The expectations for the Chicago Blackhawks going into the 2022-23 season were not high, to begin with. Last season, they finished the season with 68 points, the lowest the team had fared since the 2005-06 season when they mustered 65 points. The point totals combined with the fact that they have missed the playoffs in five straight seasons showed there is no easy fix to get them back to contention.
Therefore, when the team let Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, and others go, the expectations were even lower as it signaled the group was “tanking.” The team has not said they are trying to lose to get a top pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, but they don’t have to, as the Blackhawks’ director of amateur scouting, Mike Doneghey, implied such, stating, “if you’re going to be bad, this is probably the year to do it because you know what the next three (picks could be). Even this year, you’re really not enamored with the top of the draft. But next year, it’s like, yeah, If I’m going to be bad and get one of those guys, then OK, you can relish it more.” (from ‘The Blackhawks’ rebuild depends on 2023 NHL Draft lottery – and Bedard, Michkov or Fantilli’, The Athletic, 07/28/2022).
It seems like so much stake is being put into the Blackhawks being bad next year that the alternative is hardly mentioned: what if they end up not being that bad? The Blackhawks have some intangibles that may prevent them from finishing the season in the basement.
Kane & Toews Remain on Blackhawks
There’s something to be said about generational players in the NHL: the Auston Matthews, the Connor McDavids, and the Cale Makars of the league. They can mask problems on their respective teams because of their greatness. The same can be said for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the Blackhawks. They are some of the greatest players in NHL history and have led the team to three Stanley Cups. Kane continues to be one of the most elite forwards in the league, as his 92 points last season was 15th-best in the NHL and first on the Blackhawks. And although Toews has hit a rough patch in his career due to his health, he continued to be elite at the dot last season, ranking fourth-best in the league among centers with a 59% faceoff percentage, despite facing a career-low 37 points.
The Blackhawks have struggled since the 2017-18 season. Despite being in the bottom 12 since then, they haven’t finished in the bottom five in the NHL. Chicago has found some great talent over the years, making them better than they were. They had a 41-goal scorer in DeBrincat, a Hall of Fame goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury, and Kane and Toews. As long as Kane and Toews are on the team, it’s hard to imagine them truly finding themselves in last place because players like them help you win games. You can argue that having them both on the team hasn’t helped much over the years in reaching the playoffs, but the point is that the Hawks would have been a lot worse if they weren’t on the team.
This is Kane and Toews’ last year on their eight-year, $84 million contracts, and it’s tough to say how their futures with the club will play out, but as long as you have elite talent, it’s hard to completely throw in the towel on a season as they still have a lot to offer.
New Coaching System Could Benefit Players
One of the most significant offseason changes came when the team hired Montreal Canadiens’ assistant coach Luke Richardson as head coach, along with assistant coaches Derek King and Kevin Dean. When Richardson was hired in June, he made it clear that he would create a new system focused on defense. He will enact zone coverage instead of the man-on-man system implemented under former head coach Jeremy Colliton. He believes the offense will come if the team plays fast defense. Furthermore, his plan is described as having a lot more structure, which will allow the defense to limit turnovers, giving the offense more time to create scoring chances. It sounds straightforward in theory and considering all the frustration that the man-on-man coverage brought, the players should buy into that.
The new system can work wonders for the Blackhawks next season, as it could bring a sense of cohesiveness. It doesn’t have to be a fancy strategy; it just has to work. Blackhawks’ forward Tyler Johnson mentioned last season that you almost have to make it simple or dumb the game down a little bit, have structure, and have everyone on the same page; this new system can help bring the team back to basic hockey. There is a chance the team could respond well, and if they do, it can help the team’s results.
Blackhawks’ Players Are Eager to Prove Themselves
Something that feels different about this Blackhawks team going into next season is that everyone has something to play for. They signed 11 free agents, and the longest contract term they offered was two years. The player who got that two-year contract is Colin Blackwell. No forwards on the team are signed beyond the 2023-24 season, and everyone’s job is up for grabs. In a sense, all the forwards on their team have their backs against the wall, and if they want an extension or if they want to increase their trade value, they are going to have to show out. This should make for a group of very motivated players, despite the negative outside noise. The overall talent doesn’t look exceptional, but it has been learned throughout hockey history that good things happen if you let the kids play.
Take the Buffalo Sabres as an example. Although they missed the playoffs last season, their team was filled with young talent that was eager to play, including the likes of Owen Power, Dylan Cozens, and Rasmus Dahlin. They won 16 of their last 28 games of the season, including six of their last eight games. Fun fact, the Sabres finished the season with more points than the Blackhawks with 75 points. You don’t have to have the flashiest roster on paper to play good hockey, which could be the case for the Blackhawks next season. If everyone develops chemistry and gives it their all every night, they will put themselves in a good position to win games. That wasn’t always the case last season when the coaching staff called out the team’s lack of effort on a nightly basis. I don’t think that will be a concern next season.
Blackhawks Could Change Tanking Narrative
The Blackhawks could very well be as awful as most expect because they look to have very little offense. Also, the organization did little to fix their seventh-worst defense in the NHL other than letting Calvin de Haan walk in free agency and signing Jack Johnson (Colorado Avalanche) to a one-year, $950,000 deal. The projections already have the Blackhawks finishing second-worst in the Central Division behind the Arizona Coyotes next season. Moreover, FanDuel has the Blackhawks and Coyotes tied for the best odds to land Connor Bedard at the 2023 NHL Draft with the first overall pick. For years, the Blackhawks have not been bad enough to get a top draft pick. It looks like management is hoping that will change next season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that so-called plan faltered.
No doubt about it, on paper, the Blackhawks are worse than they have been in recent years; but that doesn’t mean much. The Vegas Golden Knights built a Stanley Cup roster with superstars like Jack Eichel, Shea Theodore, and Mark Stone, yet they missed the playoffs last season. The Los Angeles Kings weren’t often regarded as contenders, and they made the playoffs last season. Projections aren’t always correct because you never know how a team will fare until the puck drops. Although the Blackhawks’ roster is extremely flawed, that doesn’t mean they can’t perform well together. They have a new coach who could bring out the best in the players. They have Kane and Toews, who could still provide meaningful performances, and everyone has a reason to up their game.
Next season could be a disaster of epic proportions, or Chicago could have a season like the Sabres, which would be good enough to miss out on the top three picks. That seems to be the most undesirable outcome, as the Blackhawks need the picks to expedite the rebuild, but I don’t think missing out is entirely out of the realm of possibility with the points above. Ultimately, no one knows what will happen until the season starts, and because hockey can be absurd, don’t be surprised if the Blackhawks somehow end up with the 10th overall pick in next year’s draft instead of a top pick!