Not just on the team, though. We need to prepare for the Blackhawks dynasty post-mortem.
Chicago’s first-round sweep (their first since 1993) was shocking for many reasons. You might be wondering how this happened. We regret to inform you that the signs were there all along, and they remain.
The Blackhawks aren’t out of the woods yet. Fans should be worried about where the team is headed. Let us explain.
Their defense is a mess
An odd thing to say when the Blackhawks only used nine defensemen all year, right? Not in this case. Once again, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson logged the most minutes for Chicago. The blue line rounded out with Brian Campbell, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Michal Kempny, Gustav Forsling, Michal Rozsival, and Johnny Oduya.
That’s quite a dropoff in talent. An indication of how desperate Stan Bowman was to find quality defenseman that he brought Campbell and Oduya back. Campbell put up 17 points and five goals in 80 games, his worst scoring season since 2003-2004. Campbell is 37 years old. Oduya, acquired at the trade deadline from Dallas, wasn’t much better with the Blackhawks. His 44.81 Corsi For % was the worst of their defensemen.
Chicago’s defenders this year were either past their prime, slow or just unproductive. And the scary thing? There’s not much help on the way. More on that in a bit.
They have very little roster flexibility
Bowman is about to pay for the sins of his win-now mentality a few years ago. Chicago ends the season with $10,928 in cap space. Yes, you read that right.
And none of their big contracts are coming off the books. The highest-value cap hit hitting free agency is Oduya’s $1.875 million hit. That’s it. The Blackhawks have Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Corey Crawford, and Kane locked up long-term for a combined $43.513 million in cap hits.
(Sidenote: I’m not aware of the world where Duncan Keith makes $1.34 million less than Brent Seabrook, but Stan Bowman clearly lives there.)
You’re not moving or buying out any of those guys. Buying out Marcus Kruger’s $3.083 million salary would cost the ’Hawks $2,516,667 over two seasons. Nope. Maybe Marian Hossa will retire. Not likely.
Oh, and good luck trading anyone. Ten Blackhawks come with no-movement clauses, including Artem Anisimov and his $4.55 million cap hit.
Factor all of those self-applied handcuffs in and it’s reasonable to expect a relatively unchanged Blackhawks roster next season.
The Central is only getting younger and stronger
You sign those kinds of contracts and hope the division doesn’t get stronger.
Chicago learned otherwise during this series with the Predators, who finally look ready to dominate the Western Conference for years to come. St. Louis is still strong, as are the Wild. The Stars will almost certainly be back in contention next year. The Jets are young, talented, and on the cusp of opening their playoff window. The only team to count out is the Avalanche.
No matter which way you slice it, it’s clear the Blackhawks are no longer ahead of the Central pack. They’re back in the thick of the division dogfight with few legs left to stand on.
Kane and Toews provide a worrying trend
Both stars are still good, so we have to make sure we don’t make too much of this. But you can’t deny the last two postseasons have been concerning. Toews’ goal in Game 4 was his first playoff goal since the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals. Kane only scored once in the series and has just three in the last two postseasons.
Chicago won their Cups thanks in part to scoring depth and rousing springs from their two stars. If they don’t have either, then how can they hope to reach that level again?
So many questions. Is Joel Quenneville’s system to blame? Have Toews and Kane just reached the peak of their playoff effectiveness? Or is it simply an anomaly? Again, don’t worry too much about this. Elite talent sorts itself out. Usually.
But worry a little.
Reinforcements aren’t on the way
Yes, yes, I know. Alex DeBrincat just obliterated teams in juniors. Name another prized Blackhawks prospect. I’ll wait.
I’m impatient. There aren’t many. John Hayden might be nice, but he’s not fast and still raw. Nick Schmaltz hasn’t shown what he’s capable of yet. Ryan Hartman is a nice piece, but what’s his ceiling? Is it as high as Brandon Saad? Hard to say.
The top defensive prospects that might make it next season are Carl Dahlstrom (yawn) or Ville Pokka (sure). Both might end up being pretty good! But if the Stars taught their Central bunkmates anything, it’s that filling two-thirds of your blue line with unproven rookies is a terrible way to contend for the playoffs. Chicago may have no choice, and that’s a reason for concern.
Chicago is on the verge of losing backup goalie Scott Darling, too. Darling is highly regarded as one of the league’s best backups, and some team will pay him starting money this offseason. If Corey Crawford gets injured again, can the Blackhawks find a backup as reliable as Darling?
Another question without a clear answer. Too many of those in Chicago these days.