The end of the 2017-18 season saw Chicago miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade, make a top-ten pick for the first time since 2007 and many fans were wondering if the franchise was going to tear it all down. The Blackhawks management thought that it was just a fluke, and they vowed to return to the playoffs.
Unfortunately, that most likely won’t happen. The Blackhawks were off to a strong start, and then stumbled through the next part of their season, costing Coach Quenneville his job. Even the return of Corey Crawford, whom people believed could have saved the Blackhawks last season, wasn’t enough to stop their horrific play. Despite all that, Chicago has looked better as of late, but it still begs the question: What are they going to do for the rest of the year?
As of this morning, the Blackhawks only have a four percent chance to make the playoffs. Crawford is back on injured reserve with another concussion, and given how much time he missed with his previous injury, it might be for the rest of the season. The team is still getting most of their scoring from Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat, and the defense continues to give up a staggering number of shots, leaving Cam Ward and Colin Delia out to dry.
Management has a difficult decision ahead. Given that the Blackhawks have less than a five percent chance to make the playoffs, it might not be a bad idea to “embrace the tank” and aim for the number one draft pick. The overall consensus is that Jack Hughes is going to go first overall, and he would make an immediate impact in the National Hockey League. Could Chicago get the elusive number one pick?
Even if they don’t win the lottery, projections currently have Chicago placing in the top five. This draft is expected to be winger-heavy, something the Blackhawks don’t have much of in their system. With all the defensive prospects that Chicago has drafted over the past couple seasons, getting some offense would put this team back on track to success. But, they also have something that they haven’t had in some time: cap space.
As of right now, the Blackhawks are expected to have anywhere from $13 million to $15 million in cap space. That would be enough money to sign some good free agents. It would not the Artemi Panarin type, but players like Mark Stone, Jordan Eberle and Jeff Skinner would all be looked at. Should that happen, Chicago would have a solid top nine that offers some balanced scoring, something the Blackhawks don’t exactly have.
Signing two of those big names wouldn’t be all that Chicago does either. They’re expected to offer contracts to some of their upcoming defensive prospects, and some could even crack the everyday lineup. Ian Mitchell, Chad Krys and Nicolas Beaudin could all see contracts from the Blackhawks. In addition, Adam Boqvist has been doing very well with London, and the team could place him on the starting lineup next year. Considering that Henri Jokiharju made the jump to the NHL at age 19, Boqvist could make that same jump and give Chicago two future stars on their blue line.
As for my opinion, I believe the Blackhawks should tank the rest of the season. They should be giving all of their younger players extended looks. Despite limited action, Delia has looked like a legitimate NHL goalie, Jokiharju has been a revelation on the blue line and Erik Gustafsson has been a tremendous asset on the power play. Dylan Strome, acquired in the Nick Schmaltz deal, has been great. He’s been playing alongside Kane and providing a useful net-front presence. DeBrincat continues to shine in his sophomore season, and should be given some top-six minutes to really see what he can do.
These young players are fighting for spots next season, as the next wave of Chicago prospects will be knocking on the door soon. Make no mistake about it, even if this year is just as bad as last year, the losing won’t last much longer than that. They have a lot of young talent that want to prove their worth in the NHL. It could be as early as next season that has the Blackhawks back in the playoff conversation. Just stomach the rest of this season, as the tank battle rages on.