As I posted on Twitter yesterday morning, after the Blackhawks had been officially eliminated from the postseason the night before, being “negative” became being “realistic.”
Because this never was a playoff quality team—or certainly not one with any chance of actually winning in the playoffs.
Don’t get me wrong. There were some positives this season and a few things arose that can be built on going forward. But as is so often the case with a fairly large slice of the Hawk fanbase—lingering at the One Goal kegger long after the beer has run out—expectations became and still are a bit, well, unrealistic.
All is not lost. But there is some serious hard work to do this summer beyond the moronic “Bring Da Breadman Back” mantra.
Broadly speaking, this team is going to finish somewhere between 10th and 12th in their conference—the far lesser of the two NHL conferences by the way. While that is an “improvement” over the previous season’s 13th in the conference, it also was made possible by career years for both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. That’s not to say those players won’t have big years again next year.
But there’s just as good a chance they won’t.
But let’s get more to the point: if you really, honestly want to compete for a Stanley Cup, 11th in the West isn’t even close to where you need to be.
The Ja-BRO-nis on Twitter have taken every opportunity this year to point out Alex DeBrincat’s sophomore surge, that Dylan Strome really looks like a 2nd line center, how Erik Gustafsson is basically a fourth forward (and racked up the points to prove it), that Connor Murphy’s game improved, how Toews is rejuvenated and Brandon Saad is still Brandon Saad. Etc.
And all of it, for the most part, is true. Hallelujah. Yet the fact remains that, after a long hot streak in January that actually resurrected hope in a postseason appearance, the Hawks have gone 12-10-3—not a winning record by the way, that “3” at the end is losses.
If you’re going to be a winning team, you have to win when it matters.
The Hawks were healthy and rolling and then over 25 critical games, they regressed to what they really are—a flawed, sub .500 team. But with some bright spots.
So now that we’ve laid bare the obvious, let’s go further. What’s right, what’s wrong, what are the logical next steps?
PANARIN SOLVES NOTHING
We know this team can score goals with or without Artemi Panarin. The thing that makes this an also-ran team in a crap conference is a completely and utterly disastrous team defense.
The argument has already been stated on the Twitterz that all that’s needed is “an easy fix to the penalty kill”—even though the 5-on-5 defense is also garbage. But “fixing the penalty kill” might not be so easy by itself, and thus addressing the overall defense in all situations, which is clearly necessary, is even tougher.
Spending $9-10 million a season on Panarin, even if he were amenable to returning to Chicago (which is highly dubious—he knows the party ran out of beer, and they’re serving vodka in the Northeast and Florida, trust me) does not help the defense at all. In fact, it means $9-10 million less per year that the front office has to address glaring defensive problems.
And it takes situational opportunities away from fellow LW DeBrincat—the same opportunities that helped him top 40 goals this year.
The team does, however, need at least one new forward.
Wait, JJ. Huh? What? We’ll come back to that. Think: team defense within the flow of actual games.
NIKLAS HJALMARSSON 2.0 (OR BETTER)
I won’t dispute the positive and overdue impact that Gustafsson has had on the Hawk power play, and he is certainly also a weapon in 3-on-3 OT. However, the fact remains that both the Hawk penalty kill and even strength defense are not good.
So you’re likely stuck with $13 million a year’s worth of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, whatever’s left of their usefulness, and Murphy is OK, while Gustafsson is fine in a limited role. Henri Jokiharju has promise (but make no mistake, there are still some rough edges there). So there are 1-2 places on this blueline where upgrades are needed.
Are they possible?
Let’s put to bed right now the fantasy of 3-4 junior or NCAA players coming in next year and “stabilizing” or in any way improving this defense. Maybe, just maybe Adam Boqvist or Ian Mitchell could show up and sort of replicate what Gustafsson is. But that is quite literally the last thing the Hawks need more of. They need players who are responsible and able to actually defend, two areas where both prospects are said to need quite a bit of work.
And everyone keeps assuming that the only way you can improve in the offseason is through free agency (where the free agent pickings get mighty slim this summer after Erik Karlsson). It’s not.
Trades can be made. A significant trade (or two) probably should be made.
And let’s be clear, if Stan Bowman can’t be trusted, either by fans or Blackhawks senior management, to go out and do a value for value deal to acquire a youngish, tough, responsible defenseman who can help next year, he needs to be replaced. Immediately.
There are guys like that out there. No, you won’t get them for a signed Patrick Sharp 8×10 and a guy from Rockford. But the Hawks have plenty of prospects, they have depth at both wings. That’s what GMs are paid (well) to figure out.
But you get that player and there is a positive ripple effect throughout the defense corps. This player perhaps “anchors” and stabilizes Gustafsson a bit. And allows everyone else’s minutes and situations to be more appropriately allocated. Maybe you even get 2 players of that ilk, and the defense as a whole gets a lot better.
Back to forward.
When the Hawks won the Cup in 2015, they had three full time centers well north of 50% on faceoffs. In spite of interwebz experts proclaiming that faceoffs don’t matter, they do.
If you need fancy possession data to believe in a team, your team needs to first possess the actual puck.
In real hockey, how many times do some people need to see a clean defensive zone faceoff loss end up in the back of the Hawks’ net before they will finally admit, “man, it would be great if we had someone other than Toews to take key draws.”
Two wrist surgeries later, Kruger is now essentially the equal of Artem Anisimov in the dot, which isn’t good, and Dylan Strome so far looks to be in that zone as well. That’s OK, because you ultimately don’t want Strome to be your top shutdown center anyway.
But you need that guy, and more than some people realize.
If said guy can defend over 200 feet of ice (like a Kruger) and pitch in 40 points a season (like Anisimov), BOOM. Penalty kill, significantly improved. Shutdown line in place. Perhaps even a scoring third line.
And that player you might be able to get in free agency for $4-5 million a year (essentially what you’re paying Anisimov while you try to figure out, as was the case in New York and Columbus, whether he should even be a center).
And for what it’s worth, I’ve heard specifically that the Hawks will be in the market for another center this summer.
There may be other ways Bowman could improve the Hawks this offseason. Who knows, no one would throw a bigger July 2 media bash to introduce a newly-minted Erik Karlsson to Chicago fans.
But the bottom line is this: for all the positives that emerged this season, actual data suggests there are significant and outweighing negatives that aren’t going to just disappear on their own.
So buckle up, Hawk fans. It may be an eventful ride.