Why the Blackhawks’ championship window runs through 2019

It’s not over yet.

(Ed. Note: Hey everyone! So two things: (a) Welcome Dave Melton to the team, he’s our newest writer and will be with us going forward! (b) This is the first post in a little weeklong series we’re calling “Window Week.”

Basically, we got a bunch of stuff coming that looks at the Hawks’ championship window, how close it is to ending, and what the team can do to maximize it. With a big offseason looming, now seems like a good time to take tabs. - Satchel)

It’s been almost three weeks now since our beloved Blackhawks bowed out of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs after the franchise was swept for the first time since 1993.

The startling, abrupt ending following a regular season when the Hawks amassed the second-highest point total in franchise history led to a litany of eulogies proclaiming the death of the Hawks’ dynasty. While the rest of the NHL world was shoveling dirt on Chicago’s collective grave, large segments of the fan base spent the closing days of April demanding that the front office fire/trade everyone involved.

But the immense disappointment of the end of this season clouded common sense. Proclaiming the death of this era of Blackhawks hockey just seems wildly premature to me. Here’s why the championship window isn’t over yet, but the 2019 offseason could be a franchise crossroads.

They just had a great regular season.

The Chicago Blackhawks won 50 games and amassed 109 points, the second-highest point total in franchise history. I say again: the 2016-17 Chicago Blackhawks WON 50 GAMES and had 109 POINTS, the franchise’s SECOND-BEST SEASON OF ALL-TIME. Few people had the Hawks winning their own division, let alone the whole Western Conference, but they did that.

The stars are still producing.

Patrick Kane continued to be one of the league’s most dynamic offensive players, rattling off 34 goals and 89 points to back up his MVP season in 2015-16. His linemate, Artemi Panarin, silenced any notions of a sophomore slump by notching 31 goals and 74 points to follow up his breakout rookie season. Jonathan Toews had a second-half resurgence to finish with 58 points in 72 games, a better points-per-game average than his 2015-16 campaign. And don’t forget about Marian Hossa, who chipped in a 26-goal season at the age of 38 while lending more credence to the belief that he is, in fact, immortal.

And the youngsters shined as well.

Richard Panik scored 22 goals, which is about the same number of times the Hawks had traded the player (Jeremy Morin) they “lost” in the deal that acquired Panik. Nick Schmaltz, who turned 21 in February, returned from a midseason Rockford demotion to notch 24 points in his last 35 regular season games while seeing top-line minutes with Panik and Toews. Ryan Hartman showed the ability that made him a first-round pick in 2013, scoring 19 goals in his first full NHL season at the age of 22. And don’t forget about John Hayden, who didn’t look out of place when he joined the Hawks for 12 games at the end of year once his college career at Yale concluded.

On the blue line, Gustav Forsling got 38 games of NHL experience at the age of 20, and flashed enough potential to make you believe he’ll see more than that in the future. Michal Kempny had the best CF% on the team in his 50 games played. Both of those players should get even more ice time to relieve a D corps that does need to get younger.

There could be more help on the way.

Do yourself a favor. Look up the two players to win the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s most outstanding player prior to this season. Now look at their NHL stats. Now remind yourself that Hawks prospect Alex DeBrincat won this honor for the 2016-17 season. No, DeBrincat is not Connor McDavid. He may not be Mitch Marner, either. But comparing DeBrincat’s numbers (65 goals, 62 assists) to other OHL alum leads you to believe that he’s going to be on the Hawks next season and he could be a whole lotta fun.

But this run can’t last forever.

And much of the optimism I detailed above is dashed by the bane of the Hawks’ existence over the course of this run: the salary cap. Even if all the young players I listed above reach their full potential, the Hawks are still going to be crunched by the cap. And I see it reaching a terminal breaking point in two years.

Why the 2019 offseason could be the worst of the decade.

All of the big names on the team like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith are locked up well beyond 2019. But two crucial players will need new deals after that season ends and they’re going to cause the Hawks bigger headaches than just about any other cap crunch they’ve dealt with in the past.

That summer, Hjalmarsson will reach the end of his 6-year, $4.1 million AAV deal that remains one of the biggest bargains in the NHL. Also, Panarin will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2-year, $6 million AAV extension he signed earlier in 2017 comes to an end. Finding ways to get those two players back under contract, with all of the money that’s already committed, is going to be a nightmare for general manager Stan Bowman. He’s had obstacles in the past, but this mountain will be the tallest one to climb and, in my eyes, will be one too difficult to climb while still keeping the Hawks as legitimate threats to win the Cup.

But wait, there’s more!

Hjalmarsson and Panarin’s deals expiring that summer are the biggest reason why I have the 2019 season pegged as the breaking point for the Hawks’ salary cap woes, but they aren’t the only ones. Hartman will need a new deal after his entry-level contract expires following the 2017-18 season. Schmaltz and Forsling will see their ELC deals expire in the summer of 2019. Kempny is currently a restricted free agent and likely to garner more than the $700,000 he played for in 2016-17. Combining all of those smaller puzzle pieces with the massive pieces involving Hjalmarsson and Panarin makes it virtually impossible to assemble a Cup contender.

Father time is catching up, too.

You probably know most of this already, but the vaunted Hawks “core” is getting up there in age. Hossa is 38 and counting on him to play like he did last season is likely not realistic. Keith is 33 and Seabrook is 31, with the grueling minutes they’ve logged showing signs of wear-and-tear. Crawford is 32. Hjalmarsson will be 30 in a month. Toews and Kane are both 28. With the exceptions of Kane and Crawford, every other player mentioned above has shown signs of the regression that never fail to arrive for pro athletes. And in two seasons, that situation is only going to be made worse by the aforementioned nightmare scenario involving the salary cap.

But that’s something we can worry about in 2019.

It’s not over yet.