For sports fans, the results of games and seasons are viewed very much in the same way we perceive the rest of everyday life -- through the lens of expectation.
When you order a coffee you expect it hot; if it isn’t, you’re disappointed. That is, unless you expected it cold, in which case you aren’t. Sports fans love to make predictions, because in a sense, that’s what’s happening -- we’re shaping reasonable expectations for outcomes. There’s a reason you regularly hear coaches at the podium clamouring for the coveted title of “underdog” preceding a game or series. If you can convince everyone it’s your opponent who’s supposed to win, you’ve created a scenario where you either meet expectations or exceed them.
By putting out a letter to the fans explaining they’re “developing young players and rebuilding their roster,” the Chicago Blackhawks seem to be doing a big picture version of that. They’re probably smart to do so, too. If you squint, you could see fans believing that this is a team that just “made the playoffs,” and has young talent on the rise (namely Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist), and might be primed to start heading back up towards the summit.
Which they aren’t, at least not in the immediate future. And since I suspect they recognize that internally, again, it’s smart of the team to set the bar low here.
First I’ll go into where I think the Blackhawks are at, before looking at what’s actually important: what will that mean for their core of (now) four with Corey Crawford, and to a lesser degree Brandon Saad, having left town? Are they going to want to be with Chicago for some down years? …Are we even sure there are down years ahead?
What are the Blackhawks of the immediate future?
They are a team utterly devoid of established goaltending, who seems to be -- and this is just an outsider’s viewpoint on this -- saying “Either one of our goaltenders positively surprises us (which is always good in the big picture), or nobody does and we get a better draft pick for it.”
They’re going forward with Malcolm Subban (27 years old in December, 66 NHL games played with an .899 save percentage), Collin Delia (26 years old, three NHL games played, and a .912 in the AHL over three seasons), and Kevin Lankinen (25 years old, two NHL games, .909 in the AHL). Two of those guys will make up the Hawks battery when the NHL starts back up, with Delia looking like the most likely starter.
For context here, in the 2019-20 regular season the Blackhawks were dead last in shots-against-per-game, surrendering more than 35 per night. Their defence was not at all good, but was at least saved by having the NHL’s sixth best total save percentage between Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford (they had a combined .925 save percentage at 5-on-5, .913 at all strengths).
So, I’m gonna use technical jargon here, but try to stay with me: the above is what we in the business call “bad.” It has the potential to be really bad.
If you look at the goaltenders who were available this off-season -- and many of those who are still available -- you have to conclude that Blackhawks were led to my earlier assumption, that either it goes surprisingly good (yay) or unsurprisingly bad (yay for drafting) and either way they’re cool with it. That would read like a very intentionally tanking team.
Only, their other moves don’t really line up with that goal, likely because (or at least partially because) they have a pretty important core to keep happy.
They traded away Saad, which sure, they wanted to move out some salary. But if this is a rebuilding team, then you have to believe they’re aiming at a few years down the road as a Cup window (with a guy like Dach by then the 1C-proper, and Boqvist as the PP1 QB), which makes you wonder why they’d target Nikita Zadorov, a guy going into his seventh NHL season, as the return.
Regardless of what you think of Zadorov -- I think he’s fine enough, and will be in his age prime in Chicago -- it would seem he’s an odd fit for a team that could use picks and prospects to build toward an eventual next climb to the summit. He may still be fine enough whenever that climb is (not next year), but he’s certainly not a significant needle mover, which this team is going to need. At least picks and prospects have the hope of becoming that.
That brings me to the other big issue. The Hawks were one of the teams that helped shape my belief that it’s elite, top-end guys that drive championships.
Toews, Kane, and Keith are a part of cores going back some 15 straight years that boast an elite two or three players at the root of it all, generally a centre and top D-man. Are the Toews, Kane and Keith of the future going to be that again in 2022, 2023, or whenever you think the next realistic Cup shot is? The smart guess is no, meaning this is a team that needs to find a way to add a top-end guy or two, and I’m not sure they can do it with the types of moves they just made … because those moves will prevent them from bottoming out.
Lucas Wallmark will help them next year, he’s pretty damn smart and effective. Mattias Janmark will help them, too, as he’s a great defensive forward. Honestly, between their smart UFA additions this off-season, and their still-quality core guys, they’re just a little too good to be bad enough to get the type of Cup-driving core player I just referenced in the draft.
What I see here is a team being cast into the dregs of the mushy middle, something they’ve watched their division rival Minnesota Wild do for decades, floundering between kinda-better-than-average and kinda-worse-than-average, and never being good or bad enough to greatly affect the overall NHL landscape.
Will the core stick around to watch the once-mighty Blackhawks become the Wild of years past?
The core is made up of four individuals who all have different motivations and goals. (And yes, I’m aware of their no-move clauses, which in this conversation we’ll treat as binding as NHL teams do, which is to say barely at all.) Here’s what those motivations seem to be (and how they effect the likelihood of them asking out), as neatly as I can sum them up while just observing from the outside:
Jonathan Toews: Captain, three-time Cup winner, hyper-competitive and motivated. A Blackhawk-for-life type guy who says he wants to stay with no waffling. His pushback is against the idea of rebuilding at all, but I just don’t see him going anywhere, regardless.
Patrick Kane: You never hear that he wants out, or that the team wants him gone. He’s still a super-valuable player in the league, and his contract still looks pretty fair. I do wonder if at times he wouldn’t want to leave if the team is bad-bad in the years to come, but then you have to consider: to leave you suspect it would be to play for a Cup contender, and what Cup contender can take on an additional $10.5 million per-season salary? This is kind of a relevant note for the Toews section, too.
Duncan Keith: I think he’s the most likely one to go strictly because he’s 37, and two or three wasted seasons will be literally just that for him -- wasted good years -- in a career that seems logically closer to its end than beginning. Keith says he wants to play until he’s 45, but let’s not assume that’s likely given almost nobody gets that far. Still, if the Blackhawks are bad, I can see him being asked to waive his no-move at the deadline and if the situation fits, saying yes. Blackhawks beat writer Mark Lazerus has noted that Keith also has a son out west to whom he might have interest being nearer.
Brent Seabrook: Like it or lump it, his deal is nearly impossible to move or buyout. After recovering from multiple surgeries in an attempt to rediscover his game, the team must surely hope he can find it. At least they should, since he’s almost certainly going to be around.
What may have been the best-case scenario post-2015-Cup is already gone for Chicago.
That would’ve been hanging on to Artemi Panarin for one more year before losing him to free agency, leading to a proper rebuild starting in 2019 (as opposed to whatever it was that started in 2017, the “re-tooling”). Moving Panarin cut the realistic Cup window shorter than it could’ve been and started them on this march to where they are now: with little prospect of being a top-end team in the immediate future, while being too good to draft all that high.
There’s a funny thing about having won in the past with a franchise, in that you still have to protect the story of how the team pivoted out of those glory years. You don’t want to sully the memory of the good times by burning up relationships on the way out the door. It’s those obligations that will partially keep this team from doing anything overly drastic one way or another, and likely leads to a handful of seasons ahead wandering aimlessly, always looking to improve while also trying to draft high.
Brian Burke likes to say he believes teams should be trying to get better fast, or get worse fast, and I agree with that. Right now it’s tough to tell which the Blackhawks are definitively aiming for, but either way, they benefit from doing the one thing they did this week: set expectations low for fans, so they can either claim to have met, or exceeded them.