Trending Topics: The future isn't bright in Chicago

While the Chicago Blackhawks have had quite an impressive run, it seems that the league has now passed the team by. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
While the Chicago Blackhawks have had quite an impressive run, it seems that the league has now passed the team by. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Seems like we’ve all pretty much decided that’s it for Chicago this season, and understandably so.

They can’t win to save their lives, even against pathetic competition, and the will to even vaguely compete seems to have been sapped. This was, after all, a team that finished with 109 points last season, ninth in goals scored and 10th in goals conceded.

They went from elite to probably well outside the playoff picture in a single season, rather than declining slowly into irrelevance which was, I think, what most people expected.

Certainly some of the moves they’ve made over the past few seasons, coupled with the surprise-not-surprise retirement of Marian Hossa this summer, hastened their descent. They’re not irrelevant yet, in much the same way the smoldering wreckage of a plane crash isn’t irrelevant a few days after the fact; people still need to poke through the rubble.

There is plenty of finger-pointing to go around and that’s both expected and fair. Lots of guys suddenly aren’t living up to contracts — also expected — and others have been plagued by bad luck (Duncan Keith, for instance, doesn’t have a goal on 137 shots). Guys brought in to be solutions haven’t been anything close. The coaching staff doesn’t seem to have a lot of answers because the answers aren’t in the dressing room or in Rockford. Stan Bowman has also painted himself into a corner with a lot of the contracts all his past success required him to give.

And because the hockey media can’t avoid a narrative, a lot of the blame has shifted not onto Bowman or the guys seriously underperforming, but rather onto convenient scapegoats.

One weird thing that I have seen a lot in the last couple weeks as prognosticators conduct what can only be described as this pre-postmortems is a bizarre willingness to throw Brandon Saad under the bus for underperforming this season. To their point, it’s easy to see his production has dipped; he has just 13 goals and 11 assists this year, after netting 53 points in each of the previous two seasons.

Part of that, one must admit, comes from the fact that his shooting percentage this season is just 8.1, down nearly a third from his career average of 11.8. So that’s a problem. And maybe you’d argue that he’s not generating the kind of chances he did last year or something. That would be an understandable issue, but it also wouldn’t be true. In fact, his underlying numbers are so good this season — some of the best on the team, in fact — that he’s actually improved on his individual expected goals per 60.

In fact, his on-ice shooting percentage is even worse than his own, meaning his linemates are having worse luck than him. The question becomes, then, not “Is this a Brandon Saad thing?” but rather “Is this a Jonathan Toews thing?”

Toews, to be fair, has shouldered his fair share of the blame (approximately) for being on a $10.5 million contract and maybe not even hitting 50 points by the time Chicago’s played the full 82. Again, the underlyings are all there and say he’s been unlucky, but at some point I don’t know how you can’t just say “Well he’s gonna be 30 in April, so maybe this is just the natural trend of his production.” He’s doing a lot of good things out there, and they rarely result in goals. Indeed, it’s fair to say that even when he was putting up 50-plus points a year like clockwork, he wasn’t scoring as much as he perhaps “should have,” not that this was what was asked of him.

Instead, scoring was always incumbent upon a guy who, unlike Toews, seems to be skipping out on a lot of the blame. Patrick Kane is hovering at a little less than a point a game this season, which is understandable, but is also down from the 1.2 per game he was producing when he had Artemi Panarin as his opposite wing.

Kane’s underlyings are pretty good, too, but he doesn’t have the excuses Toews does when it comes to bad luck. Yeah his linemates are worse, and that’s not his fault, but it was the result of a calculated trade-off decision made by Bowman; the idea was that Saad and Toews rekindling their connection would replace Kane and Panarin’s production. No surprise here: It hasn’t.

There are a lot of reasons why Panarin had to go this summer, and the bet was that Saad, who’s younger and certainly has a longer NHL track record, would be able to “reinvigorate” Jonathan Toews’s scoring touch while Kane was supposed to just be a borderline MVP candidate again with lesser talent on his line. That neither came true is wholly unsurprising, but it still lands everyone in the same spot: looking at Saad and saying, “Can you believe this guy?”

Other offseason acquisitions necessitated by Chicago’s cap crunch have been mostly inoffensive but also not up to par with the players they replaced. Connor Murphy, hey he’s young and signed long-term, but he’s an okay bottom-three defender making too much money, rather than the kind of minutes-munching, tough-matchups shutdown guy Nik Hjalmarsson was. Instead, they just don’t have that guy at all, and hey what do you know, everyone kinda collectively realized Brent Seabrook sucks as a result.

But with respect to the Murphy thing, it’s worth noting that Chicago is pushing double-digits in terms of guys who play on a regular basis and are under the age of 25. That’s not a bad spot to be in, but the problem is obviously that none of those guys are on par with what the team has shed. Somehow, some way, this club cultivated half a team’s worth of All-Stars (Ladd, Hossa, Byfuglien, Sharp, etc.) but lost almost all of them to cap-related attrition or age. The declines of Toews, Kane, Seabrook, and even Keith is in the same vein, except those were the guys the club decided were the key pieces to their long-term success. In most cases, they were right.

But now when the subject of bad contracts comes up, as it should, the question to ask is, “What were they supposed to do?” Chicago couldn’t let Kane or Toews walk a few summers ago. Bowman felt attached to Seabrook and extended him as well.

And the problem is that, much like the Red Wings, there isn’t that much help on the way. Years of drafting late, even after working more than a few steals in their day, have taken a toll on this team’s ability to produce top-end NHLers. Which is bound to happen, sure, but it also means harder decisions are coming somewhere down the road; how do you solve this long-term cap crunch without taking the guys who won you three Cups and telling them to pack their bags for Florida or Arizona if they can pull off a deal.

I said it in the mailbag, but selling in the near future — when there may still be some value for Kane, Toews, Keith, etc. — probably won’t be a well-received idea, but it’s a good one. You’re never getting back fair value for them because of their cap hits, obviously, but you’ll get guys who can play in the league (if only to balance out the money), plus picks and prospects that help ensure Saad and Anthony Duclair and Alex DeBrincat have people to help them develop.

Giving the keys to the kids after one bad season, filled with plenty of bad luck, may sound like a drastic plan, but what’s the alternative? There’s no way to expect anything other than the continuation of this uncomfortable decline. And that necessitates uncomfortable decisions.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.