ANALYSIS: The Blackhawks’ road back to contention is still a long one

  

To his credit, Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman fared well with his trade deadline moves. One-year contractual players such as Mattias Janmark and Carl Soderberg were dealt, among others, and rarely used and effective Matthew Highmore is now on his way to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Adam Gaudette. Gaudette, along with Brett Connolly, Vinnie Hinostroza and Riley Stillman, who were added from the Florida Panthers in multiple deals days before the deadline, are the new serviceable NHL players that you will see in uniform this season. And truly, that is all they are, “serviceable.” It is a group of pluggers, a set of “guys,” if you will, that will receive a decent number of minutes night in and night out on a mediocre hockey club that is simply chugging along. That is not a knock on them as individuals, but, most likely, none of the aforementioned players would be significant value adds to a contending team.

Where Bowman did well is with the picks he acquired, as well as the scratch tickets he bought. He may hit the lottery with the acquisition of Henrik Borgstrom, a former 2016 first-round pick for the Panthers, who has yet to make his mark in the NHL, and current Notre Dame freshman Ryder Rolston, who came over in the Soderberg trade with the Colorado Avalanche, is an intriguing prospect as well. Those players may pan out, they may not. Bowman did, however, manage to stockpile additional draft picks heading into this summer’s 2021 NHL Entry Draft. Currently, Chicago has eight picks in the draft (rounds 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 7). Whether or not the intention is to call names for all of these picks this summer or to deal some away should be interesting to see play out.

With all this in mind, the Hawks are still a team in serious limbo. Their surprising start to the season provided fans with unreasonable optics as to who this team actually “is.” Unfortunately, as the season has rapidly moved along, we are finding out more about what the Hawks are lacking in organizational depth, as opposed to what they have. Despite their hot start, since March 1, Chicago has skated to the tune of an 9–12–1 record—mediocrity personified and a more accurate look at the team we thought we would see for the duration of the season. Heading into Sunday, somehow the Blackhawks are still in playoff contention, two points behind the fourth-place Nashville Predators with a game in hand. Even so, the Dallas Stars are right behind Chicago, and the Hawks finish April with three straight games against the Preds, a team that has owned them this season, and then a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and one versus the Florida Panthers. May’s brief calendar is equally as challenging, but regardless, smart money says that come May 1, we will know this team’s 2021 fate, and it will most likely not include the postseason.

The K2 conundrum

As you may have heard on the most recent Rinkcast, an organization is only truly rebuilding if the team’s primary assets are being moved for prospects or picks. By that rationale, Chicago is “retooling” not actually “rebuilding.” Call it whatever you want, but it is not a teardown. There are aspects of this that we do not know about. Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith jerseys still sell, and in a year where revenue is lacking, having both players around for future tickets sales, marketing, etc. may be in the best fiscal interests of the organization. There is little doubt that moving either of them could result in a financial hit to the franchise, regardless of their hefty salaries.

Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith’s contracts last through the 2022–23 season. Time will tell if the Hawks will again be contenders in that window. (Photograph courtesy of Dave Reginek / NHLI via Getty Images)

The two golden smoothies left of the original core, K2 (Kane and Keith), have no-movement clauses baked into their contracts, and if either of them truly want to remain in Chicago, then either or both will be here throughout the duration of their contracts. But, if the Hawks were actually serious about a “rebuild,” then it would only seem logical to ask one or both of them to waive their clauses to be moved to a contender. And after seeing what Detroit Red Wings General Manager Steve Yzerman was able to obtain at the deadline for Anthony Mantha (Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-round pick), the idea of what return K2 could fetch is increasingly appetizing. Neither player has shown signs of slowing down, and while they may fall off that cliff eventually, people have said that about athletes like Zdeno Chara and Tom Brady for the last 10-plus years too. After this season, Kane will have two years left on his deal with a $10.5 million cap hit and Keith has two years left paying him roughly $5.54 per season. These deals that at one point seemed infinite now have a dwindling hour glass to them. So, the Hawks will have choices to make with these two, or more so, the choices may lie with the two players. Do you begin new contract negotiations sometime next season to ensure that they are Hawks for life? And what will their next contracts command? Keith will no doubt take a pay cut and perhaps Kane as well, but if No. 88 is still playing like he is now in two seasons, which is entirely possible, can you afford to keep him at a shorter-term $7-8 million per year and still contend with whomever else you have signed at the time? Hard to tell. What is equally hard to tell is if Chicago will even be within striking distance of contending during the 2022–23 hockey season, and if not, do you ask K2 for a list of preferable destinations before the 2023 trade deadline? The only ticket to an actual rebuild is to do just that, and while it is hard to picture this team without K2, it is entirely possible that next season is the last full season where you see them in the red and black.

Inadequacies at center

The most glaring on-ice issue in Chicago is the lack of depth up the middle. Should the Blackhawks’ brass maintain this “mini-rebuild” of sorts in an effort to try to be a contender while K2 are still in uniform, then more moves have to be ahead to better the team. As of right now, Chicago’s best asset at center is Kirby Dach, and many still envision him as a winger. In terms of natural centers in the organizational depth pool, the stock on West Madison Street is downright pitiful. Look at the team’s face-off percentage alone: 46.8%, “good” for 28th in the league according to puckbase.com as evidence.

Currently, Kirby Dach may be the lone solid prospect at center within the Blackhawks organization. (Photograph courtesy of Dave Reginek / NHLI via Getty Images)

It is quite possible that Jonathan Toews’ career is over, and you scarcely even hear his name anymore when Bowman, the media or any random blogger discuss the Hawks’ future plans. Soderberg, their best natural center this season, was just dealt. Pius Suter, one who still could be a solid two-way player, has more of an NHL shelf life as a winger. Ryan Carpenter and David Kampf will never be anything more than fourth-line staples and Dylan Strome is garbage. In terms of pivots, it looks really bleak. So, if keeping K2 and taking another run is really what the team intends to do, center ice has to be addressed. I would suspect that Bowman knows he has a lot of work to do in this area ahead of the draft. He has picks to make some moves and potentially some prospects, such as Nicolas Beaudin, who seems to have fallen out of favor with Jeremy Colliton with the emergence of Wyatt Kalynuk, could be on the move to accomplish this. Moving up in the draft to snag a center in the top 10 or moving parts to acquire more seasoned help, has to be on Bowman’s radar.

Do not expect immediate help from Rockford

The highlight of the 2021 season for Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, is being bought by the Blackhawks. The Hawks purchased the IceHogs on April 7, which will guarantee financial solvency for Rockford and stability through 2036. Other than that, it has been a tough go in Rock-Vegas. Granted, the NHL’s COVID-19 taxi squad situation has not made easy for them, but there is not a whole lot to write home about with this year’s Hogs. If you want the CliffsNotes version, after 22 games, the IceHogs’ 33-year-old journeyman defenseman Cody Franson is their leading scorer. I repeat, the IceHogs’ leading scorer this season is Cody Franson. Yes, there may be an NHL player or two on their current roster. For example, 20-year-old Alec Regula has had a solid season, as has fellow defenseman Isaak Phillips. Both Beaudin and Ian Mitchell have gone back and forth with the big club and have contributed for the Hogs on the blue line. The bigger issue is up front. Evan Barratt may end up being a bottom-six NHL player one day, and Josiah Slavin could be a diamond in the rough, but again most likely as a bottom-six NHL player. Other than those two, the phrase, “Hey keep an eye on this kid,” does not exactly come to mind when considering the IceHogs’ forward depth. The majority of that group look like future AHL players rather than the future of the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Hawks are a middle-of-the-road team right now, and it most likely will be a longer trip back to contention than what folks think. When Chicago likely misses the playoffs this May, we will hear from Bowman on the great strides the club has made this year. Sure, they may be better than anyone thought, but with their many flaws that are not easily fixable, do not expect a meteoric return to NHL relevance within the next few seasons.

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