Chicago Blackhawks: Reality is not for the squeamish

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 19: A pair of tickets from Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals between the Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 19: A pair of tickets from Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals between the Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Chicago Blackhawks head into the final 27 games of the season with reality staring them right in the face.  This just isn’t their year.

On October 5, 2017 the Chicago Blackhawks opened their season against the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  A blowout 10-1 victory gave fans an enormous warm and fuzzy feeling about the new season.  After a tumultuous summer of losing Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Scott Darling, and Trevor van Riemsdyk, the fears over the drain of so much talent seemed to be unwarranted.

But what has ensued since then has been a slow unraveling of enthusiasm from both the team and the fans.

Well, how did we get here?

The ‘Hawks currently hold a record of 24-23-8, which would have been appreciated in 2006. But here in 2018, this record is hardly befitting of a three-time Stanley Cup championship team.  With only 27 games left and 10 points out of the second wild card spot, this season is a wash.  Somehow the Detroit Red Wings model of sustained excellence that Scotty Bowman brought got watered down along the way.  Too much sentimentality for the heroes poisoned the water hole.

It’s reasonable that any general manager can make some mistakes along the way.  Without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to predict the future.  No one can guarantee the longevity of an athlete’s ability.  Nor can the trajectory of a young prospect be certain.  This is the real world, and anything can happen.  And we have seen a bunch of things happen to this Blackhawks team.

But I can’t help falling in love…

Theo Epstein of the Chicago Cubs has said that he must avoid falling in love with his players to avoid making emotional decisions.  The same can’t be said for Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman.  After winning the 2010 Stanley Cup, he took a lot of heat for shedding several popular players.  But after his core proved that they could carry the team with an ever changing supporting cast, Bowman became overconfident that this formula could work for years to come.

The old Detroit template was that young players are developed to systematically replace older core players from season to season.  However, some bad luck and some bad evaluations dirtied up that plan.

The 2010 purge and beyond

The salary cap has forced the hand of Stan Bowman every year since 2010.  In addition to this summer’s losses, notable losses have included Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell, Nick Leddy, Dave Bolland, Teuvo Teravainnen, Michael Frolik, Andrew Shaw, and Antti Niemi.  That’s quite an impressive roster right there.  The unexpected demise of newer core player Bryan Bickell also threw a monkey wrench into the grand plan. The wage gap widened with some enormous contracts awarded to the core players.  The big money contracts and a stale salary cap forced Bowman to make do with economical players as the supporting cast.

But the core was always able to carry the team on its shoulders while the supporting cast just needed to be good enough to maintain momentum.   So the Stan Bowman template was working…until last season.

The wheels started falling off

Last season, the ‘Hawks ran off a spectacular record only to be rudely ousted in the first round of the playoffs.  The signs were there that the core was being leaned upon too heavily.  The core was getting older and the many of the young supporting cast had been thrust into action prematurely.  Their scrambling play in the defensive zone was offset by the outstanding goaltending from Corey Crawford.

Back to the present

And that brings us back to this troubling season.  The surprise loss of Marian Hossa has had a profound rippling effect.  There has not been a player to replace his superior two-way game.  The offensive loss of scoring phenom Artemi Panarin has not been replaced either.

The individual games mirror their season’s record.  The ‘Hawks have jumped out to leads in games only to squander them as the games wear on.  Just as they exploded in their first game against the Penguins, the ‘Hawks just can’t sustain good performances over long periods.  It all comes down to the widening gap between the core and the supporting cast.

The formula for the core to excel with a young supporting cast has excluded the gradual incorporation of young talent into the core itself.  By swinging for the fences, Stan Bowman has jettisoned some of the key players that should have replaced the aging players.  My notable players are Nick Leddy, Teuvo Teravainnen, Phillip Danault and Artemi Panarin.

So just as last season, the ‘Hawks have an aging core and a not quite ready or not talented enough supporting cast to improve upon last year’s results.  They have actually and obviously gotten worse from last year.

Where do we go from here?

Social media has been erupting with hateful comments regarding the core players.  The truth is that the core is still very talented but can’t carry load by themselves anymore.  The constant trading of young players for rental players to win now has to stop.  The failure of this season can be a positive in that Stan Bowman can take a break from being a buyer at the trade deadline and hold onto his young talent.  He can use the remainder of this lost season to evaluate these youngsters, but Coach Q will also have to buy into this program.

You only have to look to teams such as the Penguins, Bruins, and Kings (all three are the recent Stanley Cup champions) to realize that a talented core can go through a lull and then rebound with the injection of a few new players.  Just as these teams went through changes, there may be some uncomfortable changes when this uncomfortable season ends.

Change is never easy, but it’s a whole lot better than losing.

Keys to the game

The broadcast guys like to go with their three keys to the game.  Here are my three keys to the end of the season.

  1. Give the kids more minutes and find out what they bring to the table
  2. Put the kids in positions to play with and learn from veterans
  3. Breathe

As I mentioned in my previous article, this ‘Hawks team isn’t that far off from being great again. They just have to be a lot smarter.