The Blackhawks’ bye week started after an embarrassing loss to a middling team, and it ended with one, too. The goaltending isn’t good enough without Corey Crawford, the defense seems to be regressing, and other than Patrick Kane, the star forwards aren’t producing at a high enough level to make up for the other issues.
This thing isn’t going in the right direction, and everyone involved seems befuddled as to how to fix it. We’re left with general platitudes about how the team needs to rally and play better and yada yada yada.
“We look every day. We put ourselves in a terrible spot going into the break,” Joel Quennevlile said after the 7-3 loss to the Islanders. “And then coming out of it, we know we have to have a great run here. So, we got to move up significantly in our play, in our consistency and our predictability.”
Except Quenneville is right: The Blackhawks have little choice but to try to “move up significantly in our play.” They’ve already called up players, sent down players, and made a major trade. The easiest moves in their arsenal have already been utilized. They still got outscored 11-3 by the Red Wings and Islanders in their last two games.
And the team’s remaining options seem unrealistic, ill-advised, or both. They’re stuck with this group, for better or worse.
The problem with buying
In the past, the Blackhawks being a buyer at the trade deadline was a foregone conclusion. They were clearly contenders each year, and acted the part by pursuing deals to put them over the top.
But the equation isn’t as simple this season. What would the team go after, and what would be the appropriate cost to acquire it? It seems like the Blackhawks’ primary needs are a starting goaltender and a top-four defenseman. Even with LTIR cap space, it’d be a stretch fitting two veterans of that caliber onto the books.
Additionally, given the recent success drafting guys like Alex DeBrincat, Henri Jokiharju, and Ian Mitchell, do we really want the Hawks giving up draft picks to bolster a roster that’s in seventh place even after their star goalie carried the load for the first three months of the season? Probably not.
Maybe the team tries to go the middle ground and give up minor assets for another stopgap option like Calvin Pickard, but it’s hard to argue that aggressively buying in February is sound asset management for the Blackhawks now.
The problem with selling
If you’re not a buyer at the trade deadline, then you might as well consider being a seller. But who would the team realistically trade? Kane, Crawford, Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, and Brent Seabrook all have full no-trade clauses in their deals, so they would need to want out of Chicago.
What are your other options to sell? You don’t want to move young guys like Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat, and Gustav Forsling who will still be on their ELCs in 2018-19. The Hawks need those cheap cap hits. RFAs like Ryan Hartman, Anthony Duclair, and Vinnie Hinostroza might be trade candidates, but it’s also firmly possible the team plans to re-sign all of them to affordable deals in the summer. They’re probably not worth that much, anyway.
In that case, you’re left with middling options like Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels, and Michal Kempny. Maybe the team can recoup some low-round draft picks for those guys, but it won’t be anything that meaningfully moves the needle heading into the following season.
The inevitable status quo
What you end up with is a situation that, like for many NHL teams, can’t realistically be addressed until the offseason. The cost-benefit analysis of giving up futures to acquire rentals at this trade deadline has swung firmly toward the negative. The team already doesn’t have its second- and fourth-round picks this year, so it should be weary of taking any more chips off the table there.
And even if they’re starting to see the writing on the wall with this current core, little can be done right now. Guys like Seabrook, Anisimov, etc. probably aren’t going to be interested in waiving their no-movement clauses in the middle of a season, even if it’s trending in the wrong direction. Everyone else is either a long-term asset or won’t be worth much on the trade market.
That’s not to say that deals are impossible, particularly smaller ones that don’t involve big contracts or top draft picks, but the Blackhawks have painted themselves into a corner. I think this is part of why the team has kept up its mantra of tempered patience in the current group: There was realistically no other plan for this season given their cap situation.
In the summer, everything can change. The team can sit down with players on NMCs and open a dialogue about whether there are places they’d approve deals to. Other teams are more willing to take risks on contracts in the summer when they’re flush with cap space and need to figure out the best ways to allocate it.
We’ll also have a better idea of where the Blackhawks’ first-round picks settles at that point. If the team indeed misses the playoffs and enters the draft lottery, it would currently have the ninth-best odds at No. 1 and a very good shot at a top-10 pick. Would the team consider using, say, the No. 8 pick to dump Seabrook’s contract? Those are conversations that we can’t really have right now, but in early June? Game on.
But for now, that won’t make many Blackhawks fans feel better. They’re already second-guessing whether Quenneville should return, and/or whether Bowman should even be the person to get this ship back on track. A few more months of this kind of hockey would only turn up the heat.
The Hawks’ season is going in the gutter despite all their efforts to prevent that. And while Quenneville can keep shaking up the lines and trying out new guys from Rockford, there’s probably not much more that can be done. These are the 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks and they’re ... not great.
So the plan seems obvious: Stay the course, track progress in the kids, and hope you can squeeze into the playoffs. The discussion around bigger changes likely waits until the offseason.