CHICAGO — For a lot of the season, dialog surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks has been filtered by way of the lens of what they don’t seem to be. They aren’t the crew we have turn into used to seeing over the previous decade: ruling the Central Division and storming their option to the postseason.
In reality, with every passing day, it is more and more probably that the Blackhawks will miss the playoffs altogether. They aren’t profitable at house; their present six-game dropping streak at the United Center is the longest since 2005. They aren’t getting sufficient objectives from captain Jonathan Toews. They aren’t getting a gentle defensive presence from Brent Seabrook. They aren’t being bailed out by goalie Corey Crawford, who has been sidelined since Christmas with what’s vaguely described as an “upper-body injury” and no clear timetable to return. They aren’t the outright winners of the Artemi Panarin-for-Brandon Saad swap. They don’t have a dominant first line. They don’t even have a constant first line. They aren’t rebuilding, and they don’t seem to be contending.
So it’s most likely extra productive to evaluate the Blackhawks for what they’re, 57 video games into the season. If you divorce the drama from the day-to-day trivialities, you may discover a crew that has remodeled earlier than our very eyes. The Blackhawks have turn into younger and faster since the season started, transitioning on the fly so they do not have to tug an entire reset this offseason. “We notice the speed,” Calgary Flames coach Glen Gulutzan mentioned final week. “When you get on the ice, you’re not sure who they are the first time you play them. Then you certainly have to prepare for them. They’ve done a good job of bringing some of these young guys along.”
Although they have not waved the white flag but, there are indicators that the Blackhawks are starting to grasp that this may not be their season — GM Stan Bowman mentioned on NBC Sports Chicago final week that he didn’t count on to be a deadline purchaser. But if the Blackhawks play their playing cards proper from now by way of the offseason, they’ll squeeze one other run out of the core that already received three Cups.
But there’s one other factor you have to perceive about these Blackhawks: They aren’t asking for pity, and they’re definitely not getting any round the league. Last week, earlier than the Dallas Stars accomplished their first season sweep of Chicago in 11 years, Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock was requested if he might empathize with Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. Hitchcock was incredulous.
“Empathize with Joel Quenneville?” Hitchcock mentioned. “He can give me his rings all he wants. I don’t give a damn. Competition is competition. He’s had his day in the sun. He’s a great coach, but you can’t feel for anybody. Those are the things you can do in the summer, when you get together, you talk to a guy on the phone, when he’s facing personal adversity. But during competition, you’re in your own group, and you hope the other group fails like crazy.”
When Crawford final performed on Dec. 23, the Blackhawks have been properly inside playoff putting distance. Crawford, who has begun skating solely not too long ago after being away from the crew with post-concussion signs, was having a Vezina-caliber season (16-9-2, .929 save share, 2.27 GAA). Chicago has but to discover a substitute who can fill his pads. The Blackhawks turned to Jeff Glass, a 32-year-old rookie who toiled for 9 years in the KHL, and 25-year-old Anton Forsberg, one other return from the Panarin commerce, who nonetheless wants seasoning. Glass and Forsberg have posted .898 and .907 save percentages, respectively, which, amongst goalies with a minimum of 10 begins, rank 53rd and 46th in the league.
In reality, the Blackhawks’ roster had quite a lot of holes that Crawford’s stellar play masked. The crew misses Marian Hossa, a stalwart on the three Cup groups who scored 26 objectives final season, however is on long-term damage reserve with a doubtlessly career-ending pores and skin situation. Seabrook, who carries the league’s 10th-highest cap hit amongst blueliners, at $6.85 million, is having an off season. He was benched for a sport on Jan. 9. On offense, Saad was introduced again to recapture chemistry with Toews, however the top-line trio of Saad, Toews and a slumping Richard Panik fizzled early.
This triggered change. The Blackhawks unloaded their Panik downside on Arizona, buying and selling the winger for 22-year-old Anthony Duclair, a once-touted prospect with great pace. They gave up on the Saad-Toews pairing (for now), selling scrappy rookie Alex DeBrincat to the prime line, the place he thrived, with 5 objectives in his six video games, earlier than being shuffled once more. DeBrincat tends to raise his play when he’s surrounded by elite gamers. Vinnie Hinostroza, recognized primarily for his pace, additionally earned an everyday lineup spot.
Midway by way of the season, the Blackhawks discovered themselves with a logjam of defensemen. Management was happy with how children equivalent to Gustav Forsling, Jordan Oesterle and Jan Rutta have been coming alongside. That pushed venerable veteran Cody Franson to the AHL. Even when the 21-year-old Forsling hit a wall and wanted to be despatched all the way down to Rockford, the Blackhawks remained dedicated to the youth plan. Forsling’s substitute has been 25-year-old Erik Gustafsson. When Rutta was positioned on injured reserve final week with an undisclosed damage, Chicago promoted 23-year-old Carl Dahlstrom.
During one latest stretch, 14 consecutive Blackhawks objectives have been scored by gamers below the age of 23.
“When you’ve got the leadership and the core there, they can bring in people and fit them in and develop,” Gulutzan mentioned. “When you’ve won as much as they have and have as much character as they have, you can bring those guys in, and now they’re contributing. We think they’re a really fast team to play.”
The Blackhawks are actually quick? That most likely is not one thing you’d have heard when their season began on Oct. 5.
It’s unimaginable to speak about the Blackhawks with out mentioning the two gamers most related to their turnaround from bottom-dwellers to three-time champions: Patrick Kane and Toews. They are each 29 and below contract by way of 2022-23. Kane is having one other sturdy statistical season (53 factors in 57 video games); he has not missed Panarin as a sidekick, as a substitute creating chemistry with Nick Schmaltz. Toews’ season has been a bit trickier. The scoring hasn’t been there (36 factors), however the captain’s presence goes past stats — and his 58 p.c faceoff win price is critical.
Toews has been hampered by some dangerous puck luck. It’s not an excuse, simply an remark. You can really feel his exasperation particularly after he hits iron twice, like he did in a sport final week in opposition to the Calgary Flames. “I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what to say right now,” Toews mentioned after that sport. “I mean, it’s pretty frustrating that we played pretty good hockey at times. Had a lot of good chances, should be able to find ways to win games, even if we give up two or three.”
That’s the factor. The Blackhawks have not been horrible this season — simply not their dominant selves. Opposing gamers regularly inform me that Chicago is considered one of the hardest groups to face. It’s an ideal possession crew (53.three p.c Corsi score, third-highest in the league) and has the most offensive zone begins in the league. The Blackhawks are hovering round the league common in objectives per sport, with 2.81. Things simply have not gone their manner. For instance, Duncan Keith leads the league with the most pictures taken (137) with out truly scoring a objective.
If a miracle run this season does not pan out, Chicago will shift its focus to 2018-19. With so many younger gamers gaining expertise this season, the Blackhawks would possibly want solely to tweak their roster this offseason. Chicago’s prospect with the most upside is 2017 first-round choose Henri Jokiharju. ESPN’s prospect knowledgeable Chris Peters advised me it may be asking quite a lot of the 18-year-old defenseman to be NHL-ready subsequent season, however the Blackhawks might ease him in like they did with Nick Leddy in 2010.
Regardless, Chicago is just not in the identical dire state of affairs as the Rangers, who admitted last week that they likely need to overhaul their roster earlier than they contend once more.
Earlier this season, I talked with Bowman about how far the Blackhawks had come, from league cellar-dwellers to three-time Cup champions. The theme of our dialog, nevertheless, shortly turned to what occurs when a franchise finds success and should determine easy methods to maintain it.
“It’s not easy,” Bowman mentioned. “You have to have some good fortune, no question. Things have to go your way. You also have to do a good job of identifying talent, developing talent and making hard decisions. In our case, we’ve had to move a lot of good players along, [guys] who maybe weren’t superstars but who we’d love to keep. But in the system we’re in, you can’t get married to, like, 15 players. You can pick your five, six or seven guys and be all-in on those guys. And then you have to move other guys when you don’t want to. If you’re willing to do that and have a good pipeline of talent coming, then you have a chance to sustain it — a chance.”
The Blackhawks aren’t quite a lot of issues this season. But it does really feel like they’re a crew with a plan.