Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks Should Model Penguins’ Path To Cup Contention

By Thomas Keeney
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 04: Sidney Crosby
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 04: Sidney Crosby /
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The Chicago Blackhawks are mired in their third straight season with no playoff success after winning the Stanley Cup in 2015. Should they emulate what the Pittsburgh Penguins did after losses mounted following winning their Stanley Cup win in 2009?

Only the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup three times over the past 10 years. While the Blackhawks won their three in a more condensed timeframe (three in six seasons), they are now faced with a similar situation as Pittsburgh was in 2012.

There are many similarities between these organizations, and the ‘Hawks can learn something from the path Pittsburgh took to get back to an elite level.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ path to success

Here’s a brief timeline of Pittsburgh’s last 1- years and key milestones:

2008 – First division title in 10 years, lose in Cup Final

2009 – Win Stanley Cup (replaced coach in-season to Dan Bylsma)

2010 – Second-round playoff loss

2011 – First-round playoff loss

2012 – First-round playoff loss

2013 – Conference finals loss

2014 – Second-round playoff loss

Aside from the Conference final year, and the fact they changed the head coach during their Stanley Cup-winning year in 2009, the post-Cup losing seems eerily similar to the current predicament the Blackhawks face. Here’s what Pittsburgh did at this juncture:

2014 offseason

  • Both GM and coaching staff are fired
  • The new GM hires a new coach (Mike Johnston) after his first choice turns them down (Bill Peters).
  • Twenty days into his tenure, GM trades prolific scorer James Neal for a more gritty, net-front player in Patric Hornqvist.

2015 – First-round playoff loss

2016 – Win Stanley Cup (replaced coach in-season to Mike Sullivan)

2017 – Win Stanley Cup

The turnaround

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So what turned around Pittsburgh to winning the Stanley Cup again? First, the Penguis kept their core players. Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and netminder Marc-Andre Fleury all were retained through the tough years. The ‘Hawks have a similar core – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford.

Although it is tempting to trade one of these exceptional players for high draft picks (or another star player), history shows it’s hard to find winning, impact players. Best to keep them if you’re lucky enough to have them.

In the 2015 offseason, Pittsburgh made key changes to its lineup. Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino were acquired in separate trades, and the Pens signed Matt Cullen to a one-year deal. This added a pure scorer to replace Neal (Kessel), and brought in two veteran, multi-faceted players who could skate, play defense and were hard to play against.

Cullen filled the critical third-line defensive center role, while Bonino played all over the lineup adding offense while playing a 200-foot game. The timing of the trade was good as well, as Toronto is still paying $1.2M of Kessel’s annual salary to this day.

In 2016, the final pieces of the personnel puzzle were added. First, a focus on defensive help. Justin Schultz for a third-round pick and Trevor Daley for an aging, slow Rob Scuderi (who would take that deal?). Both Schultz and Daley were considered fringe players who could skate but had not lived up to expectations.

Pittsburgh also added more speed at forward with the trade to acquire Carl Hagelin for David Perron. As many of these trades included losing active players, Pittsburgh then brought up multiple kids from the farm team to replace them – mainly forwards. This added more energy, speed and that beautiful arrogance of youth – why can’t I score 13 goals in a playoff season to win a Cup (Jake Guentzel in 2017).

Chicago’s path to success

The Chicago Blackhawks are at a similar juncture to Pittsburgh in 2012. To model Pittsburgh’s resurgence, the ‘Hawks need to maintain their core players, jettison players who are not hungry to win a Cup and replace them with fast, more gritty players.

Defensively, build the defensive corps around veterans, not rookies. Let’s see what the ‘Hawks might be able to do on the offseason, if they were to follow this path.

Coaching change

First, a new head coach is required. As Bill Walsh famously stated, a coach is no longer effective after 10 years in the same place. It’s not talent or motivation, it’s about a fresh voice in the room. As I’ve stated before, I love Coach Q, and he is probably the best thing to ever happen to Chicago sports, but it’s time to move on. Inconsistent play is a sign players are not reacting to the coach.

When Pittsburgh hired Sullivan 28 games into the 2016 season, it was a seamless transition as he was the coach for their minor league affiliate. Not only was he familiar with the overall system, he had worked with the kids in the minors, thus knew exactly what he had and what buttons were required to be pushed get the most from them.

Coach Quenneville is a coach who allows players quite a bit of time to themselves. You are expected to be a professional and show up ready to play. This is great for a veteran team, but a younger team requires more time coaching and mentoring. This may be an area where a new voice could make a huge impact.

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Playing young players on the right lines and positions is another area where a coaching change could assist. Connor Murphy had the pressure of replacing a top-tier player while learning a completely new defensive system. His inconsistent play this year has been compounded by playing much of his time on the wrong or off side of his normal position.

Why add complexity and pressure to a young player’s game when not necessary? Again, veterans can handle that type of change more than a younger player.

An example of playing young players on the proper lines/minutes is Vinnie Hinostroza. Since coming up from Rockford, he has been one of the most productive forwards in generating scoring chances, yet is consistently placed on the third or fourth line playing 10-13 minutes.

Brandon Saad’s last few goals were all set up by the play of No. 48. A coach who puts younger players in the best position to succeed, and plays them more minutes when playing well, will pay dividends for a team with a youthful core. Confidence is key for a young player. Being relegated to a lower line after scoring or playing well doesn’t breed confidence.

Finally, a coaching change brings new assistant coaches. Kevin Dineen should have been fired during the five-day break earlier this season (or during the last offseason) but is friends with the head coach. A new head coach brings a new assistant coach who could immediately improve an anemic powerplay.

As to Stan Bowman and his team, there are definitely areas that could be improved, but I would first look at a coaching change before blowing up the top end of the organization. Scouting, especially in Russia and Europe (landing Artemi Panarin was impressive) has been outstanding, and honestly many of the young players can really play if given the chance.

Personnel 

As to personnel moves, the positive with the Chicago Blackhawks is the youth movement has already begun. Nick Schmaltz and Hinostroza play with intensity and skate like the wind. Alex DeBrincat could be the Kessel piece of the puzzle with his amazing shot and ability to find open space in scoring areas (if he’s played on the top two lines).

If Dylan Sikura gets signed and is the real deal, adding John Hayden and potentially others (Matthew Highmore, Alex Fortin etc.) from Rockford next year would seem to fill the youth portion of the puzzle. This is real positive news, as with most clubs this area is the toughest to fill.

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  • Next is getting some key positions filled with grittier, hungry, net-front players. First, the ‘Hawks need a rat-type third-line center who can take on the first-line centers of the Central and allow Toews to match up against lesser lines.

    Cullen played this role for Pittsburgh — could Derick Brassard fill this spot for the ‘Hawks? David Kampf has shown some talent, and is definitely a step up from Tanner Kero, but this key position needs to be a veteran who knows all the angles.

    On defense, if Ron Hainsey or Brooks Orpik can be part of a Cup-winning defensive pairings, Brent Seabrook can be as well. I understand his contract is atrocious, but at this point in time he’s the team’s only defenseman who can physically command the back end. He also is the unheralded captain of the team — if ‘Seabs tells you to do something, you do it.

    The ‘Hawks have had difficulty developing defensemen in their system, so the current group we’re seeing is basically all the talent the ‘Hawks have on the back end. Keep a couple kids and trade for a couple more gritty veterans.

    They all must have the ability to skate, move the puck quickly and clear the front of the net when required. Carolina has a few of these guys and loves to trade with the ‘Hawks. After a few more losing seasons, this affinity for Blackhawk players will probably end, so strike while the iron is hot.

    Potential assets to move

    So with this model in mind, who on the current roster fits the bill as a previous Cup winner with no grit? Saad comes to mind immediately. He’s already won the Stanley Cup twice and his play, although statistically positive, has no grit.

    A power forward who doesn’t hit anyone or go to the front of the net and screen shots is not a power forward. Pittsburgh’s trade of Neal for Hornqvist was for this very reason. Hornqvist isn’t a sexy a player, but he lives in front of the net and makes plays.

    Aside from his dip the shoulder and dash to the net play, Saad is a player who need others to make things happen for him to be successful. This should have been considered before the Panarin trade, but that’s water under the bridge at this point.

    Should Saad be considered to trade for a top-four defenseman or a more impactful, physical forward? Tough to lose more goal production, but it should be considered.

    The other asset who has won a Cup and, with Schmaltz’s play at center, could be expendable is Artem Anisimov. He’s a big, second-line center the ‘Hawks had been coveting for years, he has a cap-friendly contract and he’s clutch. He led the ‘Hawks in game-winning goals last season (tied with Marian Hossa) and is leading the team again this year. I love his north-south game and would hate to part with him, but for the right piece (or pieces) might be an option.

    Finally, Tommy Wingels has been a consistent name coming up for trades. In my opinion, he is the type of veteran that the Blackhawks should keep. He’s hungry to win a Cup, plays hard every shift and is originally from the Chicago area. Get him off the first line and let him carry the fourth line again. Unless you can get a great return, I would keep him for one more year.

    I also like Ryan Hartman and hope he can grow with the organization. Comparisons to Andrew Shaw have finally stopped, but he is a heart and soul character guy the team is lacking. With the right third-line center, he could make a huge difference on winning and losing for the organization.

    There are others who could be in play for trades (Anthony Duclair, Tomas Jurco, Lance Bouma), but it’s doubtful the return would be very material. Still something to look at with a strong draft class coming.

    Summary

    Everyone knows the Chicago Blackhawks need to make changes. In my opinion when a team is inconsistent game-to-game, it’s either a very young team that doesn’t know how to approach the game professionally, or it’s a team that’s not listening to the coaching staff.

    I believe the ‘Hawks have a solid base of talented youth plus core leaders who know how to win. If Crawford can come back as his amazing self next year, I can see the ‘Hawks getting right back to winning the Cup if they make a few moves and have a new voice in the room.

    Next: 5 Thoughts After Blackhawks' First Shootout Win

    Pittsburgh showed the model of how to get back to championship hockey. Now we need to see if ownership and Bowman can make comparable changes and bring the Chicago Blackhawks back to championship form.

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