NHL - US Sports: Are Chicago Blackhawks facing a rebuild?
The Chicago Blackhawks have failed to qualify for the playoffs in four of the past five seasons.
They have signalled a significant period of re-build by trading away top scorer Alex DeBrincat and former first-round pick Kirby Dach during this off-season, and not offering new deals to other established players like Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik.
Fall from grace
The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup three times between 2010 and 2015, a remarkable achievement in the salary cap era.
Since, they have fired Joel Quenneville, who led them to that unprecedented success, and his replacement Jeremy Colliton as the franchise has slipped further and further away from past glories.
After 14 years with the team, Senior Hockey Operations Adviser and former General Manager Scotty Bowman has also stepped away, replaced by Kyle Davidson who will oversee the full-scale re-build project.
Doubts on duo's future
The downward direction of the Blackhawks has cast major doubt over the futures of Captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who each played a pivotal role in the trio of Cup successes.
Toews, 34, and Kane, 33, are each entering the final season of an eight-year contract signed in July 2014.
Selected by the Blackhawks with the number three pick in 2006, Toews has amassed 852 points (357 goals, 495 assists) in 1,014 regular season games and 119 points (45 goals, 74 assists) in 137 playoff games.
Kane, the first overall pick by Chicago in 2007 has 1,180 points (430 goals, 750 assists) in 1,107 regular season games and 132 points (52 goals, 80 assists) in 136 playoff games.
Draining for Captain
After the Blackhawks traded away DeBrincat, Dach and Brandon Hagel ahead of the trade deadline last season, Toews admitted the reality of what is happening at his beloved club set in, and that he finds the idea of a five-plus-year rebuild "exhausting to think about".
Toews missed the 2020/21 season with a chronic immune response syndrome but returned last year to score 37 points (12 goals, 25 assists) in 71 regular season games.
That was a significant drop-off to seasons past, and so he may need to stick with the Blackhawks at least until the trade deadline to prove his health and on-ice value.
To the contrary, Kane led the Blackhawks for points last season (92; 26 goals, 66 assists) and will attract many suitors if he decides that he wants to call time on his 15-year career in Chicago.
The 34-year-old Davidson has made it clear that he wants the pair to spearhead the Blackhawks recovery project but it's unclear yet if either will decide to buy into it or go looking for glory elsewhere.
Their $10.4million annual average salary may prove a stumbling block, however, unless Chicago retain a large percentage for a bigger return of prospects which would no doubt interest them.
Why the tear down?
In signing three-time goalie Marc-Andre Fleury last season and top-end defenceman Seth Jones to a huge eight-year deal last summer, the Blackhawks appeared to be set on quickly becoming a playoff challenger again.
That didn't materialise as they finished seventh in the Central Division with a 28-42-12 record and flipped Fleury to the Minnesota Wild before the trade deadline.
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Chicago have suffered due to a lack of quality prospects coming through the system in recent years due to poor picks at the draft or short-sighted draft moves.
Every first-round pick former GM Bowman made either didn’t sign with the Blackhawks, didn’t pan out as an NHL player or was traded early in his career.
Picks the solution
Kane and Toews' continued presence at least remains a reminder as to how such a tear down can work, re-building through picks.
The Blackhawks failed to make the playoffs between 2002 and 2008 and in that time drafted Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, Dave Bolland and Niklas Hjalmarsson who all came together to win the three championships over the following seven years.
In the 2022 NHL draft alone the Blackhawks were able to make three picks in the first round, defencemen Kevin Korchinski and Sam Rinzel, plus forward Frank Nazar who are all part of the team's training camp for the upcoming season, showing signs that the development project is already well underway.