Marian Hossa

Getty

Price of success finally catching up to Blackhawks

30 Comments

The Chicago Blackhawks have made the playoffs in each of the last nine seasons, but that streak looks like it’s in some trouble.

After last night’s 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, the ‘Hawks find themselves eight points behind Minnesota for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Both teams have played 54 games.

If you’re rooting for them to make the playoffs, you’ll likely be disappointed by what general manager Stan Bowman said yesterday.

“I don’t expect us to be a buyer this year,” Bowman said, per The Athletic’s Scott Powers. “It has nothing to do with where we are in the standings. It’s just that each season is a little bit different. Your team is different.

“I think the strength of our team is we’re trying to build some young players we’re going to have. We have a lot of new players this year relative to last year. I think it’s hard when you bring in 11, 12 new players every year.”

The price of success

Obviously, Bowman has a point. Being successful in today’s NHL comes at a price. Eventually, your best players have to get paid. And since you can’t pay everybody, you’re bound to lose players either via trade or in free agency.

Last summer, for example, they were forced to trade Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa had to stop playing because of an allergy and Scott Darling‘s rights were dealt to Carolina. Those are three pretty signifiant pieces of the puzzle to lose in one offseason.

On top of losing those players, the Blackhawks have also been without starting goalie Corey Crawford for a good chunk of the year (having Darling would’ve helped). They’ve watched as “new” acquisitions like Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad have struggled and to make matters worse, long-time ‘Hawks Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith don’t appear to be as effective as they once were.

Thankfully for them, they have young players that have made progress in 2017-18. Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz lead the way in that department. Both players have have shown that they have a bright future ahead of them. The problem is that Chicago doesn’t have a ton of young assets to work with. That’s another down side to winning, you draft late and you have to work harder to find quality prospects.

Heading into this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Bowman is already without his second and fourth round draft picks, but he does have two selections in round five. So using picks to help improve the roster right now shouldn’t be an option.

Fixing the cap situation

Bowman shouldn’t be in a hurry to offload big names either, but if Chicago is going to turn this thing around quickly they’ll have to get their salary cap situation in order, which won’t be easy considering Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Saad and Patrick Kane combine to make almost $39.5 million per season. All five of them are also signed for at least three more years.

We’ve heard that scoring wingers like Rick Nash, Evander Kane, Max Pacioretty and Mike Hoffman are all available, but it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Hawks are willing to unload Saad after a mediocre season. They could certainly use the $6 million in cap space, but getting rid of him when his value is at its lowest probably isn’t a great idea, either.

It would be surprising to see them try to unload Keith and/or Toews, so that’s likely not an option and there’s no way they’re moving Kane. The biggest challenge will be to find a way for someone to take Seabrook off their hands. If they could get rid of his $6.875 million cap hit (signed through 2023-24), that would change the game. Unfortunately for them, his play and no-move clause make that nearly impossible.Bowman will have to continue being creative with the bottom of his roster, if he’s going to help his team make it back to the postseason soon.

It’s clear that the roster isn’t in good shape, but it’s important to remember that this core won three Stanley Cups together. But a lot of teams would sign up for a few years of salary cap hell if it meant taking home three championships.

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.

Connor McDavid may author one of NHL’s best wasted seasons

Getty

Considering the fact that he plays for the Edmonton Oilers, it’s probably most tempting to compare Connor McDavid to Wayne Gretzky.

The 2017-18 season might prompt McDavid to feel a little bit more like early-years Mario Lemieux: a superlative player whose sensational scoring often wasn’t enough to lift some putrid teams into the playoffs.

Thanks to last night’s dazzling four-goal, one-assist effort in a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, McDavid is now tied for third place in scoring with 61 points, just five behind Nikita Kucherov‘s 66 for the NHL lead.

Monday served as the exclamation point to what’s been another great season by McDavid, yet it’s difficult to shake the impression that even his superstar work won’t foist the Oilers into the playoffs.

As of this writing, the Oilers are barely ahead of the Vancouver Canucks for third-to-last in the West, and they trail the final wild card spot by a whopping 11 points. Different forecasts put their playoff chances somewhere between three and less than one percent.

Quotes like these make it sting to realize that hockey fans probably won’t see McDavid during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

With a scoring pace just a step behind last year’s 100-point masterpiece, McDavid might end up putting together one of the truly great runs for a player whose team missed the playoffs.

Actually, it begs the question: what are some of the best performances by players whose teams missed out?

This isn’t a comprehensive list, so feel free to add your own suggestions.

Might as well call it The Mario Lemieux Trophy

From his debut in 1984-85 through the 1988-89 season, Lemieux scored 715 points in just 368 regular season games. During that same time period, “The Magnificent One” only played in 11 postseason contests.

McDavid’s run with Edmonton lasted 13 games last postseason, so number 97 can take solace in the suffering number 66 endured before Lemieux eventually raised the Stanley Cup on two occasions.

Then again, if forced to choose, McDavid would rather follow the path of Lemieux rather than all-time great/bad luck case Marcel Dionne, who collected 1,771 points during his career but only played in 49 playoff games.

Some interesting contemporary examples

  • Last season, Kucherov provided a preview of what he could do, even without a boost from Steven Stamkos (who’s suffered through a few lousy seasons of his own, during the darker Lightning days). Kucherov’s 40 goals ranked second in the NHL last season, and his 85 points placed him fifth, but Tampa Bay still fell short of the playoffs.
  • You might as well consider a section for Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets.

Marian Hossa had some great seasons in his short stay with the Thrashers, with his 100-points season in 2006-07  helping Atlanta actually make the playoffs … only to be swept. Ilya Kovalchuk slogged through eight seasons with the Thrashers, scoring 328 goals while being limited to that lone sweep. Kovalchuk got a chance to show that he could be a prolific playoff performer in New Jersey, as Hossa did bouncing around from great teams until he stuck with the Blackhawks.

The Thrashers make the Winnipeg Jets’ growing pains seem modest, but that doesn’t mean that Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele haven’t seen some strong seasons go to waste. Wheeler’s been there since the latter Atlanta days (23 games before the move), so he deserves extra kudos if Winnipeg can finally make a big run this season.

  • It’s a blessing that Jarome Iginla enjoyed the spotlight of a run within one win of a Stanley Cup, because he dealt with a raw deal in 2001-02.

His 52 goals and 96 points were pretty outstanding during the height of the ugly “clutch and grab” days, yet he was robbed of the Hart Trophy (sorry, Jose Theodore) and finished out of the playoffs with 79 standings points.

  • Taylor Hall is about to play his 500th regular season game without ever playing in the postseason. At least he’s had a sense of humor about his lack of team luck … maybe this is the year he finally makes it?

  • Jack Eichel is closing in on his first truly great season, as he’s on pace to shred his career-highs of 24 goals (he’s already at 20) and 57 points (Eichel has 49 in 52 games). The top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft probably don’t want to have this sort of thing in common, but alas.

***

You could probably throw some great goalies and defensemen from bad teams into the mix, too, but this post was already getting a little sprawling, so add your own picks in the comments (or on Twitter/via email).

It would be a shame (some might argue a fireable offense) to see McDavid’s wonderful work wasted this season. At least he’s not alone, though.

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: Blackhawks must work to get out of ‘terrible spot’

Getty
3 Comments

CHICAGO (AP) It was quite a first impression. The Chicago Blackhawks began their season with a dominant 10-1 victory over two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, looking very much like a contender to unseat the Penguins atop the NHL.

It has been more mess than masterpiece since that impressive opening night in October.

Chicago begins the second half of the season looking up at the rest of the loaded Central Division, where every team has at least 20 wins and 46 points. Goaltender Corey Crawford and key center Artem Anisimov are on injured reserve, and they don’t appear to be coming back anytime soon. Coach Joel Quenneville has tried several different lines and defensive pairings, but remains in search of the consistency almost taken for granted during his long tenure with the Blackhawks.

“We know our division, our conference is tough,” Quenneville said. “We’re in a terrible spot, a spot we haven’t been in in a long time. We got to do it ourselves and find a way to climb out of it and work our way through it.”

Chicago has made the playoffs every year since Quenneville took over four games into the 2008-09 season. The Blackhawks won it all in 2010, 2013 and 2015, but lost in the first round of the postseason in each of the last two years, including an embarrassing sweep by Nashville last April.

If Quenneville and company can’t get back on track in the final part of the season, the organization could be headed for wholesale changes.

“We’ve had some games where we want to be and then some nights where we’re way off,” center Nick Schmaltz said after Sunday’s 4-1 victory over Edmonton. “If we can find that consistency where we bring the same effort every night – a full 60 minutes is huge. Tonight was a great showing of that. Hopefully we can build off that and continue to put together a strong performance.”

The return of Crawford and Anisimov could provide a big lift. Crawford (2.27 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) was working on perhaps his best season when he was placed on IR on Dec. 27. Anisimov, who has 13 goals, was placed on the injured list two days later.

Crawford and Anisimov are out with upper-body injuries, and Quenneville has provided scant details on what is bothering each player or when they might return. He has indicated Anisimov is closer to coming back than Crawford, and each player should be able to return this season.

“Over the course of seasons, we’ve had some years relatively injury-free,” Quenneville said. “This year was looking pretty clean for a while, but they can happen.”

While the injuries and standings are cause for concern for the Blackhawks, there have been some positive signs recently. Vinnie Hinostroza has three goals and five assists in 11 games since he was promoted from the minors last month, adding a speedy presence to Chicago’s top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad. Young defenseman Jordan Oesterle has three goals in his last five games.

Chicago (20-15-6) also should be able to take on some money at the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 26. Marian Hossa has been on long-term injured reserve all season, creating some valuable salary-cap space for the Blackhawks as they try to chase down a playoff spot in their crowded division with just 11 points separating Chicago and Central-leading Winnipeg.

“The other day we were plus-five and now we’re plus-five and now we’re still chasing it,” Quenneville said after the win over the Oilers. “We got some work to do. Obviously you’re going to have to have a good strong second half to get in.”

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

With aging, expensive core Blackhawks’ window is closing fast

Getty
23 Comments

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

Getty
1 Comment

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.