CHICAGO, IL — What do we make of the Chicago Blackhawks right now?
Chicago ranks 30th in the NHL offensively, averaging 2.24 goals per game. They’re allowing 3.39 per night, which ranks 25th. Their powerplay ranks 17th in the league and their penalty kill is 27th.
This is a bad team in just about every way.
It wasn’t supposed to be this bad.
Even though the Blackhawks acknowledged they were entering a rebuild, Stan Bowman then went out and spent like a mad man over the summer. He traded for and then extended Seth Jones, acquired Marc-Andre Fleury for nothing and signed defenseman Jake McCabe to a multi-year deal.
Those are moves that are made by a team that’s trying to get into – if not win – in the postseason. Not a team trying to develop its assets and turn the page to the future.
But Bowman is no longer with the organization. Neither is his hand-picked coach, Jeremy Colliton. Now, interim GM Kyle Davidson has been tasked with trying to clean up a unique mess left behind by Bowman.
The question now is how Chicago moves forward. The product on the ice has clearly indicated they aren’t a playoff team right now, even with the additions made by Bowman. But there are too many NHL players on the books to open up ice time for prospects, some of whom have been well regarded by outsiders.
Earlier this week, the Blackhawks moved on from forward Alex Nylander. Chicago acquired him from Buffalo for defenseman Henri Jokiharju, who is playing top-four minutes on the Sabres’ blueline. That trade, like many made by Bowman, hasn’t worked out at all. Bowman’s love affair with reclamation projects rarely worked, and Nylander is the poster boy.
This was the second trade from Davidson, who made another minor deal that brought forward Kurtis Gabriel to Chicago soon after Juhjar Khaira was knocked out by Jacob Trouba. He’s a physical forward who showed why he’s been an AHL regular in his brief time with the Blackhawks; he’s now in Rockford.
Chicago is still looking to move Dylan Strome. And Calvin de Haan is garnering plenty of attention, as reported by our own David Pagnotta. There are other pieces that could be in play soon, including Fleury.
Chicago used a lot of draft capital on its blueline over the past five drafts but none of those picks is currently in the NHL rotation. Jokijaru, their first-round pick in 2017, was traded. Chicago’s second-round pick that year, Ian Mitchell, hasn’t been given a full opportunity at the NHL level yet due in large part to the surplus of veterans.
The Hawks’ first pick in 2018, Adam Boqvist, was also traded. He, plus the Hawks’ first-round pick next year, were sent to Columbus for Jones last summer; that pick is top-two protected. Unfortunately, there are three teams – Arizona, Montreal and Ottawa – that are significantly worse than the Blackhawks. So, barring a miracle in the lottery, Chicago won’t have their first rounder next summer.
The draft wasn’t a consistent source of NHL players for Chicago under Bowman’s leadership. Since the 2016 Draft that brought Alex DeBrincat to Chicago, only one player selected by the Hawks has appeared in at least 100 games for the organization – Kirby Dach.
And Dach has experienced his share of growing pains this season, the latest of which was being on the receiving end of a Patrick Kane-like move that resulted in an overtime game-winning goal from Cale Makar.
Dach’s career, thus far, hasn’t been smooth. His rookie campaign was interrupted by the pandemic and his sophomore campaign was limited because of a wrist injury suffered in a warm-up game before the World Juniors.
But if Chicago wants him to be a top-line center, he must get better at the dot than his current 33 percent win rate. And they need to surround him with better talent than they have up front right now.
Chicago has become a one-line offense. And that line is if/when they have Kane and DeBrincat on the ice together. DeBrincat has established himself as a legit scorer, but without any scoring depth whatsoever teams have been able to isolate him at even strength.
Lukas Reichel has been playing well in Rockford, but a concussion issue coupled with COVID has delayed his arrival in the NHL. The Hawks’ first rounder in 2020 (17th overall) has eight goals in 18 games for Chicago’s AHL affiliate and coach Derek King recently said they want him to get back on the ice before considering a call-up.
Expecting the young German forward to instantly solve all that’s wrong with the Blackhawks’ offense is an overwhelming ask. But he could help. And any help would be nice.
The books in Chicago are a mess but there are a few names that could be trade candidates because they’re in the final year of their respective deals. Strome, de Haan and Fleury obviously lead the list. Strome will be an RFA after this season; the other two are unrestricted.
Dominik Kubalik, who scored 30 goals in 68 games as a rookie in 2019-20, will be a restricted free agent. He’s scored just 23 goals in 89 games (entering Thursday) since his rookie year. He’s scored six in 33 games this year but might be an intriguing bottom-six candidate for a team that needs a potential spark.
One of the veterans signed that has blocked ice time for prospects is Erik Gustafsson, who got a one-year deal from Bowman after not making the New York Islanders’ roster on a PTO. He is what he is – an offensive-minded defenseman who might help a powerplay. He hasn’t helped Chicago but keeps getting ice time in front of Mitchell, Wyatt Kalynuk, Nicolas Beaudin and others.
The only goaltender signed beyond this season is Arvid Söderblom, who recently made his NHL debut (in relief) and first NHL start. If a team is looking for depth, Kevin Lankinen and/or Collin Delia might be available as well.
These are all interesting questions that need answers, but the biggest is the future of Davidson. Will he be given the authority to pull the trigger on a significant trade? Or is he just going to do his best to clean up what Bowman left behind and try to create a path to a future that includes some of the younger players in the organization before the Blackhawks hire a permanent GM?
And who will hire the new GM? The Blackhawks separated business operations from hockey ops last summer, with Bowman ascending to the top of the hockey side of the house. Indications are that the Blackhawks will look to add a President of Hockey Operations above the General Manager’s seat.
Chicago has players who could/should be available to help a number of teams with legitimate Cup aspirations. And they’re ready to sell.
Davidson has started moving some of the dead weight but has a big hill to climb. We’ll see how much authority Danny Wirtz has given him to make changes that impact the short and long-term outlook of an organization that was the toast of the league less than a decade ago.