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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Penguins, Lightning on two different paths

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As two of the NHL’s best teams over the past five years there is always a championship expectation for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. With both coming off of similarly disappointing postseason exits in 2019 (combined postseasons win between the two teams: zero) there was no doubt plenty of additional pressure on both teams at the start of this season.

For the Penguins, it is about regaining the identity that helped make them a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and trying to maximize the remaining window they have in the careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. You only get players of that caliber for so long, and you owe it to them — and the franchise — to put them in the best possible situation to win. Anytime you do not win, and especially when you lose like they did to the New York Islanders, it is going to feel like a missed opportunity.

For the Lightning, it is about shaking the bad memories of so many recent postseason disappointments and finally breaking through with a championship for what is probably the league’s most talented roster on paper. After blowing 3-2 series leads in two different Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 2-1 series lead in a Stanley Cup Final, the 2018-19 season seemed like it was finally going to be the year for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman as they rolled through a 62-win regular season. What followed was the most disappointing of their postseason shortcomings, losing four consecutive games to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So far this season the two teams have been on slightly different paths in their quest to reach the top, even if there isn’t much difference in their overall records.

The Penguins entered the season with several questions, ranging from the state of their defense, to their forward depth, to how the power play would look without Phil Kessel following his offseason trade to Arizona. As if that wasn’t enough, the team has been dealt a brutal hand with early injuries as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Brian Dumoulin have all been sidelined for a total of 38 man-games due to injury. Despite that, they have not only managed to win the majority of their games, they have carried the play more often than not, even in defeat. Even their two most recent losses (Vegas and Florida) probably had more to do with some bad puck luck than bad play.

They are playing smart, they are limiting odd-man rushes against, they are playing sound defensively, and they have received strong goaltending from the duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Add in more dominance from Crosby and they are keeping pace with the rest of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a lineup that has been pieced together through call-ups.

There is an argument to be made that they have probably overachieved given the circumstances.

It’s been a slightly difference experience so far for the Lightning.

Other than Brayden Point, who missed the first three games of the season as he continued to recover from offseason hip surgery, they have been 100 percent healthy from the start and have had the roster they have wanted to have at their disposal. Despite that, neither the results nor the process are what they want to be.

Entering Wednesday’s game they have won just four of their first eight games and they are probably fortunate to have won as many as they have. At times they have looked like a fraction of the team that dominated the regular season a year ago. In one early game against Carolina they recorded just three shots on goal over more than 40 minutes of hockey. In another, they were dominated by an Ottawa team that has just one win on the season (the win against the Lightning).

Overall there is nothing about their performance that is close to being up to their level of expectation.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled in goal, their penalty kill is among the worst in the league, and their overall 5-on-5 performance has at times just simply been bad. Entering play on Tuesday they are 26th in the league in shot attempt percentage and 24th in scoring differential, both signs that they are not yet carrying the play in those situations. Given the roster they are returning it has been a rather underwhelming start.

Wednesday seems like a great opportunity to get things trending back in the right direction.

They are rested, they are at home, and they are playing a banged up, tired Penguins team that just dropped a 4-2 decision on Tuesday night against Florida.

It is still too early to be too worried, but at some point they would probably like to start playing closer to their level of expectation. Everything is set up for them to start getting there on Wednesday. If they can not take advantage of the situation in front of them it might be another red flag in a start that has already had too many of them.

NBC Sports will showcase a group of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients that are being recognized by the Tampa Bay Lightning in pre-game ceremonies as part of its Wednesday Night Hockey coverage. Jeremy Roenick will interview Medal of Honor recipients during pre-game and game coverage on Wednesday night, and NHL Live will air a feature with interviews of both current Lightning players and Medal of Honor recipients.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Jeremy Roenick will report on-site from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Penguins-Lightning.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Sabres’ hot start; Coaches on hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury got a tattoo to honor a friend that committed suicide. (NHL.com)

• Players and coaches deserve credit for the Buffalo Sabres hot start. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Former NHLer Chris Joseph is still fighting for the victims of the Humboldt bus crash. (The Hockey News)

Ryan O'Reilly will need to be more selfish if he wants to find the back of the net more often. (In the Slot)

• Seattle hockey fans will have to pay a high price to watch their team play in person. (Seattle Times)

• Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog sat down for a Q & A with ESPN.com. (ESPN)

Patrick Kane believes, Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome can build chemistry together. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent Nicklas Backstrom still feels young. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sam Gagner is still trying to stick in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian NHL markets have seen their attendance numbers drop early on this season. (Sporting News)

• How long can the Penguins continue playing the way they’re currently playing and how will they integrate their injured players back into the lineup? (Pensburgh)

• Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that he steals from each one of the coaches in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Here’s how the zamboni changed the game for ice rinks all over the world. (Smothsonianmag.com)

• Which coaches are on the hot seat right now? (Scotty Wazz)

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.

The Buzzer: Eichel explodes for Sabres; More history for Caps’ Carlson

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sharks ended the first period up 2-0 against the Sabres, so it took quite the surge from Eichel & Co. to win that one 4-3 in OT.

Eichel was involved in all four of Buffalo’s goals, scoring two goals and two assists. That included the game-winner in overtime for the Sabres. The American-born forward ended the night with six shots on goal, a +2 rating, and went 12-10 on faceoffs.

The 22-year-old went two games without a point, but he’s still off to a hot start in 2018-19, as Tuesday pushed Eichel’s totals to 14 points in 10 games.

2. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota’s showing some signs of life with a two-game winning streak, but some of the joy was muted thanks to Devan Dubnyk leaving the game with an injury after a bad collision.

As ominous as that seems, it has to be a relief for the Wild to see Eric Staal finally have a breakthrough night on Tuesday. Staal scored two goals (including the 1-0 tally, thus the game-winner) and an assist, with those two goals being Staal’s first of the season. The 34-year-old’s been a revelation in Minnesota (peaking with 42 goals and 76 points in 2017-18), and he seemed to give the Wild a pretty sweet deal with his latest contract. Well, it’s a sweet deal if Staal’s game doesn’t sink too much; otherwise, you wonder if they’d be better off moving on and getting younger.

Anyway, this was a nice overall effort from Staal, who also had a +2 rating, five SOG, and went 8-7 on draws.

3. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks

Like the Sabres, the Canucks fell behind early on Tuesday. The Red Wings opened up a 2-0 lead against Vancouver, only for the Canucks to explode with five unanswered goals in the third period.

Horvat contributed three of those goals. While Staal gets the higher star because all of his points came against a goalie (Horvat’s third tally was an empty-netter), it was still a strong night from Horvat.

Similarly to Staal, Horvat came into Tuesday on a quiet start, as Horvat only had two goals and one assists for three points through eight contests. He managed his first career NHL hat trick on Tuesday, pushing him to six points in nine games.

Highlight of the Night

It was already covered here (alongside a fun blooper), but it has to be David Pastrnak‘s between-the-legs goal, right?

Factoids

  • John Carlson cemented his spot alone atop the NHL’s scoring leaders list by generating two goals, pushing him to 20 points on the season as Washington beat Calgary. NHL PR points out some impressive history for Carlson, including that he joined Bobby Orr (twice) and wonderfully old-timey-named Baldy Northcott (in 1932-33) as the only defensemen to lead the league outright in scoring through 20 days. Carlson reached 20 points in 11 games, tying Orr (in 1974-75) as the second-fastest surge to 20 points for a defenseman. Only Paul Coffey hit 20 faster, doing it in 10 games in 1988-89. Sportsnet notes that Carlson’s already off to one of the best Octobers for a defenseman, and the Capitals have three more games left in the month.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury earned his 446th NHL win, breaking a tie with Terry Sawchuk for seventh all-time. Henrik Lundqvist is at sixth with 450, while Curtis Joseph ranks at fifth with 454. It should be interesting to see if MAF ends up higher than Lundqvist when they’re both done — which hopefully isn’t anytime soon.
  • Sabres wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin has 10 points through his first 10 games, landing on a short list of defensemen who managed such a short at 20 years old or younger. Another Sabres stat: Eichel scored his sixth overtime goal, already tying the franchise record at 22.

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
BUF 4 – SJS 3 (OT)
FLA 4 – PIT 2
ARI 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
VAN 5 – DET 2
NSH 6 – ANA 1
MIN 3 – EDM 0
LAK 3 – WPG 2
VGK 2 – CHI 1 (SO)
WSH 5 – CGY 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Two goals, two extremes: Pastrnak beauty and Murray blunder

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You don’t often hear the phrase “keep your eyes on the puck.” Greg Wyshynski basically wrote a hockey book about watching how things develop away from the puck, for instance.

Tuesday presented one great highlight reel moment, and one for the bloopers, and you may note that the key figures involved either kept their eye(s) on the puck or couldn’t quite manage it.

To start, you have Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak in the moment that will probably linger in the memories of more hockey fans beyond Tuesday. After being robbed of an impressive goal thanks to an offside review early against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pastrnak made a tremendous between-the-legs move to score for Boston, and add to his gaudy goal-scoring start.

Also notice that Pastrnak was able to keep his eye on the puck as it went into the net, as he gestured as such while others seemed bewildered — maybe by him being audacious enough to make that move.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. He allowed a goal he’ll undoubtedly want back against Noel Acciari of the Florida Panthers, and it’s about as close to hockey’s version of “losing a baseball in the lights” as I think you’ll see:

It’s hard not to feel for Murray there, and one cannot help but feel pity for any goalie facing Pastrnak lately.

Pastrnak’s Bruins ended up beating the Maple Leafs 4-2, while Murray’s Penguins fell 4-2 to the Panthers.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.