Despite the Chicago Blackhawks late-season Patrick Kane-powered push towards the playoffs through the late stages of last campaign, there were few who approached this season’s iteration of the Blackhawks with anything more than the most cautious of optimism. With good reason. On paper, Chicago was not particularly deep up front. They were not particularly deep on the blueline. And while they had some hope in the crease, the steady decline of Corey Crawford, which has sadly been spurred on by consecutive injury-riddled campaigns, meant that off-season acquisition Robin Lehner would likely have to turn in a Vezina Trophy-caliber performance if Chicago was going to come anywhere close to sniffing the playoffs.
Turns out it might not even matter if Lehner does exactly that.
Waking up Wednesday, Lehner finds himself sporting a 2.33 goals-against average, spectacular .935 save percentage and glowing underlying numbers through his nine appearances. He ranks seventh with a .938 SP and fifth with a .73 goals-saved above average per 60 minutes among the 35 goaltenders with 300 minutes played at five-a-side. Lehner has won games he shouldn’t, kept Blackhawks in games they’ve had no business being in and has made Chicago seem far more competitive than they actually are.
Case in point, Tuesday night in San Jose, where the Blackhawks fell 4-2 to a free-falling Sharks team that had dropped five straight and was going through a stretch in which they couldn’t buy a victory. At one point during the second period in Tuesday’s affair, and we cannot stress enough how much this is not an error, San Jose was outshooting Chicago 23-3. Twenty-three to three. Yet, on the strength of Lehner’s play, the Blackhawks – who registered two shots in the fourth minute of the game, a third a dozen minutes later and fired their fourth puck at Martin Jones midway through the second frame – remained in the game.
Eventually, as it often does, the dam broke. Evander Kane scored on a breakaway and Tomas Hertl scored on a turnaround wrister to push the Sharks’ lead to 3-0. And while the scoreline reads 4-2, the too-little-too-late pushback by the Blackhawks, which was spurred on by Brandon Saad and Duncan Keith tallies, belied the actual performance the Blackhawks put forth. It was ugly. No two ways about it. But the worst part for Chicago faithful is that, painful as it might be to admit, this is exactly who the Blackhawks are right now.
A quick perusal through Chicago’s underlying numbers does little to suggest Tuesday’s tilt against San Jose is any sort of aberration. That wasn’t an off night in what has been an otherwise well-played season that’s simply been laden with poor results. Rather, advanced statistical measures indicate that this is a Blackhawks getting exactly what it has earned, which is to say next to nothing. In the 5-on-5 measures, Chicago ranks 28th in Corsi percentage (46.7), 31st in shots percentage (45.7), 30th in scoring chances percentage (46.3), 28th in high-danger chances percentage (44) and 28th in expected goals percentage (44.8).
Worse about the Blackhawks’ underlying numbers, results and the road that lies ahead, though, is that there’s absolutely, positively zero reason to believe it’s going to get all that much better this season. Aside from Connor Murphy, and argue amongst yourselves how much his absence has impacted the blueline, there are no outstanding injuries that have hamstrung the Blackhawks. Chicago hasn’t been without Kane, Jonathan Toews has been healthy all season and it’s not as though there’s some blue-chipper in the minors who has potential to come in and play savior. This is the roster. Or, at least, it is for now.
In the weeks and months to come, what’s far more likely than the Blackhawks searching for a fix is that Chicago GM Stan Bowman will look to re-home those who are no longer of use and those whose time with the team is nearing its end. Pending unrestricted free agent Erik Gustafsson is on the short list to be moved, and it would come as a surprise to no one if other depth pieces were shipped out, as well. Heck, if the price is right, Lehner might even be made available. He, like Gustafsson, is a pending UFA. If Lehner can’t be re-signed, better to cut bait and get something than lose him for nothing as a free agent. Regardless, current pieces will be moved out for assets, be they picks or prospects or projects.
But this is what needs to happen before it gets better in Chicago. This roster has to be stripped for parts, it has to fail, it has to add top talents through the draft and then the coaching staff and management need to give those players the room to grow. We’re already seeing one part of that process enacted with Kirby Dach remaining with the NHL club and Adam Boqvist brought up from the AHL. Further moves, though, will have to be executed carefully, meticulously, by Bowman, assuming he’s given the chance to steer this ship back on course. He will need to exercise patience, adding only where needed and ensuring he doesn't further muddy the cap situation by overpaying to fit a round peg into a square hole on a team that's nowhere near contention. There can’t be major missteps. As it is, Chicago can hardly afford the minor. (Speaking of which, the jury remains out on the Alexander Nylander-Henri Jokiharju swap, but the Blackhawks sure could use another young, promising blueliner about now.)
In due time, and with clever maneuvering, Chicago will come out the other side of this and the Blackhawks are going to be a competitive club again. They might even do so while Kane and Toews are still on their current contracts, which have three years remaining after this season. That’s the natural ebb and flow of the league in the salary cap era. Top teams are top teams, then they slip and stumble and fall only to reset, reload and return to contention.
But the harrowing reality for the Blackhawks right now is that before the time comes that they take a meaningful step forward, things will likely have to get even worse, impossible as that might seem.
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