When “no easy answer” means “no answer”



Those of you who’ve been following my posts this summer will recognize a familiar theme here—but events continue to unfold (or not unfold) that seem to keep me and others coming back to this line of thought—rather than speculate on what impact Brent Seabrook’s summer weight loss will have on the Blackhawks’ performance or where John Hayden will play.

Because perhaps no recent debate on Blackhawk Twitter captures the conundrum of the organization quite like those surrounding whether the Hawks should pursue Erik Karlsson (or Artemi Panarin, or until recently, Max Pacioretty) and how much the team might give up to acquire those players.

Typically, Hawk fans (or bloggers) will offer up something like, say, Dylan Sikura, another prospect and a draft pick—which would likely not be nearly enough to acquire any of those players.

The “going rate” for “plus players” in the NHL has typically been an established player, a solid to good prospect and a first round pick. For premier players like Karlsson or Panarin, start there and add—because both will be the center of epic bidding wars.

But I digress here, only to say underscore the point that the price or those types of players in trade would be high—and some have argued too high for a team that’s “more than one player away.”

I don’t disagree with that last bit.

However, that said, any time you can add an elite player in his prime—for a reasonable package of perhaps less than elite players and futures—it might not be a bad move.

And for what it’s worth I did hear on Tuesday that the Hawks made an offer for Pacioretty. A young roster forward and 2020 picks, not enough to beat Vegas’ offer. So for the sake of argument only, assuming my source is right—the Hawks made a run and came up short. In it, but not enough to win it.

Thus, the larger issue is this: no matter where you fall on the Relative Optimism Spectrum (or in Gatekeeper’s case, the Relative Cynicism Spectrum), the question remains—what is the team’s actual plan—this season and going forward?

We had a great dialogue on this topic with NBCSN’s Charlie Roumeliotis on RinkCast 29 (https://www.the-rink.com/podcast-download/8379/blackhawks-rinkcast-episode-29.mp3?ref=new_window), where Charlie suggested that such a trade right now would be foolish, when you can acquire one of those players in the summer of 2019 as a free agent. So why give up the assets now?

While he also has a point, there’s a counterpoint. First, if you made such a trade right now, you could theoretically extend the player (say, Karlsson) for slightly less AAV than it will take after a summer UFA bidding war. Further, in such a trade, some salary would almost have to go the other way. So there’s actually sort of a cap management argument for biting the bullet and dealing assets now to acquire an elite player. In theory.

But here’s the bigger point. Next summer, Duncan Keith will be 36, Brent Seabrook 34, Jonathan Toews 31. Another year’s worth of punishment on bodies already believed by many to have seen too many hard miles.

Well, why does that matter?

It matters because the Hawks’ salary structure and contract commitments are not those of a rebuilding team—but a team that’s supposed to be contending. So by holding fire and not going all in on a great additive piece right now, the Hawks are essentially forfeiting another year of “Cup Window,” maybe the last realistic year.

Sure, the ‘Window” may, in fact, already be closed. OK. Then why is $45 million a year or so committed to players who are 30 or older? If the Window is closed, then it’s already time to actually be rebuilding. Well, that depends on how you define “rebuilding.”

Which leads to a couple of phrases I coined earlier this summer: Door Number 3 or “The Silent Rebuild.”

Someone put it to me this way yesterday: “I’d prefer to ride it out like we are, wait for the next generation of talent to develop and hope for the best.”

Well, my strong suspicion is this is the perspective the team has (sort of) adopted—and is hoping fans will too. Silent Rebuild.

But there’s a problem there, as well. That perspective sort of rides on an assumption that Sikura, Adam Boqvist, Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz, and Henri Jokiharju may someday “replace” or equal Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook.

The problem is, with the possible exception of Boqvist and Keith, that equation will likely never happen.

And there’s no one in the organization right now who comes close to replacing or equalling Corey Crawford in his prime.

Alternatively, some are hoping that the aforementioned young players and prospects will mature into the complementary pieces that the Hawks’ aging core needs to compete for a Cup again soon.

This, also, is likely a pipe dream.

Sure, there are lots of 2018-19 “lineups” posted on message boards and social media with Jokiharju and Sikura on the team or even in top 4 or top 6 roles.

And, hey, there’s no law that says these guys can’t make the team or even assume big minute roles. But that would not mean either of them would necessarily be truly successful or what the team really needs to be an elite contender again. In fact, I’d bet against it—at this point.

The fact is, Schmaltz, for example, has been in the NHL now for nearly 2 full seasons. Yet as the team’s de facto 2nd line center, there remain a couple of big holes in his game. That’s not to malign Schmaltz. But rather to point out that the actual maturation curve for players in the NHL is longer than presumed by the convenient, EA Sports NHL 19 mentality that pervades summertime, social media lineups and lists.

So, my point here, as it’s been all summer, is the Hawks really seem to be not only going downhill, but worse still, stuck in neutral. Half-pregnant. Not reloading to contend, not meaningfully (and, by necessity, painfully) rebuilding.

And living in denial comes with a high mortgage payment,—so perhaps Rocky Wirtz has that in mind when he alluded to some big changes that might be coming should this team falter out of the gate, or worse still find itself out of the playoff picture (realistically) before the trade deadline.

And maybe the worst scenario for this team is the one that a disconcertingly high percentage of fans seem to be hoping for: that the team squeaks into the playoffs for a round. Because all that might really do is further forestall the inevitable realization that follows:

That, at some point in the not too-distant future, the “core” of the great Hawk teams since 2010 will not be able to carry the team into the postseason, much less beyond the first round anymore. And we may well already be there.

That the “youth movement” has not produced enough meaningful NHL pieces to effectively complement the core—and get the Hawks past the first round of the playoffs. Hasn’t happened in three years anyway. And, oh, by the way, whatever happened to Tyler Motte?

And that a real reset—driven by a series of bigger moves (no movement clauses be damned—because they can be waived), among which trading for an elite player in his early prime might be just one move of many—is necessary. Sooner rather than later.

And perhaps the first move(s) therefore would need to be in a front office that appears to be choosing not to choose.

Thanks for reading. Please comment below. Follow @jaeckel.

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