“Friends, Romans, countrymen, give me your attention. I have come here to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” —from Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
If you came here looking for another “feel good” article about the Chicago Blackhawks’ return to playoff glory in 2020, you are probably in the wrong place. And certainly, there are lots of those out there.
That said, we offer, as always, an objective take on the games just concluded, as well as an assessment of where the team is in a larger sense—so here it goes.
Good news: The Blackhawks made it further than most expected.
Bad news: They pretty much got dominated in the first actual playoff round by a team with a talent level the Blackhawks need to attain themselves.
Which means: The Blackhawks have some work to do. And they may not be able to get that work done soon enough in light of their salary cap structure, prospect pipeline and other factors.
There is a temptation, that some may have already succumbed to, to color this first round loss to the Vegas Golden Knights as proof that “whatever Stan Bowman et al are doing, it’s working.” And therefore, just stay the course, In Stan We Trust.
And in the America of 2020, where opinions are driven entirely by emotion and not fact, you can always find the “right” set of “facts” somewhere on the internet to support your opinion.
So, on the surface, you can point to the fact (and it is a fact) that the Blackhawks made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. However (also a fact), they got an assist from a pandemic and a “liberal” play-in format that included all but the worst seven teams in the league. The Blackhawks were in that tier between No. 17 and No. 24 that got a break, and they took advantage of it, beating a disappointing Edmonton Oilers team three games to one.
In that series, the Blackhawks showed more balance, more desire and more willingness to mix it up physically than the highly touted Oilers. Those are all positives, at least in terms of how Chicago measures up against what was ultimately an overrated team like Edmonton.
But, in the first real playoff round, against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Hawks struggled for the most part (to put it charitably). Were it not for the Game Four heroics of goaltender Corey Crawford, the team would have been swept. The Blackhawks also foiled the Vegas power play for the first four games. But otherwise, at five-on-five, arguably the best metric of playoff viability, the Blackhawks were dominated by a bigger, deeper, more-disciplined and relentless team.
The Brandon Saad-Jonathan Toews-Dominik Kubalik line, that was the best for either team against the Oilers, was less of a factor versus Vegas. Newly minted, $6.4 million-per-year winger Alex DeBrincat got his first goal of the playoffs on an empty netter in Game Four, and had a nice actual goal in Game Five. Pierre McGuire, predictably, was all oooohs and ahhhs over Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist (deservedly so in terms of the potential of both young players), but failed to point out how physically overwhelmed both were (in reality) at times.
The point of all this: Vegas is a very good team, and one that may go deep in the playoffs this year or even come out of the Western Conference. So, you can choose to rest your argument that the Hawks are “improving, just not there yet” on that. Or, you can take a more discerning stance and say the gulf between the Hawks today and the team they need to become is wide, with at best a highly questionable bridge.
Because as always, with the “plan” that Bowman is seeming to execute, the calculus is: “Let’s find and develop youth around the remaining Stanley Cup core (Crawford, Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith), and we will get back to the top of the league.”
The problem is, as we have just seen, there is a difference between 19-year-olds dabbling in a few first-round games, and 27-year-olds pushing to make the finals. It is called development, experience and time.
Sure, the Hawks have “experience” aplenty in the aforementioned core. But, it is experience that is getting old and running down with each successive season.
Two years ago, we all thought Crawford and Brent Seabrook would be around and contributing for at least a few more seasons. Seabrook now looks done. Crawford had a couple of phenomenal games in these series, but the rest were pedestrian (at best). And how will we be talking about Keith or Toews two seasons from now?
So, the only way to validate or support the approach that the Blackhawks organization is taking to return to the league’s elite is betting that, in order to improve, they will acquire more players and prospects of Dach and Boqvist caliber (i.e., top-10 draft picks who at least somewhat pan out), and then develop them awfully quickly before the current core loses any more tread off its tires.
Thanks to “winning” the play-in series, the Blackhawks look to be drafting around 17th in the first round, not exactly prime position to snag an impact player, not even the goalie of the future they so desperately need.
That is literally the only way the Hawks can do it—through the draft—thanks to some pretty bad salary cap management.
There was a time 5-10 summers ago when the Blackhawks would have to nip and tuck every offseason and get creative to hopefully sign their RFAs and stay under the salary cap, which is a zero-sum game—if you are spending every dime you have under the cap to retain your current guys, there is not much money left to improve with.
This summer, the Blackhawks are back there again, but this time, they are going to have to spend every dime to retain Kubalik, who at 26, may never be better than what he is now, and possibly Dylan Strome (ditto). And, they may even have to lose a serviceable veteran defenseman like Olli Maatta to do it.
The zero-sum game now applies to a fringe playoff team, not a perennial Cup contender.
How did we get here? Look no further than the money being paid to Toews, Kane, DeBrincat, Saad, Seabrook and soon Kubalik. The only “value” in the core is 37-year-old Duncan Keith at $5.5 million per year.
Following the Game Five loss to Vegas, Steve Konroyd and Jamal Mayers were throwing around the idea of extending Crawford this offseason for three years at $5-6 million per year, a notion that it would seem a lot of Chicago fans would be okay with, because…the salary cap is “fake news” and, hey…“Crow.”
But, here is an actual fact. Including the two admittedly stellar outings Crawford had in the playoffs, his overall numbers were 4–5 with a .907 save percentage and 3.31 goals against average. He will be 36 soon and he has had long periods of inactivity due to concussions (which do not get “cured”).
You want to lose Maatta or Saad to finance this madness? Guess what, Maatta was maybe your best defenseman in these playoffs and Saad is not easily “replaced” by some kid who was playing for Penn State last year. It does not actually ever work that way.
In life, to paraphrase “Da Coach,” be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
Or, in the end, you get what you really deserve, because there is really nothing to suggest that the Blackhawks can be a meaningfully better team next year, with another year coming off the careers of the aging core.
So, if you really just want to be a team sniffing around maybe getting a playoff spot (and “anything can happen”) year after year, then you may want to just “stay the course.”
Another quote ringing around my head as I pen this recap is the title of that old Talking Heads song: The Road To Nowhere.
If you would rather rejoin the league’s elite, larger work needs to be done—that probably cannot be done without a fresh, no-holds-barred perspective from the top of the organization down, and some big (and probably unpopular in the short term) rebuilding moves.
For fans, it was fun to actually make the playoffs, and to win one game while there, but in the larger sense of redirecting this franchise, the Blackhawks still desperately need to shake things up.
These playoffs should not be seen as validation of Bowman and Jeremy Colliton, but rather further proof that measured baby steps, and resting on past laurels, are not going to be nearly enough to lead the team back to glory.
Being “positive” about the Blackhawks should not be defined as just seeking validation for Bowman or Colliton or a roster and organization still full of holes. It should be defined as recognizing and applauding when the team is actually aggressively pursuing the greatness fans deserve for their dollars.
And when the Blackhawks do that, we will.