The Chicago Blackhawks were the team that everyone wanted to replicate during the early part of the 2010s. Three Stanley Cup championships in six years, five conference championship appearances in seven and a mainstay in the playoffs for eight years proved that. Unfortunately, everything must come to an end, and last season’s performance was proof of that.
However, the Blackhawks front office believes that this team can still compete in the playoffs, with the goal of winning another Stanley Cup. Yes, they still have Patrick Kane, a resurgent Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and young talent in Alex DeBrincat and Henri Jokiharju. However, the rest of the team is lagging behind, and even the front office optimism can’t mask the struggles of the team.
That leads one question for the front office to address: Is it time to fully rebuild the team, or continue along this path of just being a fringe competitor? As it stands right now, the Chicago Blackhawks are five points out of the second wild card spot. They would be further out if it wasn’t for Corey Crawford.
The Blackhawks have some young talent that surrounds their core players. DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz, Jokiharju and Gustav Forsling are the components that can provide a “core 2.0” so to speak. However, the rest of the team can’t exactly keep up with that. Outside of Brandon Saad, the team doesn’t have much depth scoring.
The defense, which has been written about countless times, is nothing short of a disaster. They have young players like Erik Gustafsson, who has proven to be a top-4 defenseman. However, trying to get players like Jan Rutta, Brandon Manning and Brandon Davidson playing time has cost the Blackhawks several games.
It’s not like the Blackhawks don’t have the cap space to improve it. According to Scott Powers of The Athletic, general manager Stan Bowman has a little over $4.5 million in cap space to work with. That money can definitely help the team on the blue line and get some consistency. Not to mention that after this year, or possibly earlier, Rutta and Davidson will be gone, which will add just around $3 million in cap space. That’s a lot of money that can be used towards the defense for next year.
The offense has been led by a resurgent Toews, Kane and Saad. DeBrincat has cooled off significantly after a hot start, but he can still shoot the puck at will. Unfortunately, that’s about it for the offense. Outside of those four, nobody else on the team has more than three goals or 11 points.
With Coach Q, the Blackhawks offense would be split up to have two top lines. Under Jeremy Colliton, he has loaded up the first line to have Toews, Kane and Saad on it, with DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz on the second line. It has the potential for a tremendous amount of offense, but the lines haven’t really been producing to their potential.
As with the defense, the Blackhawks will have some significant cap space to use to possibly balance these lines for the next couple years. Obviously, Blackhawks fans are familiar with Artemi Panarin, and his return would significantly help the offense. However, his return would probably cost at least $9 million per year. Bowman has already said that he wants to save some cap space to offer extensions to Schmaltz and DeBrincat. It can happen, but it would squeeze the budget a bit.
Not to mention that if the Blackhawks decide to fully rebuild, they can further stock their farm system, which is already in the top 15, according to Corey Pronman, also of The Athletic. The team has some young and quality defensemen coming through the system, as Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin could be with the team in the next 2-3 years. That would drastically overhaul the blue line and give Crawford, or another goalie, a chance. I wrote a while back on how the defense could look in a couple years, and the possibilities are just beginning.
The other quality aspect of going for a rebuild is the amount of high-quality forwards available in the 2019 draft. It’s something that the Blackhawks don’t have too many of. According to Pronman, his top ten in the organization under the age of 23 includes four players that are considered prospects for Chicago. However, none of them are close to the talent level that is in the 2019 draft. Adding a quality player, say like Jack Hughes, could immediately give the team some much needed depth.
My personal belief is that the Blackhawks shouldn’t tank, but they should stop trying to be a team they’re not. This team isn’t like the completely dominant 2013 team. They’re not like the battle-tested and amazingly resilient 2015 team. They’re not even close to the 2014 team that came within one overtime goal away from a back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearance.
They should continue to develop their younger blue line prospects, use the cap space to sign DeBrincat and Schmaltz to extensions, and pray that Kane and Toews continue to be the same players they are showing this year. This team is possibly two years away from a nice playoff run. It just takes time.