The Chicago Blackhawks allowed more shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances per 60 minutes than any team in 5-on-5 play this season. They iced the league’s 18-ranked offense and 28-ranked power play. They sat six points out of a playoff spot and held the NHL’s 23rd-best points percentage when play paused March 12. From so many angles, they looked like one of the worst teams in the NHL.
So it was somewhat surreal Tuesday night to hear them reflecting on a post-season tournament that included a series win over the Edmonton Oilers and at least a competitive showing against the mighty Vegas Golden Knights before bowing out in five games. The Hawks of early March never would’ve expected to be there.
But they made the most of their experience. Members of Chicago’s young core got high-stakes reps they were never supposed to get. Young pivot Kirby Dach and net crashing left winger Matthew Highmore made strong impressions. Sniper Alex DeBrincat showed a pulse after an extremely disappointing regular season. Sensational rookie Dominik Kubalik carried over his torrid regular-season play, particularly against Edmonton.
“It’s obviously good experience,” said veteran right winger Patrick Kane in a Zoom conference call after Chicago’s Game-5 elimination. “It’s a whole other level when there’s fans in the building, but still, to play in these post-season playoff games, for guys who have never done that, it’s a huge way to get experience for those guys. And I think we can build off this too as a team. I’m not sure what the team will look like come next year, but the young guys that were around and got a chance to play in this post-season, hopefully they take this as a valuable learning lesson and we can get better as a group from here.”
It wasn’t just the young Blackhawks who benefitted from this bonus post-season. Captain Jonathan Toews looked like his old Conn Smythe Trophy-winning self for spurts, leading the team with five goals and nine points in nine games. After a sneaky-great regular season in which he posted strong numbers despite an extremely high degree of difficulty on a terrible defensive club, goaltender Corey Crawford kept his team in most games at the somewhat grizzled age of 35.
“It was definitely good for us to get back to the playoffs and play some meaningful games for the guys who haven’t been here before – and even for the guys who have,” Toews said. “You miss the playoffs for a couple years in a row, you’re watching a lot of hockey late in the spring, and you kind of lose track of where you stand, because there’s no doubt it’s a different level from the regular season. There’s a benefit there for our veteran guys as well.”
So 2019-20 qualifies as a success for a team that had missed the previous two post-seasons. But what does it mean? Are the Blackhawks really on an upward trajectory when their regular-season points percentage climbed from .512 to .514?
Sorry, but there’s still reason to believe fans should keep their optimism tempered.
First off, there’s the aforementioned porous team defense. The 2019-20 Hawks were one of eight teams this millennium to surrender more than 35 shots per game, and they were territorially steamrolled in the tournament by both their opponents, outchanced 92-75 against the Oilers and 151-88 against the Golden Knights at 5-on-5. The Blackhawks looked good in Round 1 because the Oilers’ goaltending was a mess, but the deeper numbers suggest this was mostly the same Chicago team we saw in the regular season – albeit the dominant Golden Knights can make any team look bad right now.
So while the Blackhawks should be legitimately excited about a young forward core of DeBrincat, Dach, Kubalik and Dylan Strome – the D-corps still needs a lot of work and awaits the long-term arrivals of first-rounders Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin. Boqvist suited up for eight post-season games, averaging just 13:30, and Beaudin was a black ace. Ian Mitchell, Chicago’s other top defense prospect, turned pro but wasn’t part of Chicago’s playoff-bubble roster. If GM Stan Bowman wants to draft a defenseman in the first round this year and keep fortifying the pipeline, he’ll have to wait until the 16th or 17th pick, depending on the Montreal Canadiens’ fate. That’s where the aftertaste of Chicago’s surprise tournament berth sinks in. You win a pseudo-playoff series as a happy-to-be-there seed…but cost yourself a higher draft slot.
Chicago is a bad defensive team waiting on the development of some young defensemen – and a team that will be hard-pressed to make significant improvements this off-season. Crawford goes UFA, meaning RFA Malcolm Subban is Chicago’s only NHL goalie under team control for 2020-21. The Hawks have significant RFA contracts to hammer out with Kubalik and Strome, not to mention Drake Caggiula and Slater Koekkoek. And…Bowman has just $7.35 million in salary-cap space at the moment. That can change if Brent Seabrook and/or Andrew Shaw start next season on LTIR but, given Seabrook was close to returning for the post-season, it’s more likely his $6.88-million AAV remains on the books. Buying him out would also barely save the team any cap space, so that idea doesn’t work.
So why all the Negative-Nelly news, here? It’s simply a warning that the Blackhawks, despite a fun finish to their season, remain very much a team in transition. They were the worst defensive team in hockey in 2019-20, their goaltending situation is cloudy for next year, they have no cap space to make major moves at the moment and, according to our panel of NHL scouts and executives in Future Watch 2020, they don’t have an individual prospect ranked higher than 80th in the league now that Dach has graduated.
The point is: this team is going in the right direction, but the series win over Edmonton is more likely a happy little blip than a sign of true progress. It’s possible if not likely the Blackhawks are another year or two away from real playoff contention.