Throughout the season, there have been hints that the landscape of the NHL could be changing rapidly. Pittsburgh is now seen as the standard bearers of how to play the game thanks to Mike Sullivan’s fun-and-gun style and lightning-quick tape-to-tape passing. Toronto seems to be following suit and is an elite defender or two away from really making some noise.
On the other end of the spectrum. Los Angeles really painted themselves in a corner thanks to horrific salary cap management post-2014. San Jose seems to finally have their core group look a little-too battered and their younger players just don’t look good enough to carry them through in the long term. Lastly, even if they win the Stanley Cup, it will be nothing short of a miracle if Washington keeps every single key player back next year. Even doing something like that just may not make sense for the Capitals in the long run.
That leads us to the Chicago Blackhawks. Simply put, this team looks finished. If you have read everyone of my articles all regular season, you would have noticed that Joel Quenneville’s team has been the most overrated in my rankings this side of Ottawa. It’s too bad the Senators are rightfully taking advantage of every Boston Bruins injury in their first round series because now I have more energy at throwing jabs on these Blackhawks.
Now Chicago probably should have won Game one if not for the heroics of Pekka Rinne. But beyond that, there was no way they deserved to win any other game this entire series. According to Natural Stat trick, Chicago was 13th out of the 16 playoff teams when it comes to score-adjusted puck possession at even strength this postseason at 47.6%. They also were only able to generate a below-league average 53.9 shot attempts per game during the series as Nashville had an answer to everything Quenneville threw at them. I will admit that during my playoff predictions, I was a genuine idiot in thinking that Calle Jarnkrok was going to miss a couple of games and that would be enough to swing the series Chicago’s way.
Instead, Jarnkrok’s adversary, Marian Hossa was an unmitigated disaster. The 38-year old may have only been bettered by Patrick Kane this series with his 15 shots on goal, but he finished the series with a 44.0% on-ice puck possession and was also on the ice for a shocking 67.0 shot attempts against per hour. Along with that, he finished with traditional box car stats of zero points and a -4 plus-minus (whatever that is worth). Hossa wasn’t even the worst on-ice defender in the series. Kane is never known for his defense, but along with him, all of Chicago’s top four defensemen in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya gave up over 70 shot attempts per hour when they were on the ice at even strength. They simply had no answer to Nashville’s top forward line of Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen.
Along with that, Nashville’s was much more balanced in their attach with 11 players getting six shots on goal or more and six of them reaching double digits in that category. For Chicago, Kane, Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin were the only players to generate more than 10 shots on net.
The depth on offense is just simply not as good as it used to be. Remember when this team had Brandon Saad as the perfect winger for Toews and Hossa on the top line? Or that Andrew Ladd and Teuvo Teravainen were getting third line minutes and that Kris Versteeg would sometimes be a healthy scratch? How about Patrick Sharp being a Canadian Olympian and a second line forward? Or Andrew Shaw being the Western Conference’s answer to Brad Marchand at his best? Or that there was no pressure on Marcus Kruger to generate good puck possession on the fourth line because all that talent scared the opposition’s best skaters away from him? Depth always finds a way to win Stanley Cups and those previous iterations of the Blackhawks set the standard of what they need to win it again.
Nowadays, Hossa, Seabrook, Oduya and Keith are all well on the wrong side of 30 and most are stuck on long term contracts that no NHL team wants to take out of Chicago’s hands. Kane and Toews are at the prime of their careers but there is no doubt that their seven-figure cap hits that will last another six years will cripple any flexibility in the long term, especially if both star players lose a step or three. Artem Anisimov also is probably getting paid way too much money for too many years on the basis of whether or not he can LEAD a line in comparison to being a guy that simply feeds off of open ice generated by Kane’s presence.
In the prospect pool, Artemi Panarin will be the man during Chicago’s rebuilding years, but I doubt he’ll get the recognition he deserves because the teammates will just never be as good as Toews and Kane ever had. Along with that, there will be tons of pressure to have Alex DeBrincat become an instant star after the comical numbers he is putting up with OHL Erie this season. Beyond that, so much pressure will be on Nick Schmaltz to continue to improve as a potential top six forward, especially after playing so well with North Dakota and with USA at the World Juniors in 2016. Tyler Motte could be good but he was such a disappointment being away from that dangerous top line and Zach Werenski at Michigan and in his first season as a professional at both the AHL and NHL level. Who knows how good John Hayden, Ryan Hartman and Tanner Kero can be without the evidence that they can be above average hockey players for more than just one season. Lastly, are they any good defenseman prospects out there beyond Gustav Forsling?
Simply put, Chicago has to use future drafts to replenish the prospect pool just like they did in 2011 with Shaw and Saad (and even Phillip Danault, Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlback despite playing on different teams now) and in 2012 with Teravainen. Either way, this is a rough road ahead for Chicago and who knows if they’ll return to their glory days anytime soon.