It’s a simple question. After losing 5-2 to the worst team in the Western Conference on Thursday night, the Chicago Blackhawks certainly looked like a team that was one of the worst the NHL has to offer.
But is that their true identity? Is this really a draft lottery team? Is this really a roster that looks like it is going to be in a battle just to crack the 70-point plateau?
I’m not sure. And I’m not going to pretend that I have a definitive answer one way or the other. My official response to that question is, “I don’t think so,” with a heavy emphasis on the word “think.”
For a little thought exercise, I wanted to jump across sports but stay in the same town for a comparison to these 2017-18 Blackhawks. Before I take off on that jaunt, there is an NHL comparison to be made: the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens, who lost their elite goaltender (Carey Price) around Thanksgiving and didn’t get him back for the rest of the season. Coming off a 110-point season that was just three shy of the President’s Trophy, that Montreal team finished with only 82 points and missed the playoffs. Montreal got Price back the following season and returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the 2016-17 season, although the performance by this season’s Canadiens isn’t going to make you feel any better: they’re currently trailing the Hawks in the league standings.
Back to the exercise. For the cross-sports comparison, this Blackhawks team reminds me of a Chicago team that played on the lakefront.
This Blackhawks team reminds of the 2011 Chicago Bears.
Stick with me now.
In the 16-game NFL season, that Bears team started off 2-3, but then ripped off five straight wins and stood at 7-3 with some cupcakes on its remaining schedule, seemingly assured at least a playoff spot. That roster was full of players who may have been past their primes but were still performing at high levels: a 30-year-old Charles Tillman, a 31-year-old Lance Briggs, a 31-year-old Julius Peppers and a 33-year-old Brian Urlacher.
Hmm ... an aging core that was still producing. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The offense had Matt Forte at running back and the soon-to-be-abandoned Devin Hester at wide receiver experiment and not much else. The quarterback was Jay Cutler, whom all Chicago sports fans remember and either absolutely love or completely despise without anyone occupying middle ground.
In the final game of that 7-3 start, Cutler went down with a broken thumb in the fourth quarter that knocked him out for the rest of the regular season, although the thought was that he’d be OK should the Bears make the playoffs.
But they didn’t make the playoffs, because the whole season went to hell with Cutler out. They lost to a mediocre Oakland Raiders team, and then a bad Kansas City Chiefs team because of a fluky Hail Mary just before halftime. Then they lost to Tim freakin’ Tebow in a game that causes me physical harm to recall (actually watched the ending at the United Center before a 3-2 Hawks overtime winner against the San Jose Sharks). Then they got blown out by the Seattle Seahawks and lost to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas. Five straight losses sealed that team’s fate, all without their No. 1 quarterback.
Now, Corey Crawford’s ability as a goalie barely belong in the same sentence as Cutler’s ability as a quarterback, because Crawford is one of the best goalies in the game. But there is an argument to be had for the most important position in team sports, it’s between quarterback and goaltender and that is it. Although Cutler was average-at-best that season, things just seemed to go wrong when he wasn’t playing during that five-game losing skid.
Take that theory and apply it to the Blackhawks now.
This team was in the middle of the playoff hunt when Crawford was healthy. It even hung on for about a month after he exited the active roster around Christmas. But, slowly, everything started going wrong, didn’t it? Pucks stopped finding their way into the net. Turnovers almost always seemed to result in prime scoring chances — and usually goals — the other way. And just when it seemed like the Hawks might get on a winning streak, whenever it felt like they might be turning it around, that’s when the one soft goal would happen. The one goal that you knew Crawford would’ve prevented.
To round out this story, Cutler came back the following season and the Bears went 10-5 in the 15 games he played, finishing with a 10-6 record but missing out on the playoffs because of tiebreakers. A 10-6 record translates to roughly 100 points in the 82-game NHL season, a virtual guarantee of a playoff position in a league that sends more teams to the postseason than the NFL.
So what does this all mean?
Going back to my original question: “Are the Blackhawks really this bad?” with the answer of, “I don’t think so.” I don’t think this Blackhawks team, with everyone healthy, is a lottery team. I think the absence of Crawford for a huge chunk of the season had a cascading effect down the entire roster. The games he missed, along with some season-long slumps by a few expected contributors (Hi, Brandon Saad) and what feels like some awful puck luck resulted in this perfect storm of misery that is the 2017-18 Blackhawks season.
Provided the roster returns at full strength next fall, I don’t think it’s going to be this bad again.