Analysis

History in the Making: the 2022-23 Blackhawks

New York Islanders v Chicago Blackhawks
New York Islanders v Chicago Blackhawks / Jonathan Daniel/GettyImages
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Will the 2022-23 Blackhawks be the worst team in NHL history?

Simple answer is, no. But, the Hawks do have a chance to become the worst team in the salary cap era. 

A quick rundown: the so-called “salary cap era” began in the 2005-06 season, following a league-wide lockout in the season prior. The 2005-06 was the first NHL season to feature a “hard cap” for teams, effectively eliminating superteams (although, we now see teams using cap circumvention strategies to build and maintain powerful cores). In the 2016-17 season, the Colorado Avalanche recorded 22 wins, four extra-time losses, and 56 regulation losses. This earned the Avs a grand total of 48 points, creating a 21 point discrepancy between them and the 29th place Vancouver Canucks. In the 2019-20 season, the Detroit Red Wings were just seven regulation losses away from securing the worst record in the salary cap era. Unfortunately, the regular season was paused–and eventually concluded–invalidating their candidacy for the worst NHL team in the modern era. Despite “finishing” the season with 39 points, the Red Wings, and the rest of the NHL, did not complete the full regular season, allowing the 2016-17 Avalanche to keep their title. Now, if there was no possibility for the Wings to exceed or meet 48 points at the 71-game mark, this would be a different story. However, there was still a window of opportunity for the Wings to reach 48 points with the 11 games they had remaining. In addition to the Wings’ invalidated season, lockout or abbreviated seasons–like the 2013 season or the 2021 season–also do not qualify, since the full 82-game schedule was not played to completion.

The worst Blackhawks team in the salary cap era is, funny enough, the first Blackhawks team of the modern era. The 2005-06 team featured a young and undeveloped Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, starting goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, and soon-to-be fired head coach, Trent Yawney. The team’s captain, Adrian Aucoin, struggled with injuries all season long, and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were not in the NHL yet. Unsurprisingly, the Hawks finished as a bottom-three team in the league, with a dreadful 26-43-13 record and 65 points. Leading point scorer Kyle Calder, future All-star Corey Crawford making his NHL debut, and the third-overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft were the only highlights of this forgettable season. 

Yet, that team still was not the worst in the NHL that season, and still is not the worst team in the modern era. 

Getting into the main point of this article, can the Blackhawks claim the title as the worst modern era team? Let’s compare the teams, beginning with the preceding seasons. In the 2015-16 season, the Avalanche finished with a .500 record, winning 39 games and losing 43, with four of those losses coming in extra-time. Not too bad for a declining team, their record landed them 6th place in the Central Division and 22nd in the NHL, with 82 points. In the Blackhawks’ 2021-22 season, the team finished with just 68 points, winning 28 games, losing 42 in regulation, and 12 in extra-time. This record earned them 7th in the Central Division, and 27th in the NHL. Going into the 2016-17 season, the Avalanche remained with their core of Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, and Semyon Varlamov from the previous season. The team looked relatively similar in terms of the core–with the only notable addition being Mikko Rantanen–although the on-ice product was significantly worse. Only one player, MacKinnon, on the 2016-17 Avalanche broke the 50 point mark, and only one player, Rantanen, scored 20 goals. Starting goalie Semyon Varlamov battled injuries all season long, noted scorer Matt Duchene had a down year, and the team held the league’s worst scoring and defending statistics. The difference between this Avalanche team and the Blackhawks’ upcoming team is that Colorado’s team is building up, while Chicago is building down. Colorado’s core and talent was primarily young, while Chicago’s core (well, what is even left of one) is aging and past-prime. Toews and Kane are both in their mid-30s, Seth Jones is coming off a career-worst defensive year, and the Blackhawks’ top-six will likely shuffle through several inexperienced players throughout the year, and the goaltending is terrible. The Blackhawks’ team itself is not old, but the veteran players–Toews, Kane, Johnson–are past their prime. It is difficult to label players as core players, since most players on the roster have not been present for long. 

Even with stars like Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Seth Jones last season; as well as Brandon Hagel and Marc-Andre Fleury for majority of the year, the Blackhawks still managed to put up only 28 wins in the 2021-22 season. After losing top players in DeBrincat, Fleury, and Hagel, the Blackhawks’ roster surely disimproved. To make matters worse, Kane is expected to be traded before the end of the season, and there is a chance Toews might be traded as well. Newest additions of Max Domi, Jack Johnson, and Andreas Athanasiou provide some immediate improvement, but Domi and Athanasiou are also expected to be flipped at the deadline. Until then, Taylor Raddysh, Tyler Johnson, Colin Blackwell, Lukas Reichel, and Sam Lafferty will be their supporting cast on the front end. The blue line will look relatively similar to last season, with Connor Murphy and Seth Jones headlining. Assuming Toews and Kane are traded at the deadline, and no talented pieces are added throughout the season, the Blackhawks will be completely hidden in the shadow of their former dynasty.

Based on line projections from the Daily Faceoff, without Toews and Kane, the Blackhawks’ lineup will include: five players that have achieved 40 or more points in a single season at least once in their career, nine skaters that have less than 150 games of NHL experience, and no goalie with a save percentage above .900 in the season prior. To be fair, Alex Stalock and Arvid Soderblom did not play more than three NHL games last season. Petr Mrazek, however, played 20 games last year, and posted a .888 save percentage. The nine players with less than 150 games entering next season are Caleb Jones, Alex Vlasic, Boris Katchouk, Philipp Kurashev, Taylor Raddysh, Mackenzie Entwistle, Sam Lafferty, Lukas Reichel, and Colin Blackwell; not a lot of experienced players on this team. Those nine players account for over half of the Hawks’ offense, and a third of the team’s defense. To compare with Colorado’s 2016-17 team, the Avs had: eight players that had achieved 40 or more points in a season at least once in their careers, significantly more NHL experience than Chicago, and below-average goaltending.

It is hard to confidently say which team is better, as the Avalanche did not have Patrick Kane, and the Blackhawks do not have any sort of forward depth. Even though the Avalanche had names like Landeskog, MacKinnon, and Rantanen, none of them were in their primes yet. The three were still key players, nonetheless. Patrick Kane is coming off a 92 point season, and has not shown much regression, so there is still some hope for his linemates. Neither team has or had suitable defense, and neither team has or had outstanding goalkeeping.

There’s no guarantee that Blackhawks fans will see their beloved team surpass–or in this case, fail to surpass–the historical Avalanche this coming season, but fans should expect the team to finish dead last in the league. Comparing this coming season’s roster to last year’s roster, it seems unfathomable that the Blackhawks will achieve 28 wins like last season. Even worse, looking at the 2022-23 Blackhawks and 2016-17 Avalanche side-by-side, a scenario where the Blackhawks finish with less than 48 points is highly probable. 

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