The saying goes that ‘time heals all wounds’. That may be true. Unless, perhaps, your wound is the most embarrassing postseason effort that your franchise and fan base have endured over the past 25 years. The Chicago Blackhawks‘ swift exit from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs was just that. Certainly, the four-game sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators was the worst playoff performance under the Blackhawks’ current regime. The last comparable performance likely occurred during the 1993 playoffs, which saw the Norris Division-winning Blackhawks get swept in the first round by the St. Louis Blues, a series that included two shutouts and an Ed Belfour rant.
The embarrassment wasn’t in the result itself. The Predators are a good hockey team and were a dangerous opponent for the Blackhawks entering the postseason. Chicago, despite only the second 50-win season in franchise history and finishing as the top point-earner in the Western Conference, was a flawed and vulnerable team, which I wrote about prior to the series.
The embarrassment was in how the series was lost. It really came down to a couple basic elements: effort and confidence. Nashville appeared confident from the start and undeniably outworked Chicago during the series. Chicago never exuded the confidence to play to their potential. X’s and O’s simply don’t matter when your game lacks those important intangibles.
Blackhawks outworked. Puck management issues. Still thinking offense. Not checking and puck support. Crawford outstanding.
— Judd Sirott (@Judd_Sirott) April 21, 2017
While time will eventually erase the feelings of frustration and disappointment, more than the mere passing of an offseason is needed to ensure a better result in 2017-18. Let’s preview a series of actions the Blackhawks should consider this summer as their blueprint for returning to the level of success to which they are accustomed. Given some elements of this are nuanced or command more in-depth conversation, I’ll also explore several of these topics individually as the summer progresses.
Now that we’ve taken care of the cheesy pun and tipped our cap to Richard Panik’s two-year contract extension, let’s get down to business. The number one message this offseason should be simple. Don’t panic. Yes, the last two postseasons have been disappointing. Yes, players who have been at the core of the franchise’s last decade of success are aging. But the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith don’t grow on trees. You simply don’t rid the franchise of Hall of Fame players that still have years of solid hockey left to give. Replacements for these guys are few and far between, if they even exist at all. Blowing up the core under the notion that the Blackhawks’ championship window has closed would simply make the Blackhawks a worse hockey club at this juncture and be a strategy from which it would take years to recover. The time will inevitably come for the Blackhawks to part ways with perhaps the best group of core players in franchise history, but this offseason is not that time.
Identify & Fill Roster Needs
This roster has two primary needs: a skilled, puck-moving defenseman and a rebuild of the center position. The lack of an elite puck-moving defenseman in the prime of his career seemed evident throughout 2016-17, no more so than when the power play routinely struggled and the pace of play was ratcheted up in the postseason.
Keith has excelled at that role throughout his career. And while he’s certainly still a top-four defenseman on this and any other NHL team, he will be 34-years-old during the 2017-18 season. He still has value at a $5.5 million cap hit, but he looks to be entering a transition from the elite phase of his career to being an above-average player who has lost that elite edge. The Blackhawks need their next Duncan Keith, or something in the mold of a present-day Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Victor Hedman, or Drew Doughty.
Then there’s the center position, perhaps the weakest part of this roster. While Toews, who had his own ups and downs throughout the season, anchors the group, the depth at this position isn’t enough to win another Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks’ ability to win face-offs this year was abysmal and a detriment to the possession game they like to play. Their willingness to grind, take punishment in front of the opponent’s net, and earn the hard goals was fleeting. The Blackhawks have solidified the position before with the likes of Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards, Andrew Shaw, Dave Bolland, Michal Handzus and John Madden. And they need to do it again.
This roster has secondary needs as well, including more skilled size and grit at the forward position, better two-way speed on defense, and clarity on Corey Crawford’s back-up now that Scott Darling has moved on to a well-deserved opportunity to be a number one goaltender.
Navigate the Expansion Draft
Navigating the expansion draft should prove to be one of the easier elements of the offseason for the Blackhawks’ front office. I’ll have a separate article forthcoming to highlight where the team stands with regards to the expansion draft (i.e. protected vs. exposed players), but at this juncture those names are mostly locked in. The important thing about the expansion draft for the Blackhawks is for the team to have clarity on who will be chosen so Stan Bowman & Co. can concretely factor the absence of that player and their salary into the team’s 2017-18 plan.
Make an Unpopular Move
This topic is eliciting a ton of reaction from the fan base, and it is something I’ll explore in much more depth beyond presenting the concept here. The goal is not to make an unpopular move for the sake of being unpopular or to send a message to the existing roster. Simply put, I think the Blackhawks’ current roster and salary cap situation dictate that a “core” player must be moved to give the front office capacity to potentially address a couple of this team’s needs.
The name most fans and pundits have identified is Brent Seabrook. That’s fair. He certainly didn’t play up to his $6.875 million cap hit this season. And, at 32 years of age, a gradual regression of his play is far more likely than the off-chance that he’ll once again consistently perform to the level that originally garnered the contract. However, the monetary implications of Seabrook’s contract, along with a no-movement clause, make it unlikely that he’ll be dealt. But, if Bowman could get that done, it’s no doubt worth exploring.
Let me suggest two other names: Marian Hossa and Artemi Panarin. There are a variety of reasons why I’d consider moving these two players, and I’ll circle back to this topic to fully articulate those thoughts in the near future.
Rebuild Organizational Depth
Behold the NHL Entry Draft. An annual gathering where hope is anew and optimism is high. While the NHL draft rarely yields significant and direct roster improvement in the season that immediately follows, it is no doubt critical to the sustained success of a franchise. The Blackhawks organizational depth is not great, as it has been stripped of prospects through a series of trades for rental players with the win-now attitude in mind. And understandably so. But, with the core group of players aging into their 30s, there is only one long-term solution to sustaining success once that core is no longer performing at a championship level: rebuild organizational talent through the draft.
I’ll have a full draft preview as the calendar turns to June. For now, suffice to say that the Blackhawks have a tremendous opportunity in the 2017 draft. With 10 picks in seven rounds, the front office has plenty of draft capital to add a couple of pieces that will develop into future NHL-ers.
Develop the Young Talent
In February and March, it seemed as though Chicago was making significant strides in developing the young and playoff-inexperienced members of their roster. Come April, that development seemed to all but disappear. The intensity, style, and pace of play that accompanies playoff hockey appeared too much for the next wave of young Blackhawks. While the team’s inadequacies against Nashville were many, this organization is going to have to develop young players on entry-level contracts if there is more success to be had with the current group of core players intact. I wrote about who those players were a couple of months ago, and the team will likely be counting on some of those same players next year. It will be imperative that those players come back not just a year older, but a year better. Beyond those already discussed, I’ll revisit the subject of young talent development once the draft, prospect camp, and training camp bring additional clarity as to who else may factor into the 2017-18 Blackhawks.