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Blackhawks can’t mortgage future at deadline with team that’s not ready to win

Chicago is four points out of top spot in the Central Division, but doesn’t boast a deep enough roster to truly contend for the Stanley Cup. Now’s the time for the Blackhawks to start rebuilding from within.

Tuesday night in Chicago, the Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished something that hadn’t been done in more than two and a half seasons. Despite entering the third period trailing the Blackhawks, the Lightning staged a third-period comeback and escaped with a win. It was the first time since the start of the 2014-15 campaign the Blackhawks dropped a game they were leading after 40 minutes.

A one-off, Blackhawks faithful would have thought. Bound to happen at some point. No team is infallible. A tough loss to a hungry team looking to get back into the post-season hunt, but a game Chicago could rebound from nevertheless.

So imagine the Blackhawks’ surprise Thursday night when they entered the third period up a goal on the Jets only to watch Winnipeg storm back in the final minutes of the third period. First game the game-tying goal from Andrew Copp, followed 30 seconds later by Bryan Little’s game-winning marker. The game was capped by Mark Scheifele’s empty-net goal with two minutes left, and for the second-straight game, the Blackhawks skated off the ice having blown a lead going into the third period.

More than likely, losing back-to-back games in such a way is nothing but coincidence, but the fact is this isn’t the same Blackhawks team that won three Stanley Cups in six seasons. This isn’t the dominant possession team that can out-skill opponents on even the worst of nights. And this isn’t a Blackhawks team that should have any illusions about where exactly they’re headed. 

Over the past two seasons, Chicago GM Stan Bowman has been in the unenviable position of dealing with a salary cap that hasn’t risen enough to lessen the impact of the twin $10.5-million cap hits carried by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Regardless, he’s built teams that have been able to compete, all the while the cap has cost the Blackhawks young talent such as Brandon Saad, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrew Shaw and Nick Leddy.

The salary cap hasn’t been the only thing to cost Chicago, though, as consistent contention has put the Blackhawks in a position where Bowman has the opportunity to make a move or two at the trade deadline to land himself a potential difference-maker. In 2014-15, Bowman acquired Antoine Vermette and veteran rearguard Kimmo Timonen. In 2015-16, it was Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann who came the Blackhawks’ way. And while no one will be caught complaining about moves that helped capture the 2015 Stanley Cup, it’s undeniable the cost of those acquisitions has been steep. All told, Bowman dealt away two first-round, three second-round and one third-round pick, as well as prospects Marko Dano, Phillip Danault and Klas Dahlbeck.

But with the Blackhawks back in the hunt again this season, four points out of top spot in the Central Division, Bowman would be wise to exercise caution when the deadline comes around.

The best way to build a contender with some cheaper parts is to build through the draft and acquire young talent that can produce on a budget. Right now, Chicago has the opportunity to start building that group of secondary talent, and Bowman has to be wary of what another shot at post-season glory could cost the Blackhawks. If history has been any indication, teams looking to sell their deadline assets will be searching for prospects and picks, and Chicago shouldn’t be willing to part with any of their young players at this point.

The top half of the roster consists of all the familiar faces, but Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz have shown flashes of why scouts listed them as top 100 prospects in THN's Future Watch 2016. Meanwhile, Vinnie Hinostroza and Tanner Kero have shown promise. There’s also serious upside in Tyler Motte and defenseman Gustav Forsling, both of whom have been up and down and in and out of the lineup this season. None of this is to mention the play in the AHL of Mark McNeill or Ville Pokka. The likelihood all eight pan out to be productive, every game NHLers might be slim, but they’re the base of what could make up the next generation of Blackhawks.

None of those players are blue-chip prospects, to be sure, but the Toewses and Kanes of the world don’t come around all that often. Having a group of young talent challenging for spots does allow the cream to rise to the top, however. Saad likely wasn’t considered a future $6-million player before he hit in Chicago, and Shaw was passed over in the draft before the Blackhawks took a shot on him in the fifth round in 2011. They were fits for the Blackhawks, though, and there are could be a few gems among the current prospects who do the same. Moving them, however, wouldn’t allow Chicago to learn which ones those are — or, worse yet, find out all too late.

Eventually, Chicago was going to have to go through some retooling years in order to stay competitive, and right now is the perfect time to do that. Toews and Kane are still in their prime, Keith doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down and Corey Crawford is seemingly starting to get some of the respect he deserves as a star netminder. There are years of post-season contention left, but Stanley Cup contention is a different animal. A team needs depth, not just high-end skill, and right now the cost of acquiring that depth wouldn’t be worth it.

The Saads, Shaws and Leddys of the world were part of the first wave of retooling during an era where the Blackhawks were near unstoppable, and giving up the Hartmans, Hinostrozas and Schmaltzes of the roster now for veteran or established help come the post-season would be unadvisable. The Blackhawks don’t need to have any bad years, they just need to have some where the youngsters are given the chance to prove they can be the difference in the playoffs. 

Building the team that way is how the Blackhawks get back into true contention for another Stanley Cup, not mortgaging the future to win now. Because, frankly, the win-now years in Chicago are over. This is a team that has won — and won a lot — that should be content with a few middling years while they restock and rebuild from within. If they can do that successfully, challenging for another one, two or three Stanley Cups is more likely than it will be with expensive deadline acquisitions.

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