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As playoffs slip out of reach, Blackhawks face tough questions about their future

Chicago is mired in a six-game slump and watching their playoff chances slip away. And if the Blackhawks fail to make the post-season for the first time in nine seasons, it seems certain that significant changes will be coming.

How bad has this season gone for the Chicago Blackhawks? Entering Monday's contest against the Arizona Coyotes, Chicago had dropped five straight games by a combined score of 18-9 and had fallen even further into the Central Division basement. But Monday in the desert was a new low, as the Blackhawks were throttled 6-1 and booed off the ice in another team's barn. They’ve now dropped six in a row, making for a losing streak the likes of which have rarely been seen during this era in Chicago.

Granted, "bad" is a relative term for a franchise that has won three Stanley Cups in the past eight seasons. It's also a relative term for a team that, while 10 points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference, still has an outside shot at making the playoffs. And it's not as if the Blackhawks are in the hunt for the first overall pick. Sure, if they miss the post-season for just the second time in the Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews era, Chicago will get some long-shot odds at the draft’s top choice, but the chances are slim that they walk away with the top pick.

However, by the standard Blackhawks have set for themselves, this campaign has basically been an unmitigated disaster. By GM Stan Bowman's own admission, they're set to enter the trade deadline not as a buyer, but rather as a seller. They have a less than one percent chance of making the post-season, according to SportsClubStats. And for the first time since their rise to the NHL’s pinnacle, questions and real, honest-to-goodness concerns are starting to arise about how these Blackhawks can get back on track.

Let’s make one thing clear: Chicago’s situation likely wouldn't be this bad were it not for the injury to Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks’ starting netminder has been sidelined since Dec. 23 with an upper-body injury and has only recently returned to practice amid whispers that he could be shut down for the remainder of the season. Crawford's absence has made his value to the Blackhawks more apparent than ever, particularly when the duo of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass have a combined 7-11-3 record since Crawford fell injured and have managed respective .908 and .899 save percentages. That's substandard goaltending for a team that clearly needed superior netminding to remain in the hunt following an off-season salary purge that saw Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Scott Darling depart.

But at this point in the season, with Chicago's playoff hopes dwindling to near-microscopic levels, there’s no use lamenting the moves made last summer, nor is there much use in dwelling on Crawford's injury. Instead, the Blackhawks, led by Bowman & Co., need to turn their focus to the future and devise a plan to get Chicago back into the playoff hunt, and possibly into contention, as soon as next season.

The starting place is no secret. In fact, it's the most familiar aspect of the job for Bowman: shedding salary. This time, though, the franchise realistically needs to make tougher decisions than ever, ditching some former key players instead of moving money to keep the core together. In all likelihood, that should start with Brent Seabrook, though moving along the veteran defenseman is much easier said than done. His deal is hard enough to move given he is set to earn $6.875 million for each of the next six seasons, but matters are complicated by the full no-movement clause he carries. He signed his deal seemingly with the intention to remain a Blackhawk for the remainder of his career. Finding a way to get him to change his mind might prove incredibly difficult.

It should be said moving Seabrook isn't necessarily a matter of him no longer being able to contribute. He boasts the third-highest ice time of all defensemen in Chicago this season and his three goals and 17 points are tied for second among Blackhawks defenders. And if Seabrook carried a cap hit that was $2 million less per season, there would be no reason at all to move along one of the team's on- and off-ice leaders. The truth is, however, Seabrook — or more appropriately, Seabrook’s contract — creates a salary logjam that the Blackhawks need to break up. 

If moving Seabrook proves too difficult or even impossible, trading Artem Anisimov, who earns $4.55 million per season and must submit a 10-team trade list as part of his no-trade clause that kicks in next season, is another potential option with the emergence of Nick Schmaltz. Likewise, moving Connor Murphy and his $3.85-million salary may also make sense as he has tried valiantly to replace Hjalmarsson but failed to do so. Among Blackhawks defenders, only Michal Kempny has a lower average ice time. The nuclear option would be moving Brandon Saad, who was brought in this past summer to be reunited with Toews and Kane. He has failed to provide much, though, scoring 13 goals and 24 points in 56 games on a $6-million salary.

Clearing cap space would allow Chicago to do two things: retain bright young talent and address the depth issues permeating the lineup. Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza and Anthony Duclair will become restricted free agents at season’s end, while Schmaltz and young depth pivot David Kampf will be due new deals after next season. That will take cap space, which has been at a premium in Chicago for the better part of the past decade. But the Blackhawks, who are now one of the oldest teams in the NHL, need to invest in their youth. As important, though, will be the ability to use cap space to supplement the now-veteran core.

While Kane could seemingly be a point-per-game player regardless of his linemates, much has been made about Toews’ decline in scoring this season. But one issue appears to be the Blackhawks' failing to find him suitable wingers in Marian Hossa’s stead. Toews is a big reason why Saad was brought back, and while he has been the captain’s primary linemate, Toews has spent at least 35 minutes playing alongside Kane, Hartman, Duclair, Hinostroza, Alex DeBrincat, John Hayden and the since-departed Richard Panik. Finding Toews a legitimate fit on his wing is going to be the best way to get him going. That may still be Saad. It could even be DeBrincat. But Chicago’s inability to chase free agents, even a cheap addition who could fill the role, makes it hard to find a fit if such a player doesn’t already exist in the lineup.

It's not just about filling a spot beside Toews, however. Truly righting the ship is going to require bolstering a defense that has long relied too heavily on Duncan Keith. His current goal drought aside, Keith is still as reliable as ever, but the 34-year-old could almost certainly use a break from skating upwards of 24 minutes per night, especially if he intends to be as useful as he currently is by the time he reaches the final year of his contract, which will culminate ahead of his 40th birthday. The stopgaps Chicago has used over the past few seasons don't offer Keith that luxury, and it might be time to find some reliable depth defenseman to lighten his load. Again, that's going to require spending room in the summer, something the Blackhawks haven't had much of during this era.

To be sure, the foundation remains for Chicago to have success. Kane, Toews, Keith and Crawford provide the Blackhawks with building blocks at every position. But the structure around Chicago's core has to change, and if Bowman’s reaction to being swept out of the playoffs last season was to make several significant changes, chances are he won't be shying away from shaking things up if — or more likely when — the Blackhawks’ season ends after Game 82.

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