The Chicago Blackhawks’ fall from grace has been swift and brutal over the past four years both off the ice (the lawsuits they are facing and who knew what, and when they knew it, and what they did about it) and on the ice (the lousy team).
This offseason they attempted to throw a bunch of money at their problems, seemingly abandoning their initial rebuild plans in the process, by acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury from the Vegas Golden Knights, giving Seth Jones a bank vault full of money, and acquiring Tyler Johnson from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Add all of that to the return of Jonathan Toews after he sat out the entire 2020-21 season and there was an expectation that the team could at least be more competitive than it had been.
They have not won a single playoff series since their Stanley Cup victory in 2015, while their only playoff appearance in the previous four seasons was the 2019-20 Return To Play bubble appearance when they snuck in as the league’s 23rd ranked team. In a normal year, in a normal playoff, they would have never sniffed the playoffs that season.
Maybe when this season is all said and done they will be more competitive. Maybe even grab a legitimate playoff spot if some things go their way. It is a long year and a lot can happen over the next 79 games. But the early returns are less than ideal, and quite frankly, more of the same from what we have seen from this team the past couple of seasons.
Right now it is a pretty lousy start. In more ways than one. Not only did the Blackhawks lose their first three games of the season, but they have continued their concerning habit of seemingly not being ready to play at the start of games.
In each of their first three losses they have found themselves in early deficits that they have never been able to dig out of. How bad has it been? At the 10-minute mark of their first three games they have already faced deficits of 3-0, 1-0, and 3-0. In the latter game, Saturday’s 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh, they allowed a fourth goal in the 12th minute. All of this while head coach Jeremy Colliton keeps talking about placing an emphasis on getting off to better starts.
The past two games have seen them give up goals within the first 20 seconds of games. Going back to last season they have faced a deficit within the first 10 minutes in seven of their past 12 games. In four of those games it has been a multi-goal deficit. Spotting teams an early lead — or a multiple goal lead — is not really an ideal to win games.
The problem for Chicago this offseason is that the changes were only a band-aid on a team that has a lot of weak spots and problems, while those band-aids also came with their own question marks.
Let’s start with Jones and his eight-year contract with the $9.5 million salary cap hit. Jones’ name still carries a lot of clout around the league because he was an outstanding player for a lot of years in Nashville and Columbus. Statistically speaking his play regressed dramatically the past two seasons, and there were at least a few red flags for what that meant going forward. Through the admittedly small sample size of the first week of the season the on-ice results for Jones and the Blackhawks have been dreadful, and the eye-test has not been any kinder.
Chicago is getting pummeled when Jones’ pairing is on the ice from a shot and scoring chance perspective, while it has been outscored 4-0 during 5-on-5 play. Ideally you want to be patient here because, again, it is three games. But given the trajectory of Jones’ career the past two years it is at least a little bit alarming to see that bad of a start.
Then there is Fleury, probably the focal point of the offseason. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner was acquired for nearly nothing and figured to be a substantial upgrade to a goalie position that has been a significant weakness the past couple of years. But even that had some concerns. Not only was Fleury’s 2020-21 season a dramatic improvement from the previous year, but he is also a soon-to-be 37-year-old goalie with a LOT of mileage on the tires. Eventually even the greats start to break down. That does not even get into the reality that he would be going from playing behind one of the league’s best teams in Vegas to one of the leagues absolute worst defensive teams.
That has no doubt been a rude awakening over these first three games as the Blackhawks bleed chances against. Maybe a couple of those goals against, especially early in Pittsburgh on Saturday, were the result of some tough luck. A weird bounce on the first goal. A turnover by Fleury on the second. But the bottom line is the first goal was the result of Chicago’s defense giving up a 2-on-1 to Teddy Blueger‘s line 12 seconds into the first period. Eight minutes later they gave up a third goal where a Chicago breakaway resulted in no shot on goal at one end, and then seamlessly turning into a 2-on-1 for Drew O'Connor and Brock McGinn the other way (and McGinn easily burying an uncontested shot).
Colliton will talk about better starts, and simplifying the way they play to cut down on mistakes, and a lot of other coaching cliches for when a team is struggling. The harsh reality for Chicago is this: It was never a team that was one or two players away from contending. The problems run far deeper than that (organizationally, coaching, just the overall structure of the roster and its many shortcomings defensively) and no offseason band-aid was going to fix that.