A playoff exit always comes with questions, but the normal barrage of whys and hows will always increase after such a swift playoff exit.
That’s why there are bound to be some among the Blackhawks’ faithful who are in hysterics Friday after watching Chicago get booted from Stanley Cup contention before their run could even really get started. Four games, four losses and three goals all series by a sputtering offense that seemingly couldn’t find a spark standing next to a campfire. It will leave some talking about the potential removal of coach Joel Quenneville, others questioning whether the core needs to broken up and, for some, consistent calls for Corey Crawford to be moved out, as if he was the problem over the past four games.
But those panicking about the current state of their beloved Blackhawks should take a deep breath, take a step back and give GM Stan Bowman and the rest of the organization some credit.
The fact right now is that Nashville played Chicago to perfection. The Predators smothered the Blackhawks at every turn, clogging up the neutral zone, choking the offensive life out of the Western Conference and Central Division leaders to the extent that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Marian Hossa. Matter of fact, the whole Blackhawks roster were equalled or surpassed in points by Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne. And the truth is it quite possibly could have been seen coming.
We’ve outlined it here before, but the Predators were better than their season series record against the Blackhawks would suggest. They played incredibly well in almost every outing, simply losing to a star-laden Chicago team that managed to get some breaks and find cracks in the Nashville defense. And it could also be argued it was the Predators, not the Blackhawks, who entered the series with the deeper roster. Defensively, that was certainly the case, and while the Blackhawks’ brightest stars may outshine the Predators’ group on a one-to-one level, the likes of Filip Forsberg, Vitkor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and James Neal are stellar scorers in their own right. There’s no doubting that, especially not after their performance in the opening round.
That doesn’t mean Chicago needs to go out and blow this whole thing up, though, and it’s not like the Blackhawks haven’t been in this situation before.
In 2009-10, Chicago snapped a 49-year Stanley Cup drought thanks to a dominant and deep team. It signalled the start of what some now refer to as the franchise’s three Cup dynasty. What seems to be forgotten in the aftermath of the Blackhawks winning two more Stanley Cups, though, is that in the two campaigns following the drought-snapping title, Chicago won exactly zero playoff rounds. Better yet, it’s forgotten that in 2010-11, the Blackhawks nearly missed the playoffs altogether, squeaking in by a mere two-point margin over the Dallas Stars.
That season, the Blackhawks lost in seven games to the Vancouver Canucks. The following year, Chicago was gone from the post-season in six games, this time at the hands of Mike Smith and the Phoenix Coyotes.
So, what happened the year after that? Chicago won their second Stanley Cup.
We can pump the brakes on talking about the Blackhawks coming back and winning it all in 2017-18, but the truth is that two-straight first-round playoff losses doesn’t mean Chicago’s window is shut. It doesn’t even really mean that it’s started closing. And that’s why despite Friday’s result and the shocking way in which the Blackhawks were sent packing, there’s no reason to panic about the state of affairs in Chicago.
When the trade deadline rolled around, we wrote about the Blackhawks, saying Bowman and Co. didn’t need to spend much time concerning themselves with ensuring they win now. Chicago’s GM still made moves, though, acquiring Tomas Jurco and Johnny Oduya to help the big club, shipping out Mark McNeill and third- and fourth-round picks in the process. The most important choice Bowman made at the deadline, though, was deciding not to mortgage this team’s future in order to bulk up big time at the deadline. It’s because of that Chicago needs not worry too much about their organizational health going forward.
What helped the Blackhawks get back into contention after the two first-round exits post the 2009-10 Stanley Cup win was the emergence of young, cheaper talent that could provide the boost that was so sorely needed in a salary cap world. Players such as Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy developed into every-game NHL talents who could contribute in their own way, and it’s not as if Chicago is without a current crop of prospects and burgeoning talent with the chance to step up in a similar way.
In fact, a number of Blackhawks youngsters ended up making a much greater impression that it was believed they would when the year began. Ryan Hartman, for example, started as and remained a bottom-six winger for the duration of the campaign, but the 22-year-old also pumped home 19 goals and 31 points. At times throughout the season, each of Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza and Tyler Motte — 24, 23 and 22, respectively — impressed. And the crown jewel might have been the increased responsibility and performance of Nick Schmaltz as the season wore on.
Schmaltz, 21, was sent down early in the campaign after he, quite frankly, underwhelmed, but upon returning to Chicago in mid-January, Schmaltz was a different player. He was promoted slowly but surely from the bottom six to a spot alongside Toews and Richard Panik, and over the final three months of the campaign, only four players scored more than Schmaltz, who had five goals and 24 points. It’s not just Schmaltz who could be on the rise as an offensive weapon, either.
While there’s no knowing how his game will translate to the NHL, Alex DeBrincat has shown that he’s no flash in the pan offensively in the OHL — two 50-goal years gave way to a 65-goal performance in 63 games this past season and DeBrincat has 167 goals and 332 points over his 191-game major junior career. And though he’s not heading to Chicago this coming season thanks in large part to the league’s Olympic decision, intriguing KHL scorer Maxim Shalunov could be headed to the Blackhawks by 2018-19 if all goes well.
Help is coming defensively, too. Gustav Forsling looked at times like an NHL-ready puck mover in his 38 games with the Blackhawks this season and there’s promise in Erik Gustafsson, Ville Pokka, Chad Krys, Lucas Carlsson and Luc Snuggerud.
The core, at least the major fixtures of it, should remain consistent. Toews, Kane, Panarin and Hossa aren’t going anywhere in a hurry, nor is Duncan Keith. That’s not to mention the Blackhawks would be downright foolish to rid themselves of Crawford, who has been remarkable over the past few seasons. But what will need to happen around that group is another refresh of talent, the beginning of which can already be seen.
Nothing is going to change that Chicago was swept out of the post-season by Nashville and hastily making roster moves as a result of a staggering defeat isn’t going to fix anything. The best thing the Blackhawks can do now is stay the course. It worked in the past and brought two more Stanley Cups to the Windy City, and there’s no reason why rekindling the current roster with some talented youth can’t put the Blackhawks back into contention once again.
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