Brent Seabrook

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With aging, expensive core Blackhawks’ window is closing fast

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For the seven year stretch between 2008-09 and 2014-15 there was not a more successful team in the NHL than the Chicago Blackhawks. They played in the Western Conference Finals five times and won three Stanley Cups. They did it with a remarkably strong core of top-tier players that were all in the prime of their careers and that they were able to keep together at all costs, even if it meant gutting their depth when they were pushed to the limits of the league’s salary cap.

Because they always seemed to have a pipeline of talent coming through the organization they always seemed to be able to replenish that depth and continue to compete for Stanley Cups.

Until recently.

Despite a lot of regular season success the Blackhawks have not won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2014-15, and more than a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season find themselves sitting on the playoff bubble in real danger of actually missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They are not the dominant possession team they used to be, they have gone from being one of the best shot suppression teams in the league to one of the worst, and they don’t boast anywhere near the overall scoring depth they used to have.

Missing the playoffs at this point is legitimate concern, and combined with back-to-back first-round exits in the playoffs it’s worth wondering if the Blackhawks’ championship window with its current core is starting to come to a close.

If it hasn’t already closed completely.

The popular consensus with teams like the Blackhawks is that it is just too hard to compete when a team invests a significant chunk of money into a small number of players. This is ot a new thing for the Blackhawks, and it is not a new thing for Stanley Cup winning teams. I have beaten this drum for years when it comes to the salary cap and the Stanley Cup but every team that wins puts the majority of its allotted salary cap space into a small number of players. You need superstars to win, superstars cost money. The Blackhawks, even when they were winning, were always pressed against the salary cap and always had to make cuts elsewhere on the roster.

The same has been true for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings, the other two teams that have been most successful in the league’s salary cap era.

As long as those players are at the top of their game and among the game’s elite, the money is literally no factor. You can find another third-line center. You can rebuild your fourth line. You can’t find another peak Jonathan Toews or Duncan Keith or Sidney Crosby or Anze Kopitar, and you can not win without players like them.

The problem the Blackhawks are running into is the players they have committed to are starting to get old and are no longer at their peak.

And it is happening fast.

The Blackhawks have seven players signed through the 2020-21 season. Those seven players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy) already account for more than $50 million in salary cap space for each of the next four seasons. Add in Corey Crawford‘s contract over the next three and that’s more than $56 million to eight players.

Again, as long as those players are in their prime and producing among the league’s elite, that is not a big deal.

The problem is they no longer are, and that is not likely to reverse itself.

First, just for comparisons sake, let’s look at the past 10 Stanley Cup champions, a list that is made up primarily of the aforementioned three franchises. What this table shows is each team’s salary cap commitment to its top-seven players, what percentage of the league’s salary cap that commitment is, as well as the average age of those players.

The important thing to keep in mind here as it relates to the Blackhawks is the age category.

Other than the 2007-08 Red Wings, the overwhelming majority of them had their top players all between the ages of 27 and 28.

How are the Blackhawks looking this season? They have 66 percent their salary cap space going to their top-seven players.

The average age of those players this season: 30.

All of those players are signed for at least three more seasons, while six of them (Kane, Toews, Anisimov, Saad, Seabrook and Keith) are signed for at least another four. Four of them (Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Keith) are signed through at least 2023.

(Keep in mind, none of this includes Marian Hossa‘s contract that is still on the books through 2021 as well.)

At this point we obviously don’t know what exactly the NHL salary cap will look like in future seasons, but let’s just try to ballpark and assume it increases at a rate comparable to the past four seasons (about a $2 million increase per season). Here is what the Blackhawks could be looking at over the next four years.

Their cap commitments to their top-seven players are either higher, or at the same level as the highest cap commitments of any Stanley Cup winner over the past decade, while their average age is significantly higher than just about all of them with the exception of a Red Wings team from a decade ago.

The problem here, again, is the age and what the current players are going to be capable of in the future because a lot of them are already starting to slow down.

How good is a 31 or 32 year old Artem Anisimov going to be? Brent Seabrook, currently in his age 32 season, is already a shell of his former self and he is signed for nearly $7 million per season until he turns 38. Duncan Keith is still an outstanding defender, but he is already in his age 34 season and is signed for more than $5 million per season until he turns 39. Father time is undefeated and will eventually claim victory over Keith.

I realize it is sacrilegious to say anything about Jonathan Toews that is anything other than effusive praise but he will count more than $10 million against the salary cap through the end of the 2023 season. His offense has already started to decline, and since the start of the 2015-16 season is 44th in the NHL in scoring and is currently on pace for what could be — by a significant margin — his worst offensive season in the NHL. Is that offensive trend going to reverse as he crosses into his 30s? Is there any amount of defensive ability from a forward that justifies a $10 million salary for a good, but very far from elite offensive player?

These are the issues facing the Blackhawks moving forward.

So how can they fix it?

First, it would be a huge boost if a player like Alex DeBrincat becomes the superstar it looks like he has the potential to be.

Getting an impact player like him — especially over the next few years when the salary cap situation is what it is — at an entry level price would be a game-changing development.

They also need a player like Kane to maintain his current level of production because he remains the one player that can drive the offense. If his production starts to decline things could really start to fly off the rails. He is probably not going to be a 100-point player again like he was a couple of years ago when he won the scoring title, but if he falls too far below the point-per-game pace he has been at the past two years there is really nobody else on the roster (other than potentially DeBrincat) that can be a go-to player offensively.

It would also help to shed one of those mega contracts one way or another.

This is going to be easier said than done for a number of reasons.

Not only do the Blackhawks seem to have a ton of loyalty to the core players they won with (look no further than trading Artemi Panarin to bring back Brandon Saad; the various reunions with Brian Campbell and Patrick Sharp over the years) but it is going to be awfully difficult to find a team that not only wants to take on a contract like, say, Brent Seabrooks, but to also find a team that a player like Seabrook would be willing to accept a trade to.

In terms of on-ice success the past decade has been one of the best in the history of the Blackhawks’ organization.

They kept the players they needed to keep to make that happen and you can not really blame them for doing so, even if it meant creating a salary cap mess right now. But it seems as if that group has finally hit its wall.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Corey Crawford has become Chicago’s most important player

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The big news out of the Chicago Blackhawks this past week was the announcement that starting goaltender Corey Crawford has been placed on injured reserve, and that there is currently no timeline for his return to the lineup.

If he has to miss an extended period of time it could be a damaging blow to a team at a position where it really can not afford one. If there is one player this Blackhawks team can least afford to lose, Crawford is probably the one.

Prior to his injury Crawford had been having an outstanding season for the Blackhawks and owned a .930 save percentage that is fifth best in the league. That performance has been huge for a Blackhawks team that has its share of flaws, especially when it comes to its defense.

The Blackhawks are allowing 34 shots on goal per game this season, the third highest total in the league and it continues a trend from recent seasons that has seen the team go from being one of the absolute best shot suppression teams in the league to one of the absolute worst. Typically, that has not been a great recipe for success in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins showed last season that it is possible to win giving up that sort of shot volume, but onlly if a team has scoring depth and great goaltending to cover it up.

With Crawford in net the Blackhawks have been getting great goaltending. That has allowed them to stay in the top-five in goals against despite bleeding shots and shot attempts against.

So just how much has Crawford been saving the Blackhawks this season?

The difference between a .914 save percentage (which would still be above the league average this season) and the .930 mark on the same number of shots that Crawford has faced so far this season would have been an additional 10 goals against at this point. That may not seem like a lot right now, but that is only through 20 games. Those goals against quickly add up, and given a normal workload (think 60 games) that could be an additional 30 goals against over the course of a season.

That is a lot, and it could swing a season for a team that is currently sitting on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference.

What really hurts the Blackhawks this season is they don’t really have a proven backup that can step up in Crawford’s absence. At least not one that we know of yet. In recent years Scott Darling had proven to be one of the top backup goaltenders in the NHL and was more than capable of filling in for Crawford when he was injured or just simply needed a break or hit a slump. But Darling was traded over the summer to the Carolina Hurricanes to become their starter, turning the backup job over to Anton Forsberg.

In just six appearances this season Forsberg has already allowed 18 goals on just 187 shots and has managed only an .889 save percentage in his career.

The Blackhawks have won just one of his five starts so far this season.

Fortunately for the Blackhawks they don’t expect Crawford’s injury to be anything long-term.

They better hope that turns out to be the case.

When the Blackhawks were at the height of their power between 2010 and 2013 the rest of the team was so stacked that they didn’t really need elite goaltending to win.

Antti Niemi was solid in 2010, but not irreplaceable. That was proven the following offseason when they walked away from his arbitration ruling and allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent (they decided re-signing Niklas Hjalmarsson was far more vital to their success).

The same was mostly true for Crawford during their 2013 championship run. They had four dominant scoring lines and a defense that had four horses all in the prime of their careers that could shut down any offense. But the salary cap has ripped apart a lot of that forward depth while the defense is not what it used to be.

Players like Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell are gone, Brent Seabrook is a shell of his former self, and the rest of the unit outside of Duncan Keith is mostly a patchwork group of young players still finding their way and veterans signed on the cheap.

They still have forwards up front that can score, but their ability to prevent goals has shifted from having dominant defense to a huge reliance on their goaltender.

For years Crawford was the forgotten player among Chicago’s core, constantly getting overlooked behind Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Keith and Seabrook.

Now he might be the most important part of it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Fantasy adds & drops: Dustin Brown is slowing down

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Every week, PHT will provide its readers with some fantasy hockey advice. This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through your league’s waiver wire by recommending players that are owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues.

We’ll also look at players owned in most leagues that can safely be dropped.

Adds:

• Here’s your weekly reminder that Mathew Barzal (41 percent) and Mikko Rantanen (42 percent) need to be added off the waiver wire. After last week’s article, Brock Boeser‘s fantasy ownership jumped to 68 percent. It’s now time for these two players to be picked up.

• Blues forward Alex Steen (46 percent) has missed time due to injury, but he’s been relatively productive of late. He has six points in his last six games, and he’s eligible to play all three forward positions in Yahoo! leagues. Steen is a solid add in deeper leagues.

• It’s not often that you’ll find an Arizona Coyote on this list, but here we are. Even though he hasn’t scored in five games, Derek Stepan (28 percent) is riding a six-game point streak. He’s a decent short-term add in most leagues. Don’t expect him to produce at a high clip all season though.

[More Fantasy: Check out RotoWorld’s PP Report]

• With Marc-Andre Fleury still sidelined by a concussion, the Golden Knights will clearly be rolling with Malcolm Subban (34 percent) now that he’s healthy. Solid fantasy goaltenders aren’t easy to come by, and if Vegas keeps winning that’s exactly what Subban will be.

• Don’t look now, but Artemi Anisimov (28 percent) is on pace to score close to 40 goals this season (I’m not suggesting that’s going to happen though). Still, the fact that he’s playing with Patrick Kane should help boost his fantasy value.

• After missing most of last season because of a hip issue, Tyler Myers (19 percent) has bounced back nicely for the Winnipeg. He had just one point in his first nine games, but he’s now on pace to score over 10 goals and 40 points.

[Fantasy Podcast: RotoWorld hands out quarter mark awards]

Drops:

• Kings forward Dustin Brown was one of the pleasant surprises early on. It would’ve been nice to see him continue producing as much as he did early on, but it just wasn’t realistic. It might still be a little too early to drop him, but just start thinking about it. He has one goal in his last seven games and two points in his last six.

• Scoring defensemen are hard to come by, but you can definitely find someone more productive than Brent Seabrook (65 percent), who has two assists in his last 13 games. It’s time to drop Seabrook for Myers.

• Another weekly reminder: If you’re still carrying Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic in non-penalty leagues, you’re doing it all wrong (yes, I know Lucic has four points in five games).

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Blackhawks tweaks include putting DeBrincat with Toews

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Even in October, it’s tough to deny just how long an 82-game NHL season can be. (Especially when you check back in January.)

Sometimes you need to shake things up, and that’s especially true when the results aren’t coming. The Chicago Blackhawks’ offense has been a little hit-or-miss lately, so as NBC Sports Chicago’s Tracey Myers and others report, Joel Quenneville is getting out the fabled line blender.

As you can see from this eye-friendly set of lines via Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times, this marks an interesting opportunity for Alex DeBrincat, while Ryan Hartman gets bumped down to the fourth line:

(The defense is also seeing tweaks, as Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith won’t be attached at the hip for a while. Keith looks primed to roll with Jan Rutta while Seabrook’s partner is Gustav Forsling.)

It’s also intriguing that, despite having some success with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad, Richard Panik gets a look with Patrick Kane. But it’s especially fascinating to ponder how pint-sized wonder DeBrincat could fare with Toews and Saad.

If talk of line blenders didn’t make it clear enough, it’s unclear how long this might last.

“We’re just looking for some change, some excitement,” Quenneville said, according to Lazerus.

Fantasy hockey types might cringe after hopping on the Hartman bandwagon. The 23-year-old has nine points in 10 games, although half of those points came when the Blackhawks rampaged against the Pittsburgh Penguins to start the season with a 10-1 win. Hartman hasn’t generated a point in three straight games and only has a goal in his past five.

DeBrincat has been awfully quiet in his own right, too, as he adjusts to the NHL game. So we’ll see if these changes stick for a while; even if they do, these forwards probably shouldn’t rely too much on a specific combination, although coaches do tend to prefer at least keeping certain pairings together these days.

The Blackhawks host the Predators on Friday and face the Avalanche in Colorado on Saturday, so getting a little burst from these tweaks could be helpful during a back-to-back set.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coach Q after Blackhawks loss: ‘One play cost us the whole game’

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Thursday night was rough on Brent Seabrook and frustrating for the Chicago Blackhawks as a whole, as they dropped a 5-2 loss to a Minnesota Wild team that was hobbling and still may be hobbling through the weekend.

The worst moment came when Chris Stewart beat Seabrook on an odd-looking semi-breakaway that survived an offside challenge from an, um, none-too-pleased Joel Quenneville.

You can check out that Stewart goal above, which survived the challenge to Coach Q’s chagrin. Here’s an explanation from the NHL:

Watch Coach Q in the press conference below, as he becomes increasingly uncomfortable answering questions about the “one play that changed the game.” (NBC Sports Chicago’s Tracey Myers goes into more detail on the call here.)

This is the latest example of a failed challenge biting a team, as doing so garners a delay of game penalty as part of the NHL’s drive to cut down on more minute offside challenges.

If that wasn’t enough for Seabrook, he also suffered something of a blooper reel moment, as he was sent flipping into the bench thanks to Marcus Foligno:

Ouch. It wouldn’t be surprising if, even with that, Seabrook ended the night in a better mood than Quenneville.

Perhaps some of the frustration stems from the Blackhawks failing to take advantage of a Wild team that is really going to have to grind through some injury headaches. As The Athletic’s Michael Russo notes, things might not get better for a while.

Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle may join an increasingly troubling injury list for Minnesota.

You can understand why Bruce Boudreau heaped such praise on his team.

One coach’s gutsy effort is another coach’s, well, (insert angry gibberish.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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