Blackhawks Need to Move On From Tank Narrative

With rebuilding teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, debates surround the team like white on rice. In their case, the discourse primarily covers first overall pick Connor Bedard and what his impact will be, but there is one debate that refuses to fizzle: Should the Blackhawks be bad again to secure another top draft pick in 2024 to help move their rebuild timeline further along? After all, their “tanking” plan worked last season and secured Bedard. What’s to say it can’t happen again? Although the idea makes sense, it must be revised for 2023-24.

Blackhawks Don’t Need to Tank Again

Most know how the story went last season. The Blackhawks dismantled most of their team by parting ways with top producers, like Brandon Hagel, Alex DeBrincat, and Dylan Strome, for draft capital and assets. The moves were dubbed in July 2022 as going “full tank” to secure a top 2023 Draft pick. They took it a step further at the trade deadline by dealing Max Domi, Jake McCabe, and Patrick Kane. Chicago only had a top-three draft pick twice in 16 years: Kane (first overall in 2007) and Kirby Dach (third overall in 2019). Management knew the days of Kane and Toews were nearing an end, and they needed their genuine franchise replacements. It was a risk they were willing to take as the team had yet to make significant strides for the postseason in six years.

It almost backfired as the Blackhawks finished third-worst in the NHL, and going into the draft lottery in May, they were given the highest odds of landing the fourth-overall pick (39.7 percent). But the lottery balls went in their favor, and they won the first overall pick. As general manager Kyle Davidson said, “That’s just luck” (from ‘With Connor Bedard in hand, Kyle Davidson now has to get the rest right’, The Athletic, 6/28/23).

This summer has differed from last, as the Blackhawks’ roster looks better on paper. They added Taylor Hall, Nick Foligno, Ryan Donato, and Corey Perry. All have extensive NHL resumes, have come from winning organizations, and are sure to help Bedard’s trajectory. But those players weren’t acquired with “winning” in mind. After getting all of those players, Davidson and head coach Luke Richardson mentioned helping to continue building the culture and development of the team while filling needs throughout the lineup.

Related: Blackhawks’ 3 Keys to Success for 2023-24

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These players are fillers until prospects like Frank Nazar and Oliver Moore are ready to take the next step. The team landed Bedard, but their entire team is sketchy. They have talent at each position, but few make you feel 100 percent confident. The Blackhawks are still building from the ground up. The five-year rebuild plan Davidson mentioned is still in effect, although it could be shorter if the cards fall into place with free agency and the success of their prospects.

Overall, the Blackhawks don’t need to go into the season with tanking aspirations because they will already not be good. With the names they acquired, that’s already an improvement from last season as they are adding more than subtracting, but it’s built to get by for now. Most projections have them finishing 2023-24 toward the bottom of the standings, and that is fair because Hall and Bedard alone aren’t enough, but it’s a start.

Yes, Macklin Celebrini Would Help, But…

A lot of the hype surrounding this season’s “tank” narrative centers around 2024 projected first-overall pick Macklin Celebrini, who led the United States Hockey League (USHL) with 86 points in 50 games with the Chicago Steel last season. He also matched Tyson Jost’s single-tournament scoring record for Canada at the U18 World Championship with 15 points in seven games. The 17-year-old looks like he could be the real deal and has many excited, including Blackhawks fans. They got Bedard, and if they were to land Celebrini, that would be their meal ticket, but the odds of them landing the first overall pick in the NHL Draft two years in a row seems slim, though possible. The Edmonton Oilers got the first overall pick three years in a row from 2010 to 2012.

Macklin Celebrini Chicago Steel
Macklin Celebrini, Chicago Steel (Chicago Steel Hockey Team)

If the Blackhawks were to land Celebrini, that would take their team to the next level, but if it doesn’t happen, they will be okay. Who is to say Moore can’t be Bedard’s one-two punch or anyone else they may sign or draft? They already have the second-best prospect pipeline in the NHL, so they have plenty of options. Although the idea of having Celebrini on the Blackhawks sounds fantastic, that shouldn’t be their objective this season. The aim should be to move forward. The tank was hard on everyone. Coach Richardson said he was not about it. Even players like Seth Jones stated, “That’s why we play the game, right? We’re trying to win every game we play. We’ve got to control what we can control in here, and obviously the front office, they control that” (from ‘Lazerus: The Blackhawks aren’t waiting for Connor Bedard to come save them’, The Athletic, 1/29/23).

If the Blackhawks are to fail as badly as they did last season, it should be organic and not intentional. With a talent like Bedard, if the plan is to lose out of the gate again, then what does that accomplish? The players played hard last season, and surely they don’t want a repeat of that narrative. Again, it makes sense why some would want Chicago to aim for the bottom again, as you need top talent in the league to win, which is usually found at the top of the draft order. The Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl duo (Edmonton Oilers) and the Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier duo (New Jersey Devils) are all examples of that.

Related: Early Look at the 2024 NHL Draft

The Athletic did a Blackhawks 2023-24 fan survey, and one of the topics asked about how many points fans expect from the team. One commented, “Last season, I knew I was supposed to root for the Hawks to lose, and I got OK with that. This season, I don’t know what I’m supposed to root for; it’s a weird purgatory” (from ‘Blackhawks 2023-24 fan survey results: Optimism reigns with Connor Bedard on the way’, The Athletic, 8/28/23). It’s okay to root for improvement. It might not always translate to wins, but if the offense can start showing signs of life, the defense prospects like Alex Vlasic and Wyatt Kaiser can build off of their seasons, and Arvid Söderblom can prove to be a consistent NHL goaltender, then that gives the team an anchor. If luck and fate go the Blackhawks’ way again with someone like Celebrini, then so be it.

But it’s time to move on. The Blackhawks are on a good path, and it’s time to start showing it.

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