By: Thomas Gibbons
It truly was an incredible run.
After Tuesday’s loss to Colorado, the Blackhawks were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. For the past decade, these last few games of the season were battling for playoff seeding but now, it’s battling for draft position.
Since 2009, the Blackhawks have been in the mix to hoist the Stanley Cup in June. After years and years of failure in the 2000s, the Blackhawks drafted Johnathan Toews and Patrick Kane in hopes of building something special in Chicago. Three Stanley Cups later, they have achieved just that.
It was pure joy watching Blackhawks hockey over the years. For I did not become a fan of the Blackhawks until I attended my first game in December of 2009, that first visit to the United Center for a hockey game planted a seed. Since then I have lived and breathed Blackhawks hockey, and this season was hard to digest. However I am here to tell you that while the Blackhawks will be watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs from home, the window to win another Cup is still open.
We have seen teams like the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings go from the top of the hockey world to missing the playoffs. Both those teams fired their coaches, though I do not see that happening with the Blackhawks. If Stan Bowman wants to be in contention for hockey’s biggest prize next season, Joel Quenville is the man to do it. If and when the Blackhawks decide in the near future to hit the rest button on the franchise, finding a new coach would be appropriate then. But if you want to get back to the playoffs and make a run for the title, Q needs to stay. I do not think his first losing season in his 21 year coaching career is the reason to show him the door. While the Blackhawks have been kicked from the first round the past two years, including a sweep by the Predators as the number one seed, the Blackhawks have the best coach of the modern-era. Stick to the course and give it one more go.
Were there hopes of another Cup run this season? Of course there were. Bowman got Brandon Saad back, reuniting him with Toews on the top line. The hope that a long offseason would give the players an edge and plenty of rest was in the back of many fans mind. Overall, the fact that the Blackhawks still had the core together of Toews, Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford going into the season was all the hope fans needed.
So when did the train fall off the tracks? Corey Crawford going on IR not once but twice was a huge blow to the team. If the Blackhawks still had Scott Darling, would they be in the playoffs? Maybe but it was way more than the goal-tending that led to the downfall this season. Keith and Seabrook have started to show their age, leaving people to wonder if they will bounce back next season. The low production for Toews and Saad left a lot of weight on the younger players to make an impact. Kane is still Kane. He is one of the best players in the NHL which is why he earned All-Star honors. The Blackhawks started to crumble in front of our eyes, which is something we have not experienced in the past nine years. Ultimately, losing 12 of 14 spanning from January 14th February 15th was the breaking point of this season.
The Blackhawks championship window may still be open, but not by much. Keith and Seabrook are on the other side of 30 and Kane and Toews will both be 30 by November. The positive? Bowman and many others believe they still have plenty left in the tank. I am one of those supporters and here’s why.
Kane, as previously mentioned, is still a fantastic hockey player. He has not shown any major signs of slowing down, his All-Star appearance validates that. Toews may not have put up the goal and assists numbers like he once did, but the advanced stats still prove he is one of the best centers in the NHL. He is still an effective two-way forward and is always matched up with the best competition night in and night out. There is no doubt in my mind that he will bounce back next season because everyone has struggles in their career.
For Keith and Seabrook, their age is starting to show. At one point in time, you could say they were the best defensive pairing in the league. Keith is a crazy athlete and is known for being one of the top ice time leaders in the league (ranks 19th this season). His stamina was never a question and while never known as a scorer, his assist numbers over the years have always been nothing short of sensational. He is still a great skater and I think there is something left in the tank. Lastly, Seabrook has always been in the shadow of Keith but was a major part of the Blackhawks three titles. Seabrook was a healthy scratch for one game this season and it was weird to see. Seabrook signed an extension in 2015, locking him up through the 2023-2024 season. Your first reaction may have been cringing and you are not wrong by that. His annual cap hit of $6.8 million is concerning if he puts together another poor season next year, especially with the no movement clause in his deal.
The last piece of the core is Corey Crawford, who has not seen game action since December. He works out, does on-ice activity on a separate rink, but is not going to play again this season.
We really have no idea what is wrong with Crawford. There was a report a few months back that the Stanley Cup winning goal tender was suffering from vertigo, but then Bowman came out and said it may be post-concussion symptoms. It’s been an ongoing mystery on Crow’s status these past few months and not much information has come from the front office or Quenneville.
In order for the Blackhawks to be in the playoff picture next season, Corey Crawford must be healthy! There can not be any question marks of his health and abilities come training camp next season or the Blackhawks will be in trouble.
So how can the Blackhawks get back in the playoffs next season and go for another Cup? First it starts the NHL salary cap. Per a report, the NHL salary cap is projected to rise from $78 to possibly $82 million next season. With the Blackhawks already at $68 million committed to the roster next season, every penny counts. The Blackhawks could really use a top-four defenseman and a salary cap jump would be the answer to their prayers. John Carlson of the Capitals is a name to look out for this summer if the Blackhawks can afford him. Carlson is having a career year, 15 goals and 46 assists, and the Capitals have a big decision on their hands. It’s still a longshot, but if the cap spikes, you would have to think Bowman makes a splash in the free agent market. Am I saying the Blackhawks success relies on a cap spike? Pretty much.
There is also the possibility of trading Artem Anisimov this offseason. His no-movement clause turns into a modified-movement clause on July 1st where he could submit a list of 10 teams that he can be traded to. His $4.5 million cap hit ranks fourth on the roster among forward and if the Blackhawks believe in their young players, he could be dealt. It would free up money to re-sign restricted free agents and chase a defenseman. Anisimov is 29 years old and can play center and the wing. His cap hit is not outrageous but someone would take him and could be a contender’s second line center right away.
Bowman is bringing all the boys back. He re-signed Erik Gustafsson and Jan Rutta to go along with Keith, Seabrook, Connor Murphy and Jordan Oesterle. The Blackhawks may have found something in Oesterle and for Murphy, let’s just say he has a big offseason ahead of him. For Gustaffson and Rutta, I was not too overjoyed about their new deals. Gustaffson has shown improvement and get involved in the offesnse. Rutta is no more than a third pairing defenseman and will have to battle for a roster spot in camp next season with some of the young defenseman in my opinion.
Next order of business is solidify your top 12 forwards for next season. John Hayden, Vinny Hinostroza, and Anthony Duclair are all restricted free agents and should be brought back. The Blackhawks need to continue building up the younger core. Another priority is signing Dylan Sikura. The 22 year-old from Northeastern is arguably one of the best college hockey players this season. As the young core continues to take shape, Sikura is the next step. And what about Victor Ejdsell? The Swedish forward was acquired in the Ryan Hartman trade from the Nashville Predators and has recently been assigned to the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks AHL affiliate, who are trying to make a push for the Calder Cup Playoffs. At 6′ 5″ 214lb, he could be a great boost to your lineup next year and probably your third line center.
So for oo’s and ahh’s purposes, let’s throw together a projected line pairings:
I’m just spit-balling here, but does not look too bad, right? If you have these guys at full force, Corey Crawford at his best, Keith and Seabrook back, and a great supporting cast, you could not count the Blackhawks out come playoff time.
The last aspect to all of this is the NHL draft in June. The Blackhawks have a solid chance at landing a top five pick and the player everyone wants to defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. Some say he is the next Victor Hedman. Oh the excitement. The Blackhawks also have the Predators first round pick from the Hartman trade. While that pick will be near the end of the first round, I think the Blackhawks would be smart to select another defensemen. K’Andre Miller, committed to Wisconsin, and Mattias Samuelsson who is going to Michigan are notable names who could be available at the bottom of round one.
I firmly believe the Blackhawks have one or two more runs in them before major changes could set in. If you take one thing away from this column it’s this: believe.