After three Stanley Cups since 2010, Chicago fans were disappointed, but probably understood when the Blackhawks missed the playoffs last season. Not every campaign can be a successful one, after all.
Now that the Blackhawks have missed them again though, it’s obvious: Hell has frozen over and something must be done to thwart the impending apocalypse that is the state of the team’s chances in 2020.
Not so fast, though. Don’t fret. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Blackhawks’ chances, especially with these three keys to a return to the promised land as soon as next season:
3. Hope a Central Division Rival Falls from Grace
The Blackhawks finished sixth in the Central this past season. That would hurt enough to hear under the best of circumstances. What must really sting though is how all five above them made the playoffs under the league’s current postseason format. So, that means, had the Blackhawks done better than just one of the squads above them in the standings, they would have made the playoffs.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. The general consensus is the championship window is now open for the likes of the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets. The St. Louis Blues are obviously playing for the Cup as we speak. Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche are arguably in the process of trending higher into elite status every season.
The Blackhawks had their time in the sun, so they should take a step back, right? Not necessarily, as they’ve been doing that ever since their last Stanley Cup in 2015. They lost in seven games in the first round the next season. They got swept in the first round the season after that. They then failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 in 2018 with an abysmal 33-39-10 record. This past season can actually be seen as an uptick of sorts as, in spite of the non-playoff finish, they earned a winning record once again (36-34-12).
So, to a certain extent, the Blackhawks could conceivably wait out this dry spell and sneak back into the playoffs in 2020 all on their own merits. However, for those hoping for a more active approach, there are a few alternatives general manager Stan Bowman and co. should consider.
2. Move on from Cam Ward
Cam Ward was signed to a one-year deal to back up Corey Crawford, and the experiment worked out as badly as possible. What’s saddest about Ward’s disappointing season (16-12-4 with a 3.67 goals-against average and .897 save percentage) is pretty much anyone could have seen it coming based on his statistical decline over the last decade or so.
As a result, the Blackhawks should move on from Ward and even Corey Crawford to a certain extent. Crawford missed significant time to injury obviously, and his mediocre 14-18-5 season should not be held against him. After all, in spite of the haters and naysayers, he’s still been relatively consistent in net for the Blackhawks since becoming the team’s No. 1 goalie in 2010. However, two straight seasons with fewer than 40 games played and one begins to question his durability, especially considering he’s now in his mid-thirties.
Like Ward last season, Crawford now has a single season left on his contract. Re-signing a 35-year-old goalie to anything other than a short-term contract would be foolish. If the Blackhawks are serious about making the playoffs again in 2020 and beyond, there needs to be some kind of succession plan in place even as a backup or insurance policy. Thanks to middling performances from the likes of prospects Anton Forsberg and Collin Delia, Crawford’s heir may not come from within, though.
Thankfully though, the Blackhawks are finally out of salary cap hell. They may be able to sign a replacement with both Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and New York Islander Robin Lehner scheduled to hit free agency. It’s a longshot to beat out the competition for their services, but doing so would go a long way to ensuring a playoff appearance next spring.
1. Get Erik Gustafsson Help
It’s obviously not just on the goaltenders. The Blackhawks may have allowed the second-most goals in the league (355), but they also allowed the second-most shots per game (34.8).
It’s clear, at a not-so-spry 36 years old, stalwart Duncan Keith cannot compete at a Norris Memorial Trophy level anymore. Unlike with Crawford, neither Keith nor Brent Seabrook are on their way out due to their contracts. They’ve still got four and five seasons left on their respective deals. So, the logical thing to do is to at the very least decrease the team’s dependence on them. Someone needs to start taking more of their minutes. Enter Erik Gustafsson.
While Gustafsson effectively came out from nowhere to score 60 points as a defenseman this season, he literally wasn’t born yesterday. He’s a 27-year-old defenseman entering his prime, meaning the time is now to capitalize on the last year of his two-year, $2.4 million deal, especially seeing as he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. Gustafsson is found money in the offensive zone, as no one saw his break-out coming, least of all the Edmonton Oilers.
He can’t do it himself though, as even Keith, in his prime, as one the game’s best at the time, had the supporting cast to get it done. Even though Gustafsson is no Keith, he’s the Blackhawks’ best option. That’s just a fact and not meant as an insult. So, logically, the Blackhawks need to get him some help.
However they do it is anyone’s guess. It could mean trading Artem Anisimov for a stop-gap measure to find someone to play with the left-handed defenseman. They could alternatively go all in on the right-handed Erik Karlsson come July 1.
Whatever Bowman opts to do, it has to be something, if he wants to keep capitalizing on Patrick Kane’s perpetual success and Jonathan Toews’ offensive resurgence. Offense wasn’t the issue this season. That much is clear. It was pretty much everything else.
Thankfully, a return to greatness next season is within reach, even if just slightly below the hooves of pigs flying by in the nearby vicinity. As for any kind of long-term help to ensure sustained success, look to the Rockford IceHogs instead.
With top prospects Henri Jokiharju and Adam Boqvist set to man the blue line of the Blackhawks’ American Hockey League affiliate (if not Chicago), not all is lost. In fact, the defense could be a source of strength in the near future. One way or another, it will have to be to get the Blackhawks back to the playoffs.