By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — The rise of a modern hockey dynasty in this city was something extraordinary. We may not have known from their birth a decade ago, but these Blackhawks would be something to savor.
A group of young stars came together and brought Chicago its greatest era of hockey yet, a run of success that made its fan base proud. The Blackhawks have reached the postseason in nine consecutive years, marking the second-longest active span in hockey. They won three Stanley Cup championships in six years, making a proud Original Six franchise a winner.
More specifically, the Blackhawks accomplished a feat the NHL’s salary cap was designed to prevent, maintaining a place at the top of hockey for the better part of 10 years.
Now, it seems we are witnessing the fall of that dynasty, the end of an era.
The Blackhawks enter Friday with a mark of 26-27-8 and with their playoff hopes all but dashed, as they’re 12 points behind the final wild-card spot. Unless they can catch fire, the Blackhawks won’t be in the postseason this spring. A franchise that has enjoyed so much success the last decade is dejected, still coming to grips with its realities.
Some seven hours before taking the ice against the Senators and earning an uninspiring 3-2 shootout win at the United Center on Wednesday, the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane spoke of the different feel in their dressing room. They haven’t been here before, a losing team riding out the remainder of a season.
“It’s tough on all of us,” Kane said. “It’s kind of uncharted territories for us, the situation we’ve been in, where we’re at in the standings. It hasn’t been easy on any of us.”
Added Toews: “That’s when you really got to find a way to prove what you got, is when things aren’t going so good.”
Answers have been few and far between during a lost season for the Blackhawks. Players often speak of getting out to fast starts, finding consistency in their play, playing smarter with the puck and pursuing it more aggressively. There have been plenty of clichés and concepts easier said than done.
While the Blackhawks will talk of puck luck, anybody who has watched this era unfold knows well this is no fluke. It isn’t just a stretch of poor play; this has been 61 games of a Blackhawks team we don’t recognize. The clutch plays, the timely goals, the improbable comebacks, they’ve gone away this year.
The disappointment of this season for the Blackhawks is the culmination of a process that brought Chicago its hockey heyday.
A decade ago, the mere thought of a Stanley Cup seemed distant for Chicago. Even with the arrival of young stars in Toews and Kane, success was a foreign concept for a franchise lost in its ways.
In 2004, ESPN The Magazine ranked the then-122 franchises of the four major sports. The Blackhawks ranked 122nd, with the article writing: “It’s not sad. It used to be sad. Nobody cares enough to be sad anymore.”
When Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman of the Blackhawks for his late father, Bill, the organization rededicated itself to winning. Former general manager Dale Tallon drafted Toews third overall in 2006 and Kane with the top pick in 2007. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook had already become young stars on the blue line. Tallon further strengthened the team’s chances by signing Marian Hossa to a 12-year deal in 2009.
Stan Bowman took over as general manager in summer 2009 and took on the next challenge — building around the young stars to bring a championship to Chicago, and do so working around the hard cap. Sure enough, the Blackhawks broke through with a lift of the Stanley Cup in 2010, their first since 1961. Three years later in 2013, they did it again in a strike-shortened season. In 2015, they did it yet again.
The foundation was set and Bowman built — and rebuilt — the team into a champion. Joel Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history, found the right ingredients during each run to bring the best of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith and Seabrook.
But the lengthy, lucrative deals given to the players who led the Blackhawks to the playoffs for nine straight years are the reason their postseason hopes are in jeopardy for the coming years.
Kane and Toews will each make $10.5 million the next five years. One is the captain, the other was named an All-Star this season, and both should have statues outside the United Center when their careers are over. They aren’t being traded, nor should they.
Seabrook is 32 and making nearly $7 million each of the next six years. Keith is two years older and making more than $5.5 million over the next five years. It would be really difficult to deal either to another team given their hefty paydays, even if both players didn’t own a no-move clause.
Brandon Saad will make $6 million each of the next three years and has underperformed this season. He hasn’t replaced Hossa, who has been missed while sitting out with a skin allergy caused by his equipment.
Goaltender Corey Crawford had been the lone Blackhawks star playing his best hockey, but he’s been shut down since Dec. 23. with concussion-like symptoms. His season could well be over, as Quenneville suggested Wednesday. The Blackhawks have realized what they’re missing without him this year.
The Blackhawks were bounced from the playoffs in the first round the last two springs. Last year, they entered as top seed in the Western Conference and were swept in four games by the upstart Predators, who exposed the Blackhawks as a group past its prime.
Bowman promised the Blackhawks would come back a different team. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Twenty-one games remain in this regular season, one in which hope began seaping away in January. At this point, it isn’t a matter of whether there will be change but rather to what degree.
Firing Quenneville or Bowman would be merely symbolic relative to the bigger picture. Quenneville has tried just about everything with this team. Bowman deserves credit for identifying young talents like Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza, but this team is missing many pieces.
We’re witnessing the inevitable fall of a modern-era hockey dynasty, sooner than one could’ve imagined. It’s the premature decline of some All-Stars and even Hall of Fame players, leaving the Blackhawks devoid of the dominant player we’ve come to know.
Perhaps the Blackhawks’ youth can rise around the core and lift the organization back to prominence, though that group hasn’t been the problem this season. There are some promising prospects honing their game in junior leagues. Maybe a long offseason will bring better in 2018-’19 from the team’s stars.
But more likely than not, this season is no outlier and this Blackhawks era of success has reached its final horn.