There are any number of ways to illustrate how sideways this season has gone for the Chicago Blackhawks. Really, take your pick.
On Tuesday, Chicago was buried in a four-goal hole and held without a shot for nearly the entire first period against the Winnipeg Jets. The Blackhawks’ eventual loss was their 12th in their past 13 games. The tilt was also the fourth consecutive outing and ninth time in 11 contests that Chicago surrendered the game’s first two goals. It was the 11th game in a row that the Blackhawks allowed the opening goal. And maybe the most damning bit of evidence that Chicago’s season, especially lately, has become an unmitigated disaster is that since the Blackhawks’ last victory — a 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 18 — they have held a lead for 41 seconds. Put another way, that’s less than one minute in 660-plus minutes of play, or less than one-tenth of a percent of Chicago’s total time on ice since that mid-November win.
It’s no surprise given how flat Chicago has fallen over the better part of the past month that the Blackhawks find themselves dead-last in the Western Conference and dead-last in the NHL waking up Wednesday morning. It’s no surprise, either, that they have the league’s worst goal differential, a stunning minus-34, and are in the midst of an eight-game losing streak in which they haven’t picked up so much as a single point. In fact, maybe the only surprising thing is that the bottoming-out Blackhawks have some “competition” for last place in the league. The Los Angeles Kings are only one point clear of Chicago.
And at this juncture of the campaign, with more than one-third of the season in the books and the midpoint on the horizon, there are two questions facing the Blackhawks: is there any way to save this season? And is there any reason Chicago would want to?
It would seem the answer to the former is a resounding ‘no.’ Though it was far from the nuclear option — that would be trading Patrick Kane and dismantling the entire roster — firing Joel Quenneville was likely Chicago’s best and safest bet at an in-season resurgence, but it has become abundantly clear throughout the past month-plus that the former bench boss was far from the Blackhawks’ biggest problem, not that many believed his firing was the answer to Chicago’s woes in the first place.
Under Quenneville, the Blackhawks were a .500 team with six regulation wins in 15 games. Since the hiring of Jeremy Colliton, Chicago has won just three times, all in regulation, in 17 games. And the on-ice performance has declined in a number of ways. Measured in per 60-minute segments at 5-on-5, the Blackhawks have fared worse in shot attempt production, shot production and suppression, scoring chance production, high-danger chance suppression and almost all of their major possession-based percentages — Corsi, shot and scoring chances — have seen a decrease during Colliton’s tenure. And while true that Chicago’s high-danger chance percentage has risen by three percent, that’s hardly a major victory when paired with the other declines.
That likely speaks less to Colliton’s ability as an NHL bench boss, however, as it does to the current Blackhawks’ roster. Because while the jury is still out on a young coach 17 games into his big-league career, the positives are few and far between for this group in Chicago.
While top-six talent exists in the form of Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat and Brandon Saad — hey, even Dylan Strome has registered five points in eight games since his acquisition by Chicago, which is a plus — the depth of the roster is spotty at best and the blueline is in shambles with no quick-fix in sight. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, especially, have appeared shells of their former selves at times, while others on the blueline have masqueraded as capable middle-pairing defensemen. It’s not a suitable role for Brandon Manning or Jan Rutta, who have logged consistent ice time. Meanwhile, Erik Gustafsson still has some holes in his game, while rookie Henri Jokiharju has done as much as a freshman rearguard can possibly do. The return of Connor Murphy can help, but likely not enough that the Blackhawks right this ship anytime soon.
For Chicago to take any meaningful steps forward before season’s end, the blueline would have to be repaired with a top-pairing talent that could support and shelter the rest of the D-corps. Teams willing to move along a player of that calibre, though, are few and far between, and doing so would come at a significant price.
But what would the Blackhawks stand to gain by adding in pursuit a seemingly unattainable wild-card spot? There may be some moral victories along the way, some notable outputs, statistical or otherwise, from key players or players on the rise. But short of that, there’s nothing of value to be had by selling pieces for the chance to sneak back into the post-season. Matter of fact, there’s far more to be gained by staying put at the bottom of the standings and earning a shot at a top pick — or the top pick, which is projected to be Jack Hughes — come the 2019 draft. Likewise, there’s far more to be gained by selling off a high-priced piece such as Artem Anisimov, who is sidelined with a concussion as of this writing, than there is in adding any salary that’s going to stay on the books beyond this season.
Clearing salary, trimming the fat and selling off pieces before the December trade freeze or ahead of the deadline will give the Blackhawks additional cap space with which to work beyond the already-projected $17.3 million. That’s money that can be used to add to the blueline without further mortgaging the future, money that can be used to address depth issues and money that can be used to find a suitable backup and potential long-term replacement for Corey Crawford, whose injury issues and soon-to-expire contract make him far from a sure thing in Chicago beyond next season.
The Blackhawks’ intention entering the campaign was never for this to be a lost season or a consecutive campaign outside the playoff picture. Results over the past month, though, have left Chicago in a position where that will almost certainly be their fate. Is there a way to save the season? Maybe, but it’s likely a season that’s beyond the point of no return. And that’s OK, so long as the Blackhawks keep their sights set on ensuring this lost season sets them up for a better future.