(Note: For our post on why the Hawks’ window will extend through 2019, click here. Stay tuned all week for more on the topic.)
This is a piece that a lot of Blackhawks fans won’t want to read. It’s one that a lot of you will probably disagree with — heck, even I’m not really sure I buy what I’m about to sell you. But we’re talking about the Hawks’ championship window this week, and there’s one reality we should all probably consider.
The best times, at least with this group, might already be over.
Before you get too upset, read Dave Melton on why the window should extend through at least 2019 if you think we’re being too doom and gloom. Dream of how good Alex DeBrincat might be soon. Hope the front office has something up its sleeve to shake up what’s become a good-not-great team. There are many paths that put the Blackhawks back in contention for 2017-18 and beyond.
But there’s also a chance that the 2017-18 team won’t be better than the 2015-16 or 2016-17 teams that got eliminated in the first round. And if things don’t start trending in the right direction from here with an aging core, who’s to say that the Blackhawks won’t get stuck on a path of increasing mediocrity over the next 5-7 years?
Yes, this is the pessimistic take. This is the worst-case scenario for a team that won a Stanley Cup in 2015, and has since traded away good young talent like Teuvo Teravainen, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and Phillip Danault that could’ve made for a brighter future. But the 2016 “go for it” plan was a total bust, and the 2017 youth movement only yielded mild hope for the future.
So while there’s a good chance the window extends through at least 2019, when Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Richard Panik will become unrestricted free agents, it also might already be over. Here’s why.
An aging core won’t get better...
Jonathan Toews and Artem Anisimov are 29. Patrick Kane joins them in November. Brent Seabrook just turned 31. Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith turn 30 and 34 this summer, respectively. Next winter, Corey Crawford hits 33, while Marian Hossa turns 39.
The Blackhawks’ best players are all nearing the end of their primes, or already past them. They’re still good enough that the Blackhawks won’t be bad, or even middling, anytime soon, but we’re getting to the point where expecting any kind of major year-to-year improvement from these players is unlikely.
If anything, decline is most likely as they get older. Most NHL players peak by their late 20s, and while some elite players (especially defensemen) can push beyond that like we’ve seen with Keith, it’s a plan fraught with risk given how many NHLers have fallen off the cliff around age 30-31.
Kane may be the kind of special talent who keeps scoring at a high clip for several more years, but someone like Hjalmarsson who relies a lot on athleticism to maintain positioning defensively could be in for a rough aging curve. Seabrook, meanwhile, has already taken a step back at even strength at least.
So the hope is that the core can sustain a similar level for the next couple years, which would at least set a solid base line for potential improvements via young players and outside additions. There’s also an outside chance at bigger changes, but, well, don’t hold your breath.
... and changing that won’t be easy
You already know about the no-movement clauses if you read this blog regularly. The Blackhawks have given partial or complete ability to block trades to eight different players, and it’ll hamstring their ability to make changes to a core that’s likely already seen its best days.
Do those clauses mean changes are impossible? Of course not. Hjamarsson and Crawford have partial no-trade clauses, and Marcus Kruger’s partial no-trade clause doesn’t kick in until the second year of his deal begins July 1. There are also ways to convince players to waive their NMCs if the circumstances are right.
But would those trades yield returns that’d actually put the Hawks back in contention? That could be the hardest part. And given the Hawks are already over the salary cap with their current roster, trades are the only path to real changes this summer.
The young guys are good, not great
The Blackhawks don’t have an Auston Matthews. Heck, they don’t even have a Mitch Marner. Unless Alex DeBrincat manages to overcome his lack of size and become one of the best 5’7 hockey players of all-time, there’s not really a clear potential superstar in the organization.
Nick Schmaltz probably has the best shot at being a first-line player, but he showed during his rookie season that he’s still a work-in-progress. Ryan Hartman is a good winger who can score 20 goals, but he’s not a true game-changer, either. John Hayden, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, and Tyler Motte are all fine depth, nothing more.
Unless guys like Schmaltz, DeBrincat, and Gustav Forsling can start maxing their potential over the next couple years, the Blackhawks will struggle to find the meaningful improvements to put them over the top.
Dependence on goaltending
Over the past two seasons, Crawford and Scott Darling combined to give the Blackhawks the third-best save percentage of any team in the NHL at 91.7 percent. That’s almost identical to the percentage posted by the second-place Ducks, and just behind the 92 percent posted by the league-leading Capitals.
It’s no surprise that those three teams have won so many games during that span given their strong goaltending, But with Crawford entering his mid-30s and Darling now a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, there’s a decent chance that the Blackhawks won’t get such stellar work between the pipes over the next few years.
The Blackhawks could overcome this by making improvements in front of their goalie, but as we’ve noted above, that’s not a guarantee. And while Crawford stands a good chance of continuing his run as an above-average NHL starter next season, this is no longer a strength to the same degree it was over the past couple seasons.
The league is evolving before our eyes
Just a few years ago, NHL teams were deploying a wider variety of styles, but the embrace of possession statistics has helped narrow the gap. Now most teams are trying to build in a similar style, emphasizing possession, speed, and puck movement over size, physicality, and grit.
When the Blackhawks were using this kind of hockey seven or eight years ago, they were ahead of the curve. Now most of the league has caught up to that formula, and it’s cut into the advantage that the Hawks’ system provided against opponents.
Between that evolution of the NHL and an increased emphasis on pure speed, the Blackhawks have greater competition in a parity-driven league than a few years ago. The NHL has gotten smarter, and there haven’t always been obvious ways for the Hawks to compensate that.