Patrick Sharp

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Blackhawks’ DeBrincat looks to keep scoring against Predators

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The NHL on NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 regular season continues on Tuesday, as the Nashville Predators host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8:00 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here

The Predators have been ferocious on home ice this season. Their record at Bridgestone Arena currently sits at 8-1-1, which matches their record in their last 10 outings overall.

Since the beginning of November, they have a pair of regulation losses to San Jose and Minnesota (both on the road) and a shootout loss in Carolina on Sunday. The rest of their games have all been victories.

The scary thing is, the Preds still feel like they haven’t played their best hockey yet.

“We haven’t played our best hockey yet,” Predators defenseman P.K. Subban told the Tennessean. “That’s the exciting thing about our team is that we haven’t played our best hockey game yet.”

Starting tonight, Nashville will play five of their next six games on home ice. They’re heading into this stretch sitting in third place in the Central Division. The Preds are two points behind the Jets for second and four points behind the Blues for first. In both cases, Nashville has a game in hand.

Thanks to a 4-0-1 stretch over their last five games, the Blackhawks have managed to climb back into a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

The ‘Hawks are coming off a big 7-3 win over Anaheim thanks to a hat trick from rookie Alex DeBrincat, who now has 10 goals and 17 points in 23 games.

“It was awesome,” linemate Patrick Sharp said of DeBrincat after the game, per the Chicago Tribune. “Only problem is … he’s going to be on TV a lot with that ugly mustache. But it was an awesome game, and you could tell … he’s gaining confidence, more and more every day. He’s got that scoring touch.”

Well, DeBrincat’s ugly mustache will likely get a lot of attention on tonight’s national broadcast (apologies in advance to Sharp).

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 turn to Sharp – Toews – Kane amid scoring struggles

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When you’re stumped to find a solution, sometimes it pays off to see what worked before.

The Chicago Blackhawks are going with that strategy amid some scoring struggles, as NBC Sports Chicago’s Tracey Myers and others note that Joel Quenneville is reuniting a line that may inspire Blackhawks nostalgia: Patrick SharpJonathan ToewsPatrick Kane.

Some would call it going retro. Others prefer “going nuclear.”

“Right now we haven’t had the team scoring so we’re trying to get that first and maybe things will look on balance as we’re going along. But I feel if they can score and other lines can score, maybe there’s balance that way, too,” Quenneville said, via Myers. “We’re just looking at any way right now to recapture what it’s like to score because we know it’s there.”

With Brandon Saad managing one assist in his last nine games after a red-hot start to his second run with Chicago, it makes sense to shake things up, especially with the Blackhawks struggling to score at even-strength.

While there are concerns with loading up by putting Toews and Kane together rather than going with the usual plan of asking them to carry their own lines, Saad helps tie things together on a passable second trio:

Putting Saad with Artem Anisimov and Richard Panik could work, maybe.

Sharp might be the forward in the greatest need of a boost. The 35-year-old hasn’t scored a point in his last nine games and only has a goal to show for his last 11.

The Blackhawks could certainly benefit from a bump in energy and creativity, as their schedule is on the more challenging side beginning with tonight’s game against the Flyers in Philly. Take a look at the upcoming stretch:

Thu, Nov 9 @ Philadelphia
Sat, Nov 11 @ Carolina
Sun, Nov 12 vs New Jersey
Wed, Nov 15 vs NY Rangers
Sat, Nov 18 @ Pittsburgh
Wed, Nov 22 @ Tampa Bay
Sat, Nov 25 @ Florida

That’s a difficult weekend, not to mention a run of five of seven games on the road. At 7-6-2, the Blackhawks are currently in the running for a wildcard spot in the West, an experience that remains a bit foreign to this proud group (even if prognosticators have been forecasting such a regression for years now).

It’s not clear how long the Blackhawks would roll with this combination – Coach Q has made it pretty clear that he’d rather diversify his offensive threats – but it might help shake things up. If you enjoy watching those three work together, tonight’s your night.

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.

Khudobin’s impressive preseason performance ‘bodes well’ for Bruins

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Anton Khudobin wasn’t perfect for the Boston Bruins on Saturday. But he was close, turning aside 35 of 36 shots faced against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Only Patrick Sharp was able to solve the Bruins’ netminder, scoring late in the third period as Chicago recorded a 1-0 win.

Still, that’s two very good performances in the preseason for Khudobin, who also stopped 20 of 22 shots against Detroit, and they come at a time when the Bruins are facing a logjam in net with Malcolm Subban also looking to earn a spot as the back-up behind Tuukka Rask.

“Dobby was very good. The shot that beat him was an excellent shot by Sharp – he scores from there a lot,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “He was very good and I’m sure he’d be happy with his game for the most part. There’s always things you can clean up, but two solid efforts in the preseason for Dobby. That bodes well for our season. If his game’s on, that’s gonna help us a lot.”

A first-round pick of the Bruins in 2012, Subban entered training camp with the belief that he could play at the NHL level. He has two games experience with Boston, but has spent the vast majority of his professional career developing his game in the American Hockey League. That said, he has also been sharp when he’s had his opportunity during this preseason.

Now 23 years old, Subban does, according to reports, require waivers if the Bruins decide to send him down to Providence, which adds to the difficulty of any impending decision, as the Bruins look to improve at the back-up position for this season.

“Look, he requires waivers,” general manager Don Sweeney told the Boston Herald. “We’re trying to manage it, as other teams are at this point, and we have other players that require waivers and we’re just trying to field the best team we possibly can and asset management is a part of it.”

Khudobin, now 31 years old, played 16 times for Boston last season, posting a .904 save percentage.

Anisimov adjusting to new linemates in Chicago

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The only constant when it comes to Joel Quenneville’s line combinations with the Chicago Blackhawks is that they are always going to change.

A lot.

The one exception to that over the past couple of seasons has been the second line of Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin, a truly dynamic trio that could take over any game at any time. But with Panarin now playing in Columbus following an offseason trade to reacquire Brandon Saad even that line has been broken apart.

Instead of skating alongside Kane, Anisimov has spent the preseason skating next to Ryan Hartman and a rotation of Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Sharp on the team’s third line.

He talked about that experience this weekend, via CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers.

“It’s been good, actually,” Anisimov said. “Every time it’s a challenge, you know? It’s hard to play without those two guys, but you have to adapt to situations and I can play with every player. I’ll try to do my best with any player on the team.”

Replacing Anisimov alongside Kane has been 21-year-old Nick Schmaltz. If he ends up sticking on that line for any reasonable amount of time it should help to boost his production a little bit.

Dropping Anisimov down to his own line could, in theory, help to stretch out the Blackhawks’ depth a little bit and not make them quite as top heavy. If he ends up playing on a line with a young standout like Debrincat — who absolutely should make the roster — it could help create a pretty dynamic third line … assuming Anisimov is able to maintain his current level of production away from Kane and Panarin.

Anisimov has played the best hockey of his career with the Blackhawks (averaging more than 20 goals and 45 points each year) but he has also been surrounded by some pretty high-end talent. Debrincat has the look of a potential star, and Sharp has been a high-level player in the past, so it’s not like he is going to be dragging around some anchors. But it is still a pretty significant change.

Of course, given how much the Blackhawks juggle their lines it is probably only a matter of time until he ends up back alongside Kane anyway.