Amid the flurry of the most understandable and recognizable emotions that surface during the Stanley Cup playoffs is embarrassment. Embarrassment in failing to accomplish a goal for which an organization and its players alike work tirelessly to achieve. To lose in the playoffs is one thing, but to be annihilated by a divisional rival to the point where it looks as though professionals are lining up against high-schoolers is another.
The Chicago Blackhawks organization, players, and fans experienced an embarrassing, head-scratching and gut-wrenching defeat to the wildly-entertaining Nashville Predators in historic fashion. In a series sweep where the Blackhawks’ stars collectively looked like a shell of their former selves, the Predators pounced vehemently. The Blackhawks train absolutely derailed, which is and was uniquely new to the franchise in recent years due to the fact that they had been deemed by many as a “modern dynasty.”
General manager Stan Bowman, who expressed his discontent for the first-round exit, promised changes after an “unacceptable” loss. And, yeah, change was necessary. With the complexion of the NHL drastically changing, coupled with the emergence and solidification of young stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the Western Conference, something needed to change for the Blackhawks. Boy, did Bowman deliver.
One change came in the form of a familiar face, Patrick Sharp. The Blackhawks signed veteran winger Sharp to a one-year deal worth $800,000, with an additional $200,000 games-played bonus, thus beginning Sharp’s second stint with the Blackhawks. Among other noticeable acquisitions and deals, Bowman traded for fan-favorite Brandon Saad. But, without a doubt, one of the more curious decisions made by the Blackhawks’ gutsy GM was bringing back Sharp. With the team’s direction centered on youth and speed, one might wonder, where does Sharp fit in?
The signing of Sharp goes against the Blackhawks’ current emphasis on youth and speed, but the team-friendly deal to an organization currently battling salary cap hell was too good to pass up. For a team that was badly beaten while showcasing its younger talent in the playoffs against the Predators in April, maybe this is the under-the-radar signing the Blackhawks desperately needed. The Hawks need to regain the edge, both physically and psychologically, that propelled them to three Stanley Cup championships in a span of six seasons, or they can expect more first-round playoff exits.
With the rejuvenated and re-energized Pittsburgh Penguins capturing their second straight Stanley Cup, many experts have displaced the Blackhawks as the “gold standard” in the salary cap era. If the Blackhawks want to recapture their place on the throne, they’ll have to start winning, and it needs to start with their stars. Maybe Sharp, coming off a hip injury that required surgery, can surprise us all.
Flashback to Years Past
After winning his third Stanley Cup during the 2014-15 season, Sharp and Stephen Johns were traded to the Dallas Stars for defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Ryan Garbutt. In his first season with the Stars, Sharp scored 20 goals and added 35 assists for a total of 55 points. The following season, Sharp’s year was cut short due to a hip injury, and he finished with just 18 points.
Prior to the trade that sent the beloved left wing to the Stars, in his last season with the Blackhawks Sharp scored 16 goals and added 27 assists for a total of 43 points, which was drastically lower when compared to his point total in 2013-14 (78). But, stats aside, at the end of the 2014-15 season, the Blackhawks celebrated their third Stanley Cup championship in a six-year period—a joyous end to a season where off-ice rumors plagued and followed the players like a petulant mosquito attacking the ankles of an unsuspecting person.
It’s crunch time for the Blackhawks. Coming off two straight first-round exits against division rivals in as many years, the time to reassert themselves amongst the league’s elite is now. The Hawks were missing the grit and experience that had been so kind to them in recent years. Sharp has the grit and experience that evaded the Blackhawks during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 playoffs.
The Blackhawks will continue to further their efforts in getting younger, no doubt about it. But the veteran experience and the opportunity for Sharp to mentor the younger players, such as Hartman and Schmaltz, could pay huge dividends for the organization and the young guys who are continually striving to excel and perfect their craft. If Sharp is slotted in a bottom-six role, expect him to push the younger guys to their best.
However, Sharp isn’t here just to mentor the young guys; he took the salary cut for what was perceived to be an excellent opportunity to reinsert himself into a winning lineup. He should be good to go for the start of the season and it’s as fun as ever to predict what Sharp’s numbers will look like at the end of the season. It’s possible that a healthy, rejuvenated Sharp can get back to playing a role in the top six. Maybe Sharp is what the Blackhawks need.
Note: All stats from Hockey-Reference.com.