The Chicago Blackhawks sent shockwaves through the NHL on Tuesday by firing Joel Quenneville, their decorated head coach.
In a lot of ways, it paralleled the coaching change that happened in Los Angeles, as the Blackhawks said goodbye to a key player from their glory days of not-so-long-ago.
Much will be made of where Quenneville will end up next, but what about the path ahead for the Blackhawks?
The instinct might be to parallel the Kings in another way, by trying to squeeze every ounce out of what sure seems like a declining core group. Instead, allow me to recommend following a different path by another team not that far removed from contending: the soft rebuild of the New York Rangers.
As you likely remember, the Rangers essentially waved the white flag of rebuild heading into last year’s trade deadline, making painful choices such as sending Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay. In doing so, the Rangers stocked up on draft picks (including three in 2018’s first round), kicking a mini-rebuild into gear.
The Rangers still have plenty of work to do, yet you could at least see some light at the end of the tunnel.
If you ask me, that sure beats hoping that an aging roster will magically turn back the clock, even as evidence mounts that it’s no accident that Chicago’s fallen out of contention. The Blackhawks could glance at their old buddies in Detroit to see how dire things can get if you refuse to read the writing on the wall.
Let’s dig into what they should try to do, and why a soft rebuild makes sense.
Trade just about any veteran you can
What about some of their other pieces, though?
It’s fair to wonder if Stan Bowman simply views Brent Seabrook more highly than he’s seen throughout the rest of the NHL. Simply put, if there’s any way to get Seabrook’s $6.875M (through 2023-24!) off the books, Chicago should do it. Even if it means getting creative.
(Are we certain Bowman hasn’t called Peter Chiarelli, Dale Tallon, or Marc Bergevin about Seabrook? Maybe call them again, like during breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Just saying.)
The market would likely be way stronger for Duncan Keith, and the Blackhawks might be wise to bite the bullet with the 35-year-old while he’s still playing at a high level. There’s a significant age gap, yet Keith could be Chicago’s McDonagh in that it would be a painful trade that may nonetheless be necessary for the future.
After all, a contending team might accentuate the positives (an affordable $5.54M cap hit, Keith’s abilities plus experience) over the drawbacks (age, a deal that runs through 2022-23).
Really, wouldn’t a budget team hoping to take that next step really jump at Keith’s contract, considering how the salary falls through the years?
Keith’s salary from 2018-19 on, via Cap Friendly:
At minimum, the Blackhawks should not dismiss such questions if there’s any chance Keith would waive his no-movement clause.
There are other options if Bowman lacks the guts or desire to really swing for the fences.
Artem Anisimov stands as one of the easier calls. The Blackhawks are unlikely to get maximum value for Brandon Saad now, yet it might be worth it just to get his $6M off the books (while expediting the rebuild in the process).
There’s even some reason to at least kick around the name Corey Crawford. He’s 33, and his $6M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Maybe it would be best for both sides to move on, at least if other GMs are convinced he’s healthy?
Do note that Saad is the only player discussed above who lacks a no-trade clause, which highlights the notion that Chicago’s issues stem from Bowman’s missteps, as much as anything else.
On the bright side, the Blackhawks have developed a knack for finding diamonds in the rough in drafts, so why not give them more “darts to throw” through gutsy trades?
No doubt, there are right place, right time elements to Chicago’s great run. Being terrible at the perfect time allowed them to land Kane (first overall in 2007) and Toews (third in 2006). Being putrid for the remainder of 2018-19 could increase their odds at another blue chipper.
Yet, if the Oilers show us anything, it’s that you need to succeed beyond the no-brainers.
(Granted, Edmonton’s messed up those high-end picks, too.)
Looking at recent history, the Blackhawks could really reload with the additional ammo they’d potentially receive if they made especially courageous trades.
Consider some of the solid-to-great gems they’ve unearthed in recent years.
Henri Jokiharju is already becoming an important defenseman for the Blackhawks, and he was the 29th pick in 2017. Alex DeBrincat is a budding star, and he fell to the second round (39th overall) in 2016. Most years, you can find a nice diamond in the rough, including Brandon Saad (43rd pick in 2011) in his own right.
No doubt, potential gains would require pain. A proud franchise probably wouldn’t want to absorb the losses that increase the odds of landing a Jack Hughes-type franchise-changer in the lottery range. Trading players who played a big role in winning three contemporary Stanley Cups would entail taking a PR hit, and the awkwardness of asking players to waive no-trade clauses.
That said, Bowman’s shown the necessary courage to make cutthroat moves in the past, trading players like Dustin Byfuglien to stay under the cap. As painful as it was to, say, trade Teuvo Teravainen, Bowman’s also been proactive when it comes to addressing mistakes.
Moving legitimate core pieces would probably feel drastic even by those standards, but perhaps Bowman needs to channel his inner Bill Belichick and trade players a year early, rather than a year late?
By firing Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks highlighted their fork in the road, consciously or not.
One path is to hope that things will simply sort themselves out. Maybe a new voice could rekindle that old, championship magic?
From here, it honestly feels like Coach Q got as much as anyone could out of this group, and that the Blackhawks’ ceiling is now “first-round fodder.” With that in mind, maybe it’s best to take a step back now, in hopes of making a leap forward?
None of this is easy, but winning (and cap management) isn’t simple arithmetic either. Firing Quenneville couldn’t have been the most comfortable choice, and if the Blackhawks want to change things for the better, they need to make more difficult decisions.
Standing pat will only leave them sinking deeper.