In an era of a hard salary cap, it’s very difficult to sustain success for long stretches without inevitably going through a downswing.
Time will tell if that’s what the Blackhawks are currently experiencing, but as of right now, they’ll be missing out on the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
With a 5-1 loss to the Avalanche on Tuesday, the Blackhawks were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, marking the first time Chicago hasn’t played hockey beyond the regular season since 2008. (A time when top NHL prospect Rasmus Dahlin was seven years old, Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” was the No. 1 song in the country, and Barack Obama had yet to win his first term as president of the United States.)
In the time since, Chicago made nine consecutive trips to the playoffs, winning three Stanley Cups (2010, 2013 and 2015). The past two seasons, though, have featured first-round exits, including being swept by the eventual Western Conference champion Predators in 2017 in what very much felt like a changing-of-the-guard moment, when the Predators skated circles around the Blackhawks in a quick four games.
Where this all leaves Chicago now is a bit gray. They’ll be in the draft lottery for the first time in a decade, a few years after they were a perennial lottery team reaping the benefits of the young players it was stockpiling, the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Now, the challenge Chicago faces is how to balance the high contract figures of those stars, some of whom have not been performing commensurately with the dollar figures they’re paid, and assembling enough talent around them to be competitive.
Specifically, Toews ($10.5 million against the cap through 2023) and Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million against the cap through 2024) are handcuffing Chicago and putting a strain on their finances.
The Blackhawks faced other challenges this season that made another trip to the postseason — even if only to stubbornly keep the streak alive to set up another first-round exit — very difficult. The injury to goaltender Corey Crawford, whose long-term health is still a big question mark, was too much to overcome. When Crawford played his last game for Chicago on Dec. 23, the Blackhawks were in eighth place in the Western Conference, jockeying for position with a host of other teams but certainly still a horse in the race.
Since then, Chicago has the second-worst record in the West (13-23-4) and has plummeted down the standings. Crawford and his .934 5-on-5 save percentage may have been propping up Chicago and masking some of its deficiencies, but in prior years that job had been done by players like Kane or Toews. The roster is in need of fixing, but Crawford’s status is a central question that will need to be answered before general manager Stan Bowman and Co. can really dig their hands into the clay.
The Blackhawks didn’t get the production they were hoping for when they traded forward Artemi Panarin this offseason for a reunion with Brandon Saad. Panarin has excelled in Columbus, quietly on pace for this third consecutive 70-point season (and doing it without Kane!) while Saad just recently eclipsed the 30-point mark.
Saad’s play isn’t as bad as his numbers look (his 7.7 shooting percentage will be the lowest mark he’s ever posted in his career), but it was a move that, at least in Year 1, has not panned out.
The other rather large elephant in the room is what the Blackhawks will do with head coach Joel Quenneville. Rumors have swirled this season that his tenure behind the Blackhawks bench could be coming to an end, though it’s hard to pin much of what has happened this season on the coach, who at times kept the ship afloat despite some pretty major leaks he himself did not create.
Could the message be getting stale in this Quenneville’s 10th season behind Chicago’s bench? A more pertinent question would probably be, “Is there a better option out there?” Unless one of five coaches is unexpectedly relieved of his duties this offseason, the answer is unequivocally no. That still doesn’t always equal job security, and in a results-oriented business and a big market like Chicago, losing can lead to moves for the sake of making changes.
Where the Blackhawks go from here is a very interesting storyline to follow.
A powerhouse in the league for years, their fall would not only change the landscape in the NHL but probably inform future roster construction. The Blackhawks ponied up dollars to their big-name players and now it’s coming back to bite them. Will it serve as a cautionary tale for teams similarly in the midst of success who face similar contract dilemmas? (Looking at you, Washington Capitals and eight years, $46 million for 30-year-old-just-shot-a-career-high-23% T.J. Oshie.)
If this really is the fall of the Blackhawks, it will also give us an opportunity to put their dominance in context. The Chicago franchise was as close to a modern-day dynasty as we’ve seen until the current Penguins. Their success and ability to continuously retool on the fly despite trading away talent like Dustin Bfyuglien, Patrick Sharp, Andrew Ladd and others was the envy of 29 other fan bases around the league.
More recently, though, the cap-related moves have seemed to leave a bigger hole. In addition to Panarin, Chicago threw away Teuvo Teravainen in a deal to the Hurricanes to also rid themselves on Bryan Bickell’s contract. You can’t pay everyone, and the Blackhawks are a shining example of that.
You also can’t win forever. Can the Blackhawks bounce right back next season and start a new streak? Or is this really the beginning of a longer decline for one of the league’s most successful franchises since the turn of the century?