CHICAGO — When Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks left the ice after their last game, they had little chance of making the playoffs.
Whenever they play their next game, it sure looks as if they will be one of 24 teams with a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Welcome to the strangest postseason berth in franchise history, one so unusual that it isn’t exactly a playoff appearance at the moment. Assuming everything goes according to plan and the final details are ironed out between the league and the players’ union, the Blackhawks will play Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five qualifier series for the playoff bracket.
”It’s been a weird three months,” Kane said during a video conference call with reporters.
Chicago hasn’t played since a 6-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on March 11. The Blackhawks were last in the Central Division and 12th in the Western Conference standings when the NHL season was suspended the next day because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the Blackhawks were awaiting word on the fate of their season, team president John McDonough was fired by owner Rocky Wirtz. Danny Wirtz, Rocky’s son and a vice president with the team, replaced McDonough on an interim basis.
Longtime general manager Stan Bowman called McDonough a mentor Thursday in his first public comments since the dismissal.
”I think he did a lot of great things for your organization, so I thank him from that perspective,” Bowman said. ”Similarly, I’ve had a chance, I’ve known Danny Wirtz for a few years now and I’ve had a chance over the last six weeks to work closely with Danny, Rocky as well. And they’ve been fantastic to me, too. So I look at this for me as the opportunity to learn from Danny.”
The surprise move could lead to dramatic changes for Chicago’s front office once the season is over. But Kane and Co. are hoping to put that off for a while.
The Blackhawks took two of three against Edmonton this season, winning 3-1 way back in October and 4-3 on March 5. They should get forward Drake Caggiula and defensemen Adam Boqvist and Calvin de Haan back for training camp 2.0 next month after they were sidelined by injuries when the season was suspended.
The 29-year-old de Haan was expected to miss the rest of the year after he had right shoulder surgery in December. His return could be particularly helpful for the Blackhawks as they try to slow McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who won his first Art Ross Trophy for leading the league with 110 points.
”Obviously, we’ve got to get him on the ice, go through camp, and hopefully everything continues to progress as far as his health,” Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton said. ”But I thought the games he did play he was steady back there.”
The Blackhawks started voluntary workouts this week, with Kane and fellow forward Alex DeBrincat among the first players to return to the team’s practice facility.
The dates and site for their series against Edmonton are still to be determined. But Kane thinks making the most of all the time before the games could be a big key to a deep playoff run.
”It’ll definitely be an advantage for a team that can come back and get together quickly and have a good training camp and kind of find their game right away,” he said. ”So I think it might be some surprises, you know, if we get down to playing.”
NHL Return to Play: A look at the Western Conference matchups
While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.
Most directly enticingly, we found out about eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.
The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.
When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.
On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.
Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.
Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.
But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.
After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.
Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.
That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.
Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).
At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.
The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.
Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.
Storylines to Watch
When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.
Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?
The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.
Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …
(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild
Regular season recap
As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).
The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.
By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)
Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.
They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.
Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.
Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.
While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach Parise – Ryan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)
A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.
So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?
(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets
Regular season recap
When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.
That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.
In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.
Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.
That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.
Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.
Storylines to Watch
Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.
Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.
Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)
Both at age 31 with matching $10.5 million cap hits through 2022-23, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the headliners of the Blackhawks’ core.
While Toews in particular isn’t what he once was, the biggest problem is shaky support.
Duncan Keith is far removed from his prime at age 36, yet his contract ($5.54 through 2022-23) lingers. Quite a bit of this structure has broken down, to the point that it would be preferable for both Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw to stay planted on LTIR.
Credit Stan Bowman with trying to improve a shabby defense. Unfortunately, Bowman whiffed with Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, and Calvin de Haan to varying degrees. Those three contracts stay on the books through 2021-22.
One key question remains: can the Blackhawks find the cash to re-sign Corey Crawford? Actually, that folds into other questions. Being that Crawford is 35, should they?
Also, will Dominik Kubalik and/or Dylan Strome become core members, or stay in limbo with “bridge” deals. Can Alex Nylander cement himself? The supporting cast continues to go through auditions as if they’re in Chicago’s Broadway.
Long-Term Needs for Blackhawks
The Blackhawks face plenty of long-term needs.
Still, sometimes the biggest needs go deeper than “scoring depth” and “some actual, above-average NHL defensemen.” The Blackhawks organization needs to let go of the past, even if it means some extra suffering in the present. Otherwise, the future could be plagued by half-measures.
It would be understandable if the Blackhawks struck a short-term deal with Corey Crawford. He quietly put together a surprisingly strong 2019-20, particularly down the stretch.
This team needs more difference-makers. Adam Boqvist and other prospects figure to boost the competence of Chicago’s crummy defense, but how much?
Ultimately, the Blackhawks need to add “blue chip” talent, and hope that Boqvist, Kirby Dach, and others fall in that category. By trying to enjoy the best of both worlds of competing while getting some young talent, Chicago risks falling short of both marks. They’ve seemingly accrued good-but-not-great talent, and were moderately competitive but not legitimate contenders.
Pull off the Band-Aid already.
Long-Term Strengths for Blackhawks
As mentioned with Panarin and DeBrincat, the Blackhawks have shown some ability to unearth talent even when they didn’t have no-brainer picks like they did with Kane and Toews. (Panarin was a Euro free agent, DeBrincat went 39th overall in 2016). Dominik Kubalik looks like he could be the latest hidden gem.
Such successes have been a bit of a double-edged sword, as referenced in the long-term needs section. By finding ways to be semi-competitive, the Blackhawks have sometimes added good where a “tank” season may have provided great.
Still, there’s decent talent to work with. DeBrincat, Strome, Kubalik, and maybe Nylander can help on offense. Dach’s development is crucial.
Lately, “almost” has been in painful supply for Chicago. An optimist might squint and see how things could break the Blackhawks’ way, but improving this long-term outlook will require more long-term thinking.
With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.
Record: 32-30-8 (70 games), seventh in the Central Division, Out of Playoffs
Leading scorer: Patrick Kane 84 points (33 goals and 51 assists)
In-Season Roster Moves
• Traded Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights for Malcolm Subban, Slava Demin, 2020 second-round pick.
• Acquired T.J. Brennan from the Philadelphia Flyers for Nathan Noel.
• Shipped Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames for a 2020 third-round pick.
• Traded Graham Knott to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Joseph Cramarossa.
• Acquired Alec Regula from the Detroit Red Wings for Brendan Perlini.
• Sent Aleksi Saarela to the Florida Panthers for Ian McCoshen.
The Blackhawks didn’t get off to the greatest of starts in 2019-20. They began their campaign with a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Czech Republic and then came home to play seven consecutive games at the United Center. How did those games go? Well, they only managed to win two of the seven. When October was all said and done, the ‘Hawks had a 3-6-3 record.
They managed to rattle off a four-game winning streak in November, but quickly followed that up by losing five of their last six games to close out the month.
Get the picture?
There was no semblance of consistency with this edition of the Blackhawks. Sure, they still have an elite talent in Patrick Kane and, yes, Jonathan Toews is still a really good player. They also have Dominik Kubalik, who scored 30 goals in his first year, and Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Brandon Saad. Those are all talented players, but the entire roster just doesn’t stack up with the elite teams in the Western Conference anymore.
Their defense still features Duncan Keith, but the unit got old in a hurry. Keith has played a lot of hockey, Seabrook was struggling badly before being shut down with an injury and the acquisition of Calvin de Haan and Olli Maata helped, but not enough.
Management has to decide what the next step is for this group. It’s always tempting to “go for it” when you have Kane, but the supporting cast just isn’t strong enough. Can they make it work by tweaking the roster, or is this a team that needs a major overhaul?
Whenever the off-season starts, they’ll have to address the goaltending position too, because Corey Crawford isn’t getting any younger and he’s scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st. He had been playing well down the stretch, but he’s become a question mark when it comes to staying healthy.
Big decisions are coming.
Highlight of the Season:
Kane has been one of the few bright spots on the ice for the this team and he continued to pile up incredible numbers throughout the season.
On January 19th, in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, Kane picked up a secondary assist on Saad’s goal late in the third period. That point allowed the Blackhawks forward to reach the 1,000-point club.
The Chicago Blackhawks announced that veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook underwent successful hip surgery on Thursday and that he will be ready to return in five-to-six months. That would put him on a timeline to be ready for the start of training camp for the 2020-21 season.
His most recent surgery was his third — both hips, shoulder — over the past six weeks.
He has not played since Dec. 15, while the team announced a couple of weeks later that both he and Calvin de Haan (shoulder injury) would both be out for the season. He appeared in 32 games this season, scoring three goals with one assist.
Blackhawks’ long-term outlook on defense
What Seabrook’s role will look like next season remains to be seen. His play has not only rapidly declined the past few years, but he will be coming off of three major surgeries and be 35 years old when the season begins.
Seabrook still has four more years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season.
The Blackhawks have managed to hang around in the playoff race and play their way back into contention but still have some major flaws and question marks defensively and remain one of the league’s worst teams at preventing shots and scoring chances. The goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford has helped mask that, but both are free agents after this season and remains to be seen if either one of them will be back next season.
The Blackhawks tried to revamp their defense this offseason with the additions of de Haan and Olli Maatta, but it has not really worked. Almost everyone currently on the defense is signed long-term.
Seabrook, Maatta, de Haan, Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith are all signed for at least the next two full seasons (Seabrook and Keith beyond), while rookie Adam Boqvist remains on his entry-level deal.
Erik Gustafsson, their most productive defenseman offensively over the past two seasons, is an unrestricted free agent after this season.