Following Chicago’s Game 7 loss, Blackhawks star Patrick Kanesaid exiting the post-season in the first round didn’t feel right. And that’s true. As the post-season rolls on without the Blackhawks, something will feel amiss. Chicago has made the Western Conference final in each of the past three seasons, twice taking home the Stanley Cup. They’ve become a staple of playoff hockey, a regular contender seemingly one bounce away from getting back into the winner’s circle.
They didn’t get that bounce in Game 7, though, and Blackhawks fans may have to prepare themselves for earlier summers going forward. Unlike years prior building back to consistent contention is going to take some time.
Before the post-season began, parallels were drawn between this season’s Blackhawks and the team that lost in the first-round in 2011. Both entered the playoffs as defending champions, both entered with high expectations and both were missing key pieces of what made them a contender the year prior. The comparisons will run deeper — and last longer — than this post-season, though.
Following the 2011 exit, which came via a 3-2 loss in Game 7 to the then-rival Vancouver Canucks, the Blackhawks were forced to say goodbye to Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and — this one is going to hurt today — Troy Brouwer. What followed was a 2011-12 season in which Chicago stumbled again in the first round and were sent packing by the Phoenix Coyotes. And though the team recovered in time for the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season, the quick turnaround isn’t going to be as easy to come by this time.
Some will cite the salary cap as what’s going to hurt the Blackhawks most in their pursuit of getting back on solid footing, but GM Stan Bowman has shown he’s adept at working around cap restrictions to ice a winner. And it’s not the cap that’s the issue so much as the high price of trying to maintain success that will cost the Blackhawks. To be sure, no one in Chicago will regret the trades that led to the 2014-15 championship, their third in six seasons, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t repercussions.
Since the 2014 off-season, the Blackhawks have said goodbye to prospects Klas Dahlbeck, Marko Dano and Phillip Danault, as well as two first-round picks, two second-round picks and two third-round picks. Only one of those trades — the one which sent a first-round pick and Dahlbeck to Arizona for Antoine Vermette — really paid dividends for the Blackhawks. Even if they would have won Cups each year, though, those trades left the cupboards barer than they’ve been in almost a decade.
In the five years following the 2011 loss, Chicago has seen Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen step in, but a class of prospects that NHL-ready isn’t present this time around. Consider that in Future Watch issues from 2008 to 2010, scouts ranked the Blackhawks’ prospect pool no lower than seventh-best in the NHL. Prolonged success saw Chicago fall to 25th in 2015 and their 2016 rank, 21st, is only a slight improvement. More than the salary cap, this will be the Blackhawks’ greatest hurdle.
That’s truer yet because the lack of prospects is what will exacerbate the salary cap issue because it puts an even bigger onus on Bowman to find creative ways to fill out the roster. Of the Blackhawks that were bounced in Game 7, only eight forwards are locked up for next season, and the contracts of Tervainen, Artemi Panarin and Andrew Desjardins are all set to expire following 2016-17. Shaw will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, and there’s a chance he may have played his final game in Chicago. The problem then is that the prospect pool isn’t currently deep enough to bring in four forwards and find the same success as Chicago has in the past few seasons.
Bowman is projected by CapFriendly to have only $7 million to operate with, and that’s not enough to fill each of those spots with effective third- and fourth-line talent. There are AHL players who step in, but they won’t yet have the experience to make them instant fits in the lineup.
That’s not to mention the Blackhawks also need to find an answer for suspect defensive depth, something they have little of in the organization. An ugly neutral zone error by Erik Gustafsson led to Brouwer’s Game 7-winning goal, and the heavy reliance on the trio of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook didn’t make for an easy series. Of the 10 top Blackhawks prospects in Future Watch 2016, Ville Pokka and Gustav Forsling are the only defensemen. Neither rank among the top three. Trevor van Riemsdyk’s game still needs polishing, and the same can be said for Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg. And without an improvement on the blueline, Chicago is destined for a similar fate next season.
Of course, the pillars of the franchise give Chicago enough talent to at least have a shot at winning the Cup, no matter how slim that chance might be. Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov and Panarin aren’t going anywhere. Keith, Hjalmarsson and Seabrook have miles on them, but still plenty left in the tank. That’s not to mention that Corey Crawford all but silenced his critics this season with a campaign that should earn him consideration, at the very least, for the Vezina Trophy.
Winning the Stanley Cup takes depth, though, and that’s going to be hard for the Blackhawks to find in the years it will take for their prospects to ripen. The top-end talent is there and they’ve got at least four or five prime years to go, but it’s the pieces below that will need to be acquired, developed and put into place. So while Chicago won’t be forced to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch, it’s likely going to take at least a few seasons before the Blackhawks are mighty again.