Chicago Blackhawks: rough start to the off-season needs more leadership
When the Blackhawks lost to Vegas, it was both predictable and relieving. On one hand, the team had performed at the level most people thought was realistic for the team, but on the other hand, it put on full display how unrealistic it is for Chicago to be considered cup contenders.
However, the problems run deeper than an imperfect roster, and there could be a lack of leadership at the top. Now that the offseason is fully underway, things are a bit murkier for the Chicago Blackhawks.
There needs to be change, but the team appears to be mired in what is at least a minor public relations disaster. Even if Stan Bowman’s deals have appeared rational on paper, the optics have been bad, and look to be somewhat chaotic. A steadier hand behind the scenes might help calm things down a bit, but there’s no team president.
Everything started when Chicago decided not to bring back their longtime goaltender Corey Crawford, the rumblings of discontent were immediate. In fact, according to a story originally from The Athletic, and reported elsewhere, Jonathan Toews openly criticized the team’s direction.
"“I’ve never been told that we were going through a rebuild,” the Chicago captain told The Athletic on Saturday. “That has never been communicated to me, for that matter. A lot of this comes as a shock because it’s a completely different direction than we expected.”"
To read that from a player that has been the face of the franchise for over a decade is a bit shocking. Additionally, it almost sounds like Bowman at some point must have told the team that the organization was committed to competing for cups every year. Complicating this further is that as Elliotte Friedman pointed out, a public statement like this by Toews is not only surprising, it’s almost out of character.
"23. I’ve chased Jonathan Toews during the off-season. He prefers his privacy and declines interviews, which is totally understandable. I only bring it up because the fact he surfaced to give an interview to The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus about the Blackhawks’ direction is significant. Toews wanted to make a point. Chicago’s decision making says to me that Blackhawks ownership doesn’t feel the team can contend for a Stanley Cup, knows the economics are extremely challenging without fans and are punting on next season."
Friedman is right, the Blackhawks can’t contend right now, but it isn’t just him and Chicago’s management that sees this. It’s pretty much anyone that has been following the team. Vegas was a superior team in the playoffs. Period. There’s no debate about this.
Pouring salt on the wound that is this offseason is former Blackhawk Kris Versteeg. In an Instagram post shared by former Blackhawk Up contributor Mario Tirabassi, he shares his thoughts on the current issues facing Chicago.
Versteeg didn’t stop there though and went even further in an interview with John Dietz at the Daily Herald.
"Would Keith be yanked off the power play? Will Toews lose his role as No. 1 center? Will Seabrook — assuming his rehab goes well — continue sitting out? Will young players be on the ice in the waning moments of a tight game?Versteeg wouldn’t bet against any of it.“I would be interested to see … whether young guys will start taking situations away,” Versteeg said. “It’ll be interesting going forward where you see time on ice for players and how they’re going to manage that. I can’t see (the veterans) getting a lot of the prime opportunity anymore.”Wait. All of them?“I think everyone but Kane, yep,” Versteeg said."
Jeez. That’s a level of honesty that probably a lot of people didn’t expect. Yes, the organization needs to be more open with the players, but also the players aren’t what they once were and need to know this.
Along with Versteeg, not everyone agreed that Bowman was in the wrong, or that the players venting their frustrations through journalists was the right approach. Brian Burke gave his take on the situation for SportsNet, basically saying that Toews really shouldn’t be going to the press with his complaints. Rather, he should go and talk to Bowman and find out what’s going on, and Burke has a point.
This is a question of leadership from the top. The issues aren’t arising from poor decisions, rather from poor etiquette. Everything that’s going on is understandable, but being managed badly.
t’s pretty clear at this point that Bowman wants to make changes, but as NBC’s Slavco Bekovic pointed out, Bowman hasn’t said the team is re-building. (Although it’s pretty hard to imagine how the team isn’t setting itself up to expect a poor season, and that a rebuild isn’t at least implied.)
To that end, Bowman’s actions are consistent with the change he spoke about, but not youth. Others, such as the Chicago Sun-Times have pointed out, trading Saad, and not getting any picks or prospects isn’t the kind of thing you do when you’re re-building. Additionally, he signed two vets in Mattias Janmark and Lucas Wallmark, and thus the lack of a guiding hand become more apparent.
These moves will make the team deeper, but they don’t really clear a path for younger players. They don’t even really save money against the cap, which it might have looked like what Chicago might do since there won’t be fans in the United Center. There really just appears to be a lack of deliberate planning right now.
Without former president John McDonough’s business acumen, the organization seems to have stumbled out of the block this year, to its own detriment. Getting all of this under control may very well be the first order of business for the next team president. The prospective date for the 2020-2021 season to begin is months away, so there’s plenty of time to sort out all this mess, but hopefully, this doesn’t linger any longer than it needs to.
Bowman is notoriously good at keeping secrets, and there might be a plan no one sees but him. So far, not a single move that’s been made has been forecast by anyone. Players are being signed, (or not signed in the case of Crawford) and it’s been a surprise every time. Even Saad didn’t really know he was going to be traded until it happened.
While there might be a method to this madness, Chicago now has to figure out how to improve the team, as well as navigate stormy waters. Chicago is a victim of its own success, but the turbulence within the organization is a problem of its own making. Where will things go from here is anyone’s guess, but more direction at the top might help.