The Chicago Blackhawks have hit a wall of sorts. They are 3–6–1 in their last 10 games, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are nipping at their heels, now two points behind them for fourth in the Central Division. What has been anointed a make-or-break month for the Hawks has been challenging, and in their next three contests versus the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers twice, it is not getting any easier. If you have been watching during the Hawks’ Florida trip, it is clear to the naked eye that the Hawks are outmatched.
The Hawks had no answers for Aleksander Barkov and the Panthers, and finding any consistent offensive push against them or the Bolts has been ill-fated. Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, the Hawks’ most consistent offensive threats, have cooled a bit. Kane has eight points in eight games this month, and DeBrincat has five points. While those numbers are not terribly alarming, the team will go as those two go, and due to the Blackhawks’ lack of offensive depth, it is unfairly on those two to carry the load.
Kevin Lankinen has returned to planet Earth after an astonishing start to the season. While still the Hawks’ No. 1 goalie, and that most likely will not change this season, his pedestrian 88.6 save percentage this month is not competitive enough to garner victories against the division’s top teams; not by a mile.
Dylan Strome had a strong return to the lineup Thursday notching a goal, and the Hawks have had strong performances of late from Mattias Janmark, Carl Soderberg and the ever-pesky Brandon Hagel. Adam Boqvist has been better since his return to the lineup, but the rest of the defensive unit appear tired from a rigorous schedule and ample time frantically moving their feet in the defensive zone.
So, as we enter the final days of March and with the April 12 trade deadline looming, the Hawks will have some decisions to make in the weeks to come.
The argument for staying the course
Every hockey fan wants to see their team active at the trade deadline, but, as Blackhawks fans know, getting your hopes up with General Manager Stan Bowman in charge is a losing battle. That said, if there is a year for inactivity from the home side, this would be the one. If come the beginning of April, the Hawks find themselves in fourth place or within reasonable striking distance of a playoff spot, then not moving any parts nor acquiring additional assets could make sense. Yes, we may hear, “We like our team,” and while I do not share that sentiment, gunning for that last playoff spot while holding is easy to envision. Yes, the playoffs would be great for the young players to get that experience, and if it happens, that is all it will be. If the Blackhawks do get in, and a big “if” at that, they will not survive the first round. They just will not. So, playoffs, if they happen, should be viewed as an “experience” and that is it.
Selling makes the most sense
The most head-strong and business-appropriate thing for the Hawks to do come the trade deadline is to sell assets. A blockbuster deal is most likely not in the cards, but, at a minimum, attempting to get a return on short-term investments is the smart play. It would be wise for the Blackhawks’ brass to acknowledge some moderate progressions for the team this year, but also to not insult the fanbase by insinuating that the team is a legit contender this season. At the beginning of the season, it appeared that players such as Janmark and Soderberg were short-term fixtures with the club. What the Hawks have done well this season is showcase both of them, and they have performed well by their standards and are movable pieces. On a contending team, both Janmark and Soderberg are bottom-six depth forwards, and the return for them would most likely be middle-round draft picks. If you can get a third-round pick or anything north for either, pull the plug and do it. I get it; not glamorous in the least, but if your team is not a legit contender, play the lottery, get younger and stockpile draft picks. Whether you utilize future draft picks come draft day or chose to move them, those are cards worth holding. Strome may not be movable this season unless he goes on a tear over the next two weeks. At $3 million per season for at least another year, if he is moved, it will likely be in the offseason, and that is okay. With the Blackhawks showing reasonable future depth defensively, Calvin de Haan is another asset worth discussion with other clubs.
Buying would be a disaster
Let’s not even go there. Keep your picks, Stan. This is not the time to dream big and fall under the delusion that this team is on the cusp of Cup candidacy. Stay young, get younger. You have some nice young players who have proven more than anyone thought thus far. Get younger around them. You will have the cap space to get creative this summer. Be patient and keep building.