What will probably and hopefully be the strangest hockey season in our lifetimes is over for the Blackhawks after Tuesday night’s 4-3 loss to the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While Vegas advances to the next round, Chicago now moves on to another interesting offseason with an air of uncertainty prevailing in and around the Blackhawks organization.
The series only lasted five games, indicative of the massive depth advantage Vegas owned over Chicago. But the talent gap didn’t feel as massive, did it? The Golden Knights ability to roll four lines wore the Blackhawks down each night, but Chicago’s advantage in top-end talent was evident at times. Sure, the Blackhawks lost this series in five, but it didn’t feel as one-sided as the 2017 first-round sweep at the hands of the Predators, and Chicago was the No. 1 seed then.
It always felt like the Blackhawks were playing with house money once the NHL expanded its return-to-play format to 24 teams, extending a season that seemed destined to conclude without a a playoff appearance for the third straight season.
Beating the Oilers in four games in the qualifying round ended the drought: the Blackhawks were officially a playoff team again, even if the first-round matchup against the Golden Knights immediately seemed too steep to climb.
But making the playoffs was a step forward for a franchise that had been largely trending in the opposite direction for the last three seasons. And in those nine extra postseason games, there were some notable steps forward. Kirby Dach looks to be on track to be a permanent member of the top-six next season. Dominik Kubalik appears to be a legitimate NHL sniper. Alex DeBrincat struggled to find the scoresheet but still was a noticeable presence in Games 4 and 5. Connor Murphy looks like the kind of top-pairing defenseman Chicago can rely on in critical moments. There’s more to be mentioned, too.
It’s not an entirely rosy picture, though. With the Blackhawks finishing the regular season in the Central Division’s basement, plenty of room for improvement still exists. And the Blackhawks will have minimal cap space to seek help outside the organization.
There are a litany of questions about the 2020-21 Blackhawks, and part of that uncertainty includes what the next season is going to look like because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s a sample of the questions facing this franchise:
- Who will be the new team president and how will their philosophy impact the organization?
- Is Jeremy Colliton the right coach for this team?
- What are they going to do about Brent Seabrook’s contract?
- Who’s going to be the Blackhawks No. 1 goalie next season?
- What will contract terms be to re-sign Kubalik?
- What will a new contract look like for Dylan Strome and is he worth it?
- Can Adam Boqvist recover from some less-than-stellar playoff moments?
- What can the Blackhawks do to ensure Boqvist reaches his offensive potential?
- Can Dach continue taking steps forward in his development (and will he shoot the damn puck already)?
- How will Ian Mitchell fare in what’s expected to be his first NHL season?
- Can Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane continue producing at the same levels from the last few seasons?
- What about Duncan Keith?
- Are Olli Maatta and Zack Smith worth keeping around or should their contracts be bought out?
- Is Alex Nylander’s potential still worth a roster spot?
- Should Slater Koekkoek be brought back for another season?
- Is Drake Caggiula worth bring back?
- What is Andrew Shaw’s future?
- Can Calvin de Haan finally catch a “good” break and remain healthy?
- There’s a better option in the lineup than John Quenneville, right?
- Will DeBrincat return to the 30 or 40-goal range next season or is that slump indicative of a larger issue?
- Will Pius Suter be another European free agent signee hit or no?
It’s going to be complicated. It’s also going to be interesting. With the veterans not getting any younger, though, it’s going to be more and more urgent for the Blackhawks to make this current roster mesh if they want to squeeze one more Stanley Cup championship out of this era.
A quick thanks to everyone who clinked our links, read our stories, joined our comment sections, bantered with us on social media or interacted with the Second City Hockey staff in any way during the strange odyssey that was the 2019-20 NHL season. We appreciate all of your input and look forward to talking more Blackhawks hockey with you in the future. — Brandon, Dave and Shepard