The Chicago Blackhawks are in a tough position six weeks away from the NHL trade deadline. They’re near the top of the standings, yet almost nothing about the team screams “elite” or even “very good.” They’re far from bad, but discussing the team’s past January lulls ignores how much its underlying numbers have dropped over the past two years.
This was a team playing over its head during the first couple months, and just as the analytics crowd predicted at the time, the wheels have begun to fall off. Since Dec. 18, Chicago has a 5-6-1 record and a minus-8 goal differential. Part of that can be attributed to injuries (the team performs far better when at full strength), but it’s also some natural regression. The Hawks were never as good as their early win-loss record indicated.
And now they only have a few weeks left to decide what to do at the trade deadline.
The Blackhawks, in their current form, probably aren’t good enough to win the 2017 Stanley Cup. They’re simply too thin at forward, both in terms of talent up top (No. 1 left wing, where art thou?!) and depth at the bottom (Jordin Tootoo and Andrew Desjardins have zero points in 476 minutes played this season). Teams like the Capitals will expose that lack of talent, as we saw in the 6-0 smackdown last weekend.
Pretty much everywhere you look other than goaltending, the Blackhawks are roughly an average team. They’re 15th in 5-on-5 shots for per 60, 13th in 5-on-5 shots allowed per 60, 14th in 5-on-5 Corsi, 25th in 5-on-5 SOG differential, and 10th in 5-on-5 goal differential. That last one has been creeping in the wrong direction over the past few weeks as the team’s shot and save percentages have flattened out.
The Hawks are also middling in terms of special teams, where they’re 15th in power play rate and 28th in penalty killing rate. You can argue their PK is better than that given the rebound from a historically bad start to the season, but again, is it one of the league’s best? Probably not.
Other than save percentage, where the Blackhawks are fourth in the NHL at 92 percent, this is not a good team. Include the goaltending, and it’s a slightly above-average team that, given its experience, probably has a ceiling a bit higher than that. But it almost certainly would require near-perfect health, ridiculous goaltending, and good fortune to take an average group of skaters on a big playoff run.
So what are the Blackhawks going to do about that? The reality is that we have no idea what GM Stan Bowman’s plan is at the trade deadline this season. We’ve heard they don’t want to deal picks, but they’re also in rumors for big-name players. There seems like a lot of possibilities.
This is one of the most challenging midseason situations of Bowman’s tenure. Unlike in past seasons, when he was looking for pieces to put already great teams over the top, Bowman may be looking for a piece just to get the Blackhawks into the contender mix this year. And when you consider that, the calculus for going “all-in” might be a little more complicated than usual.
Last season, going all-in is precisely what Bowman did. The Hawks traded big assets (Marko Dano, Phillip Danault, first- and second-round picks) to acquire veterans to bolster their lineup. The result was a first-round ouster at the hands of the rival Blues, and lots of questions about the execution of that midseason plan.
Now he’s looking at a similar proposition this season, but again, these Blackhawks aren’t the same ones who dominated the regular season a few years ago. They need more help, and it’s not obvious where the team can get it, which makes Bowman’s job tough.
Let’s quickly run down the Blackhawks’ summarized options for the upcoming trade deadline:
Trade future assets for veterans
This is basically what the team did last year, and it may be part of why they don’t want to do it again. After giving up a bunch of key long-term assets last year, the Hawks may be hesitant to further dry up their resources for another quick stab at the Stanley Cup. It’s also fair to wonder whether it’s even worth it for the team — is it worth acquiring a veteran rental (a la Andrew Ladd) if you’re not convinced he makes you a Cup favorite anyway? How much are you willing to give up to swing the odds a few percent in your favor?
There’s also the matter of the 2017 NHL Draft being hosted at the United Center. Bowman has said in the past that the team would prefer to retain its top picks for the draft to give fans at the event some things to cheer about. That doesn’t necessarily preclude dealing a later pick or two, but if you’re not willing to move one of your top couple picks, it becomes a lot harder to acquire a marquee player. And, again, if you’re talking about dealing a fourth-round pick for some fringe rental player, is that even worth it for a Hawks team that probably needs more help than that?
I’m not entirely sure of the answer, but these are the questions Bowman will be asking.
Trade NHL pieces for NHL pieces
This is, frankly, unlikely. You don’t see big-time traditional hockey trades during the season often anymore because teams already have such trouble managing their salary cap structures. Those deals are usually reserved for the summer, when teams can better plan how to fit big salaries and stay compliant.
But the Blackhawks will inevitably need to move a salary by the start of the 2017-18 season to accommodate Artemi Panarin’s raise, and we don’t know just how antsy they’re getting to make big moves. What if the Blackhawks could get out of Brent Seabrook’s contract now while getting back a possible 1LW option in return? It’s probably a pipe dream, but when you keep hearing rumors about expensive, talented players like Gabriel Landeskog, you have to wonder if the Blackhawks are keeping the door at least a crack open for a huge deal involving several big names.
Blow up the roster
nah nah nah just kidding
The team could do nothing. It could stand pat at the trade deadline, hope to get healthy, and put some pressure on Nick Schmaltz and the other rookies to step up their games.
The problem with this plan is obvious. The Blackhawks’ current roster has revealed a team that’s pretty much average outside of goaltending, and even if you give them some room to grow, it’s probably not enough to make them a truly dangerous team from top to bottom. There just aren’t enough good forward options not to have someone thoroughly underwhelming like Desjardins or Tootoo in the lineup.
So at the same time, it’s possible the Blackhawks decide (a) they’re not good enough to win the 2017 Stanley Cup without making unreasonable compromises for the future (b) given that fact, it’s smarter to play out the string in 2016-17 and start really planning for the next Cup run in 2017-18. Anything can happen in the playoffs, anyway, so as long as they can get there, maybe it’s worth the dice roll without giving up any more scratch.
So, what should they do?
Those are just summarized examples of the primary options available to the Blackhawks right now. They could potentially get creative and pull off a deal we haven’t even considered. Given the direction of the team, it’s not hard to wonder if Bowman has a trick or two up his sleeve.
Right now, the Blackhawks are in an interesting position. There are still a few weeks before the trade deadline on Feb. 28, so there’s no immediate urgency, but you have to imagine they’re starting to form a plan. It’s becoming clear that the team, as constructed, probably can’t stand pat and make a real Stanley Cup run. It’s just too dependent on the second line and goaltending to make it through four playoff series in a row. We already saw that narrative last year.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that going “all in” to push the team closer to a Cup is the right move. Depending on the potential deals on the table, and what the team envisions from its championship window going forward, a more conservative approach might be worthwhile.
With the trade deadline around the corner, the Blackhawks should be one of the most fascinating players on the market. They need help, and we’ll end up seeing just how badly they want it versus trying to extend the championship window.