What a curious time it is to be a Chicago Blackhawks fan. The Hawks have made the playoffs just once since the 2017-18 season began.
This past season, they finished seventh in the Central Division – one spot worse than they finished the season prior. They cleaned house on the management side, ending the Stan Bowman Era and beginning the Kyle Davidson Era in March. And they’ve been employing Derek King as interim head coach since November, and nobody seems sure if he’ll be back for the 2022-23 campaign.
Meanwhile, rumors are suggesting star forward Alex DeBrincat is on the trading block, as the direction of the Blackhawks at the moment is uncertain. Cornerstone stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are entering the final year of their contracts, with management hoping they’ll both accept hefty salary decreases (they both have an average annual value of $10.5 million this coming year) and allow the franchise to be aggressive on the free agent and trade markets.
See what we’re getting at here? There;s a sense Chicago – and “rudderless” isn’t the right word for it – is stalled a bit. In the competitive Central, where only the hapless Arizona Coyotes will be well out of the playoff race early next season, the Hawks cannot afford to be complacent.
Of course, Davidson deserves more than two months on the job to implement his plan of action. But letting King wither on the vine awaiting word if he’ll be back behind the Hawks’ bench next year will not help their image in the coaching community. King may have been a candidate for one of the many head coaching gigs currently available. Either moving on from King, or holding onto him, should be one of the first, if not the first moves Davidson makes.
Next up for Davidson is dealing with Toews and Kane. Multiple league sources believe both stars prefer to remain Blackhawks until they retire, but the challenge will come if they’re left to the open market and get bowled over with an offer Chicago probably shouldn’t match at this stage of their careers. They’re certainly not bereft of their once-mighty talent, but Davidson needs to put the team first, and use their near-quarter-of-the-upper-salary-cap limit on newer players he can keep under team control for longer. It would be great from a public relations perspective to keep Kane and Toews around, but it no longer may make hockey sense to do so.
Then, and only then, should Davidson look at dealing DeBrincat. If Toews and Kane are coming back and the playoffs are considered a reasonable goal in 2022-23, it doesn’t pass the smell test to send the 24-year-old DeBrincat packing. He’s entering the final year of a three-year, $19.2 million contract, but he’s a restricted free agent next summer. You can look at moving DeBrincat at the next trade deadline, but otherwise, why give up on him now? This is a guy who scored 41 goals last season, and that should buy him at least another three-quarters of the regular season to prove he’s worth the major raise he’ll be getting from one team or another next summer.
The Hawks have more than $20.1 million in cap space this off-season, but they need to sign two NHL-caliber goalies, and get restricted free agents Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome under contract. Davidson has to be judicious with his spending, but he also can’t sit back and bring back the same roster than underwhelmed last season.
The Blackhawks are a driven organization that will use its financial largesse to its advantage. But right now, it feels like everything is moving slowly. Too slowly. They don’t need to make moves simply for making moves, but the Hawks do need to show their customers there’s a clear plan in place for the months and years ahead.