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CHICAGO, IL — The Chicago Blackhawks are, arguably, the team of the decade.
Three Stanley Cup championships.
Patrick Kane will lead the NHL in points during the decade and won the Hart and Ross Trophies in 2016. Duncan Keith won two Norris Trophies. Jonathan Toews won the Mark Messier Award and Selke Trophy. All three of them have a Conn Smythe on their Hall of Fame resumes.
Those three and Marian Hossa built Hall of Fame resumes in Chicago over the past 10 years. Corey Crawford has been terrific, as well, manning the crease for the Hawks in two of the three championships.
The sun appears to be fading on the golden age of Blackhawks hockey, however.
This season has been marked by impressive highs and remarkable lows, all connected by frustratingly inconsistent play and questionable roster decisions by Jeremy Colliton, the young head coach who was given the unenviable task of replacing future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville last year.
There are still glimpses of the possible, like Chicago’s overtime win in Boston on Dec. 5. In the middle of November there appeared to be hope. The roster was getting healthy and Chicago rattled off four straight wins against the Leafs, Knights, Preds and Sabres. The Hawks outscored those four opponents 21-10 during an impressive seven-day stretch of play.
Including the Boston win, the Blackhawks are 4-9-2 in 15 games since beating Buffalo on Nov. 17.
Injuries could certainly be used as an easy excuse. Keith and Andrew Shaw have missed extended time (Shaw is still out in concussion protocol) and Calvin de Haan re-injured the right shoulder that required surgery in the spring. Olli Maatta and Drake Cagguila have also missed time because of health issues.
But making – or rather accepting – excuses isn’t how this Blackhawks core has ever done business. Indeed, Chicago’s rival in St. Louis is not only the defending Stanley Cup Champions but they haven’t missed a beat despite being without Vladimir Tarasenko most of the season.
Chicago’s dysfunction may have (finally) hit a tipping point on Wednesday night.
With Keith coming back from a groin injury, Colliton opted to dress rookies Adam Boqvist and Dennis Gilbert and make veteran Brent Seabrook a healthy scratch against a Colorado team that has become emblematic of how the Central Division is passing the Blackhawks. Since Thanksgiving, the Blackhawks have lost three times to the Avs (including Wednesday) by a combined score of 16-6.
After the game, Keith let the media know how he felt about the team’s effort and Seabrook being a scratch. Keith was outspoken with his appreciation of Gilbert’s physical play in preseason action and noted that he liked what Boqvist brings to the table, but the tough reality is that Chicago simply doesn’t have enough seats at the table for all of the players they’re paying.
Colliton’s personality and approach are vastly different than Quenneville’s. Add to that the recent investigation into allegations against assistant Marc Crawford from his past that led to a suspension by the team and even the coaching staff has been a mess. The veteran players have not responded to Colliton’s approach, and Keith is not the first player to take issue with decisions openly.
Which brings us to the million-dollar questions: what is wrong with the Blackhawks? And who do we blame for the issues that have plagued them for three seasons?
The issues begin in the front office. Chicago’s prospect pipeline that once replenished a post-Cup exodus in 2010 into two more championships has dried up, and veteran additions haven’t worked out far too often.
Trading away talented young players has been a significant issue for Stan Bowman’s regime and has hurt the team’s ability to compete over the past three years.
Between 2015-19, the Blackhawks have had 39 draft picks. Only six have appeared in an NHL game, and two of those six are no longer with the organization.
Of the nine first-round picks the Blackhawks have used in the decade, only two – Boqvist and Kirby Dach, last summer’s third-overall selection – are still with the Blackhawks. Among the seven first rounders no longer with the Blackhawks, six players have been traded away for varying levels of return. Kevin Hayes, Chicago’s first-round pick in 2010, opted to sign elsewhere after his collegiate career ended.
The six first-round picks traded away: Mark McNeil, Phillip Danault, Teuvo Teravainen, Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz and Henri Jokiharju.
Danault has become a terrific contributor for Montreal, Teravainen is one of Carolina’s most dangerous forwards, Schmaltz is doing a nice job for a resurgent Arizona team and Jokiharju is averaging almost 17 minutes per night for the Sabres this season.
Amplifying the Blackhawks limited success in the draft and poor trades of prospects before they reach their potential has been Bowman’s obsession with lottery tickets and veteran bandaids.
Bowman loves to take chances on young players who haven’t reached their pre-draft ceiling. He did well with Dylan Strome (acquired for Schmaltz last year). But others, like Alex Nylander (acquired for Jokiharju earlier this year) haven’t worked.
To balance (and, in many cases, block) the young possibilities, Bowman has annually brought in veterans. Ryan Carpenter has been very good in his role with this year’s Blackhawks team, but others like Zack Smith have struggled to find consistency. Meanwhile, prospects like Dylan Sikura and Matthew Highmore spent parts of the first half in the AHL because the seats on the NHL roster are all full.
Which brings us to the ultimate issue in Chicago: cap management.
Bowman has done a good job of adding quality depth to the organization on the blueline in recent years. Boqvist and Gilbert are the first in a wave of prospects coming that should give Chicago the opportunity to turn over the roster on the back end.
Ian Mitchell, Alex Vlasic, Alec Regula, Nicolas Beaudin and Lucas Carlsson have all received solid reviews from scouts. Mitchell (U. of Denver) and Vlasic (Boston U.) are playing in the NCAA while Regula, acquired from Detroit this fall for Brendan Perlini, is skating with the London Knights.
The elephant in the room is if/when these young players will be able to join the NHL roster.
Keith and Seabrook have NMCs and are signed through 2022 and 2023, respectively. Maatta and Connor Murphy have two more years left on their contracts after the current season, as well. And both Boqvist and Gilbert are showing they belong in the NHL right now as rookies. The NHL roster is, in theory, full until the 2022-23 season.
Maybe Seattle can save the day and take a defenseman in the expansion draft?
The discussion comes back to the totality of the organization losing more than they’ve won over the past five years. They’ve lost the majority of the trades they’ve made, far too many draft picks have been a swing and a miss, and they have blocked the prospects who might be able to provide cost efficient skill to the roster with veteran acquisitions.
Fans in Chicago are calling for change. Replacing Colliton may be the superficial move many are pointing to as the easiest move to shake things up, and selling veterans to teams with postseason dreams may provide some opportunities down the road. But after two years without postseason hockey, the question now becomes whether or not Bowman is the man to pull the trigger on the changes when they happen.