof that Kane has a great impact on the team and his teammates while he’s on the ice, five out of the six players that Kane has spent the most even-strength time with have better even strength Corsi percentages with him than without him.
Furthermore, in the Blackhawks’ five games since Kane’s injury, they have been 15th in the NHL in even strength Corsi Percentage, 12th in even strength Offensive Zone Start Percentage, and 18th in even strength Scoring Chance Percentage.
Enter, Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen. The two players–who collectively cost the Blackhawks a First-rounder, a defensive prospect, and a Fourth-rounder that could turn into a Third or even Second-rounder if certain conditions are met–are going to be relied on, along with Johnny Oduya once he returns, to take Chicago through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs (after which Kane is set to return). But, are the additions enough?
Antoine Vermette, is a solid two-way player who had a positive impact on the even strength Corsis of all three of the players with whom he played most frequently in Arizona, This makes him the solid second-line center that the Blackhawks have been lacking for years. At the very least, Vermette is a significant upgrade over Brad Richards, who has centered Patrick Kane most frequently this season (and who is likely one of the main reasons that many of Kane’s advanced statistics are poor this year). Richards, despite having the second-highest Relative Offensive Zone Start Percentage among Blackhawks with more than 20 games played, has mediocre numbers in every category this season. He only has the 9th most power-play minutes on the team (which indicates that his coaches do not think that highly of his offensive skills) and almost no penalty-kill time (which supports the idea that he is not a great defender). Vermette is a big step up, or maybe even two. However, no second-line center can come close enough to replacing Patrick Kane’s offense.
This may be where offensive defenseman Kimmo Timonen comes in. Chicago took a huge risk in acquiring the 39-year-old from the Philadelphia Flyers. He has only just returned from a struggle with blood clots that kept him out for the first five months of the season. The Blackhawks are hoping that Timonen can shake off the rust and resume the scoring ability that has been his trademark through 15 NHL seasons. Though you may need to give Timonen favorable Zone Starts for him to be productive (he actually isn’t awful defensively, either, logging at least 2.6 penalty kill minutes per game every one of his 7 seasons with the Flyers), he can inject offense into your team at even strength and on the power play.
Can the Blackhawks make it deep enough? Are they a favorite?
Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, they play in the Central division (one of the toughest in the NHL) and the two wild card teams will likely be the red-hot Minnesota Wild and the new and improved Winnipeg Jets. This means that even if Chicago beats the St. Louis Blues in the first round, they will either have to play the excellent Nashville Predators or a Jets or Wild team that managed to beat the Predators, assuming they remain the third seed.
For Chicago to succeed, they do not just need contributions from their new players, but also from the young Teuvo Teravainen. Expected by many to be an NHL star one day, the 20-year-old center possesses an almost Kane-like ability to create time and space when there seemingly is none. If Teravainen can quickly elevate himself to his star potential, he can go a long way in making up for Kane’s absence and once again make the Blackhawks a favorite in almost any series, and possibly a favorite for the Cup.
However, the chances of him instantaneously ascending to superstardom are slim, and the additions of Vermette and Timonen, while significant, are not game-changing; sadly, the Chicago Blackhawks’ season may very well be gone.