What’s next for Blackhawks: Fire the coach? Trade key players?

The Hockey Central at Noon panel talks about the Blackhawks failing to make the playoffs and if it is time to start a rebuild in Chicago.

For the first time since 2008, the Chicago Blackhawks will not be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And even though we’ve seen this coming for weeks (or months), it’s still a weird thing to say about the salary cap-era dynasty.

So as the ‘Hawks play out the remainder of a season in which they look like a shadow of their former selves, questions are starting to be raised about how the team should approach the off-season. For years the ‘Hawks and general manager Stan Bowman have done a masterful job navigating the salary cap with a roster that had big contracts for its stars but still found ways to surround that core with useful players.

But as we’ve seen with other capped-out teams over the 12 years of this era, it always catches up to you. Eventually, the big-money players age and stop being worth it, while it gets harder to find value around them.

“They’re getting old, they’re getting slow and slow doesn’t go in the NHL these days,” said Marc Savard on Hockey Central at Noon Wednesday. “Seabrook is definitely one of those guys. They’re in a tough spot.”

Looking back on this season, Brent Seabrook is the poster boy for bad contracts on this team. He’ll turn 33 years old next month and will keep making $6.25 million against the cap for another six years. Though he’ll always have size on his side, his legs have noticeably gone. In a modern NHL game where teams focus on utilizing speed across all four lines, Seabrook is rapidly aging. His overall time on ice is a career-low 20:11, with the most obvious dip coming at even strength where Seabrook has averaged 15:50 per game, the sixth-most among ‘Hawks blue-liners.

Duncan Keith will be 35 at the start of next season, making $5.53 million until he’s 39 and coming off a season in which it took him until Feb. 15 to score his first goal. Up front, 29-year-old Patrick Kane is still a star talent worth $10.5 million to a contender, but captain Jonathan Toews (also making $10.5 million) is being looped in with the other aging players no longer worth their hefty hits … on the ice anyway.

“You hate to say it because he’s done so much for the Chicago Blackhawks, but is he a guy you put out on the market?” Savard asked. “Does someone give you a couple nice pieces to move forward? I don’t think you move Patrick Kane at all, he’s still got all it takes. But you definitely need to do something going forward and it starts with those two key cogs. Are they going to get you to where you want to be in the future?”

Years of deep playoff runs and big minutes appear to be taking their toll, though the biggest drag on Toews could be the wingers that have disappeared around him. Not enough can be said about the loss of Marian Hossa before the season and how irreplaceable he was alongside Toews.

In fact, Toews has 20 points in his past 24 games and picked up his production after Kane was put on a line with him. That may be a combination the team needs to move on with permanently and look to 22-year-old Nick Schmaltz as a line leader on the second unit. Schmaltz and rookie Alex DeBrincat are a couple of the bright spots in this miserable season that give hope a turnaround could come as quickly as next season.

Still, this Blackhawks predicament isn’t all on the players.

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Bowman made some bold, if controversial, trades around the draft last summer that sent out the likes of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin and brought back Connor Murphy and Brandon Saad, among other depth pieces. Saad has been only OK and a big downgrade on the offence Panarin contributed, while head coach Joel Quenneville never really wanted to lose the sturdy defence Hjalmarsson brought.

“As a coach, we’re in the short-term business, we’re thinking about now,” Quenneville told the Chicago Sun-Times last summer. “So we’re going to do everything we can to better ourselves right now, looking to win today. It’s not an easy thing to do in today’s business, when it’s hard to move players and it’s hard to find ways to manage the cap. At the same time, as a coach, my motivation is I want to be better and I want to try to win. But Stan’s motivation has a longer-term look to it.”

Quenneville, too, is now in the hot seat despite being the second-winningest coach in NHL history. On top of appearing to disagree with the deals Bowman did last summer, Quenneville was “not happy” with the GM’s decision to let go of long-time assistant Mike Kitchen. Quenneville and Kitchen were very familiar with each other, having worked together since 2010 in Chicago and in St. Louis before that.

It’s hard to believe someone of Quenneville’s status would be on the hot seat, especially considering that in a recent player poll conducted by the NHLPA, he was voted as the coach for whom most players would want to play. Even someone with that reputation can lose their impact on a dressing room after 10 years, though local columnist Mark Lazerus noted that isn’t really the case here.

“If Joel Quenneville wants to come back with the Chicago Blackhawks, he should be back,” Doug MacLean said on HC at Noon. “This guy should not be let go. If they fire him, c’mon. You’re asking for big time trouble.”

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The question to ask above all of this is whether or not the conversation is this intense had Corey Crawford stayed healthy. One of the best goalies in the game today was right in the thick of the Vezina Trophy race when he went down for the season with a suspected head injury. His replacements have faced as heavy a workload, but where the ‘Hawks were a top-five team in goals-against with Crawford, they fell to third-worst after he went down.

That is the key behind this downfall. Crawford covers a lot of the warts on this team, and had he stayed healthy a lot of these concerns would be muted. It’s not a bad thing that Chicago’s roster deficiencies are out in the open to be analyzed, but big and sweeping changes may not be necessary.

When the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs end, the ‘Hawks will have a total of three post-season wins across three seasons, which is two more than another recent powerhouse in Los Angeles gathered from 2015-2017. Those Kings largely kept their core intact, but did change the coach to adopt a quicker style. The two teams aren’t exactly identical and where they play could prove the biggest difference between the two.

The primary challenge to Chicago getting back on top might very well be the Central Division. A year after sweeping the ‘Hawks from Round 1, the Nashville Predators are Stanley Cup favourites. The Winnipeg Jets, after years of waiting, have arrived as the top Canadian contenders with a young roster. The Minnesota Wild are a top-three Western team since Jan. 1 and the Colorado Avalanche are led by the Hart Trophy favourite and have an exciting collection of prospects who have arrived, or are nearly there. Dallas, under Ken Hitchcock, will be aiming high as long as he’s there.

“Bowman did a masterful job keeping them as competitive as he has and Joel has done a masterful job keeping them as competitive,” MacLean said, “…it just catches up to you.”

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