The Chicago Blackhawks have turned a good number of their fans into optimists after the past decade. It turns out that three Stanley Cups, with some pretty spectacular comebacks included, will lead your fans to believe things will often work out in spite of worrying circumstances.
So it’s not surprising that a lot of Hawks fans are still pretty excited about the team’s future, even though there are reasons to believe the team’s championship window might already be over. This team still resembles the one that won those Cups in many ways. It’s not hard to squint and see a group that could push its contending window beyond 2019, when another potential exodus of free agents could strike a major blow to their roster.
But a lot of things would need to go right for that to happen.
It’s not impossible — just look at the Penguins, who spent a few years out in the hockey wilderness, plucking berries and losing in the first round, only to come crashing back into the party last year. If your superstar core is good enough, there’s always a chance you can find the right ways to supplement it.
(The Penguins also have arguably the two best players of their generation, then added an elite scorer in Phil Kessel to put them back over the top. Can the Hawks pull off something of that magnitude if necessary? Probably not. But don’t distract from the narrative!!!)
So let’s dig into the best-case scenario. The Blackhawks might not be positioned as well as some other teams that are younger, faster, and more flexible, but that could change in a hurry. Here’s why there’s reason to be optimistic that the window is not only still open, but could stay open for a while.
The core is still strong
Yes, they’re all getting older, but the Blackhawks can still put up Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, Artemi Panarin, and Corey Crawford against pretty much anyone. This team was really good in the regular season, especially when hitting on all cylinders, and we know that most of these guys can adjust to playoff hockey.
They’re going to need help, though, and that’s become the biggest issue over the past two years. In 2015-16, Kane and Panarin were absolutely amazing, but the Hawks were basically a one-line team that got exposed in the playoffs. This season, the Hawks just didn’t seem to be able to adjust to the Predators’ postseason style, and the result was ugly.
But the core is still strong if GM Stan Bowman can supplement it with the right players. Kane and Toews will be 29 next season — that’s not nearly old enough to write these guys off if some other things go right in Chicago.
Alex DeBrincat could be a monster
It’s not impossible. I’m just saying. DeBrincat torched the OHL so badly this year that Blackhawks fans were paying close attention to a junior hockey team from Pennsylvania. He might be two inches shorter than me, but I don’t care. If he’s as good as his numbers suggest he could be, the Blackhawks are going to have a potential 30-goal scorer in their midst soon.
This is not even an exaggeration. Maybe DeBrincat needs a year in the AHL to adjust to bigger, better players, or maybe he’ll be a straight up bust who can’t overcome his lack of size. But the stats and scouting reports are so glowing that this is easily the Hawks’ best chance at a superstar since Teuvo Teravainen, who never scored like DeBrincat at lower levels before arriving in Chicago.
The NHL is getting faster — and smaller. This is a league where DeBrincat can theoretically thrive more than he could’ve, say, 20 years ago. Prospects bust all the time, but there’s a good chance DeBrincat is a top-six NHL winger in the next two years.
The other young talent
DeBrincat is their best chance at a star, but he’s not the only one. Nick Schmaltz recorded 21 points in his final 25 regular season games in 2016-17. That’s an 82-game pace of 69 points — extremely nice for a 21-year-old. If he could hit 50-55 points next season, which seems possible, that’d be huge.
Ryan Hartman should once again be a strong secondary scorer who brings energy on the wing. He got a little too riled up in the playoffs at times, but brings an edge that’s ultimately valuable in playoff hockey, which we should all admit by now is basically running on a different set of rules from regular season hockey.
And on defense, Gustav Forsling could be the antidote to the team’s lack of speed. He wasn’t great in his first go-around with the team last year, but Forsling remains the team’s top defenseman prospect and someone who figures to be a prime contributor next season. If he can surpass expectations and become a top-four defenseman in short order, it could transform the Blackhawks’ defensive mix.
Toss in guys like Vinnie Hinostroza, Ville Pokka, Tyler Motte, Tanner Kero, and Erik Gustafsson, who provide solid organizational depth, and there’s enough young talent that could conceivably help the Hawks turn the tides.
2019 brings problems, but also opportunities
One way to look at the Hawks’ situation after 2018-19 is to figure they’re screwed once guys like Hjalmarsson, Panarin, and Richard Panik can walk as unrestricted free agents. But at the same time, freeing up that much cap space in one fell swoop will give the Blackhawks more flexibility that summer than they’ve ever had with this core.
For the 2019-20 season, the Blackhawks currently have $49.2 million tied up in seven players: Kane, Toews, Hossa, Anisimov, Seabrook, Keith, and Crawford. That’s a ton of money, but assuming the salary cap continues going up even in small increments, the Hawks could have around $30 million to fill the remaining 15-16 spots on their roster.
That’s not exactly ideal, but if the core still looks good at that point, Bowman will have a chance to truly re-fashion the team in a single offseason. The end result could be the firm conclusion of the championship window, but there’s also a chance it allows the Hawks to reload on the fly.
There is admittedly one issue, which Dave touched on in his 2019 post: all the pesky restricted free agents. In the summer of 2019, the Blackhawks won’t only have to deal with UFA status for Hjalmarsson, Panarin, and Panik — an unfortunate development, but one that would free up nearly $13 million in cap space to replace them.
They’ll also have to deal with Schmaltz, DeBrincat, and Forsling all reaching RFA status. Re-signing those three, if they’re as good as they need to be, probably won’t be cheap for the Blackhawks. There’s a decent chance that a lot of money saved by losing veterans goes to retaining guys like that.
But with so much money coming off the books by then, it could potentially work out in the Blackhawks’ favor.
Good management, ownership
And finally, there’s reason to be optimistic because the Blackhawks are ran by guys who know what they’re doing. Rocky Wirtz spends liberally on his team’s roster and lets the hockey guys do their work without meddling. Bowman hasn’t been perfect as GM, but he’s consistently had a vision and done his best to execute it. Joel Quenneville is one of the most successful coaches of all-time.
These guys, with help from many others such as Dale Tallon, built the Blackhawks basically from scratch in the mid-2000s. And then, despite having the salary cap choking down on them, they managed to stay competitive over the next decade and become one of the NHL’s premier franchises.
This offseason will be a big one to determine the Hawks’ direction over the next few years, but there’s reason to have faith in Bowman and company to follow through on making meaningful changes, even if they handed out enough no-movement clauses that the process has been complicated.
The Hawks remain a good team, and still have a path toward making noise in the NHL for years to come. They just need a little luck, and a lot of great moves.