Let’s address the elephant in the room first: the Blackhawks entire organization remains under the cloud of the sexual assault allegations from 2010 that are the subject of multiple lawsuits and an ongoing internal investigation. That story isn’t going away, mainly because of almost daily updates from TSN reporter Rick Westhead. Nor should it go away. Once that internal investigation is completed, all details need to be made public. Anything less will be another mishandling of a situation that’s been woefully mismanaged by this organization from the beginning.
Now, shifting to matters on the ice ...
It feels like the Blackhawks have completely shifted the trajectory and the expectations of the team in the last few weeks, doesn’t it? Last October, the team released a public letter to fans, stating that they were embarking on a more long-term approach to things — even if they’d been doing that for a few seasons already without publicly acknowledgment. It remains the opinion of this writer that it can’t be called a full rebuild if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were still around — and they are. But that letter suggested Chicago’s youngest players would be the center of attention going forward.
Call it whatever you want: rebuild, retool, reload, etc. Just be sure to reference it in the past tense now, because it’s over.
Teams going down that road don’t:
- trade away a 20-year-old defenseman who was a top-ten pick just a few years ago
- trade for the reigning Vezina Trophy winner who’s now in his late 30s
- sign a 27-year-old defenseman when there are a slew of young blue-liners on the verge of earning full-time NHL roles.
No, this team now appears to be much more focused on winning games in the short-term.
Contending for a Stanley Cup is remains at least a season or two away, and even that may be optimistic, especially with the Blackhawks returning to a Central Division for the 2021-22 season loaded with teams that have much more legitimate title aspirations. But the Blackhawks’ approach to this offseason suggests that they want to be in that mix as well. Whether or not they’ll actually be a factor is something we can yell at each other about for the next two months.
But I’d also argue that this team needed a swift kick in the ass just like this. That was even one of the first postseason reflections shared at this site after the pandemic-shortened 2021 regular season ended. They needed to do something different or this rebuild/retool/whatever was going to drag on in perpetuity while the rest of the league moved on, leaving the Blackhawks in the dust and clutching a trio of Stanley Cup championships that are barely visible in the rearview mirror anymore. We can argue about the execution of this new approach — and there’s plenty worthy of skepticism — but the idea feels right.
On paper, the Blackhawks are a better team now than they were a few weeks ago. Seth Jones may not live up to his massive salary, but he’s still a legitimate NHL defenseman. Marc-Andre Fleury — if he plays — remains one of the game’s top goalies. Jake McCabe looks like a sneaky good addition on the blue line. Add those to a roster that includes established NHLers like Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik, Connor Murphy, and the Blackhawks start to look more and more like a team that should be in the playoff hunt come 2022.
As for the younger players who are still around — Phillip Kurashev, Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin, Wyatt Kalynuk and more — it’s time to see whether or not they can earn NHL spots in what’s now a very crowded locker room at nearly every position. Growing pains can still be tolerated to a degree, but they need to take steps forward or risk being left behind for good. There’s also 2020 first-round pick Lukas Reichel, who could factor into lineup projections during training camp.
Perhaps no one is under more pressure now than head coach Jeremy Colliton, who’s up to 193 games behind the bench. There’s been endless debate in every corner of the Blackhawks fan base regarding his contributions to the team and positive reviews aren’t easy to find. He can silence those critics by meshing this new roster into a winning team — something he’s yet to do in his young coaching career. If he doesn’t, the calls for his removal will only get louder.
There’s one word that keeps coming up when thinking about the next Blackhawks’ season, a word that Mil used on our most recent Musings on Madison podcast and one that I couldn’t agree with more: interesting. The Blackhawks are an interesting team again. With so many new faces and new possibilities, it’s going to be interesting to see how the next hockey season unfolds.
And, as we enter the doldrums of the hockey offseason now, interesting is something that can sustain me until the puck drops on a new season in a few months.