NHL Off-Season Outlook: Chicago Blackhawks

This is the latest file in THN.com’s ongoing analysis of the off-season plans for the NHL’s 32 teams. Today, we’re breaking down the Chicago Blackhawks’ blueprint for success.

2021-22 Record: 28-42-12
Finish In The Central Division: 1st
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $20.1 million
Restricted Free Agents: Kirby Dach, F; Dominik Kubalik, F; Philipp Kubashev, F; Dylan Strome, F; Caleb Jones, D
Unrestricted Free Agents: Calvin De Haan, D; Erik Gustafsson, D; Collin Delia, G; Kevin Lankinen, G

What Chicago Has: Accomplished star veterans in forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews; a minute-munching first-pair defenseman in Seth Jones; a dynamic scoring winger in Alex DeBrincat; above-average young forwards in Dylan Strome and Kirby Dach; a new head coach in well-respected Luke Richardson; a new management mandate for GM Kyle Davidson, who will have his first full year as Hawks GM in 2022-23

What Chicago Needs: Two NHL-caliber goaltenders; veteran help at all positions; a vastly improved penalty kill; a much deeper pool of prospects

What’s Realistic For Chicago Next Season: The Blackhawks cleaned house on the management side last season, parting ways with longtime GM Stan Bowman and head coach Jeremy Colliton during the year, and replacing them with Kyle Davidson as GM, and, this off-season, Luke Richardson as their permanent bench boss. But this is still a team that is in the midst of a changing-of-the-guard on the ice as well, and this summer’s moves will go a ways toward dictating whether they can do by the spring of 2023.

Stanley Cup-winning forwards and franchise cornerstones Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane remain with the Hawks, with both entering the final season of their lucrative contracts. We’ve said before that many hockey observers believe the duo want to remain in Chicago for their entire careers, but are they prepared for another year with no playoff games? Because that is a distinct possibility, no matter what Davidson does to the roster this summer.

Hawks fans should expect Davidson to spend a considerable amount of their salary cap space on goaltending, with veterans like Toronto’s Jack Campbell and St. Louis’ Ville Husso possibilities to be signed off the unrestricted free agent market. The good news for Chicago is there’s basically nowhere to go but up on the goalie front.

But no netminding acquisition is going to make the Blackhawks into a playoff team. They were the second-worst team in the Central Division last season, better only than the putrid Arizona Coyotes – and the third-worst team in the Central (the Winnipeg Jets) had a whopping 21 more standings points than Chicago. Moreover, the team that earned the final playoff berth in the Central last year (the Nashville Predators) had 17 more wins, and 29 more points than the Hawks. Even with internal improvement, there’s not nearly enough quality talent to project Chicago as a bona fide playoff squad.

And if Davidson decides to trade DeBrincat – who scored a team-best 41 goals last year – Richardson’s goal of making the Hawks consistently competitive will be that much more difficult. Such a move may cause Toews and/or Kane to reconsider their devotion to the organization, which makes it somewhat more baffling that Richardson is considering dealing DeBrincat. Yes, the 24-year-old will be a restricted free agent next summer, but the Hawks will have $53 million in projected cap space by that time. The onerous contract of forward Tyler Jonson ($5 million next year) will be off the books by then. But there aren’t many 40-goal-scorers to be had, especially ones still ultimately under team control.

Regardless, the Blackhawks are not, as currently constructed, talented enough to seriously challenge Colorado, Minnesota, the Blues, Stars or Preds to earn a playoff spot. Richardson will get honest efforts out of the players who do comprise Chicago’s lineup, but this still feels like a season of roster tumult and organizational patience.

The sex scandal that rocked the franchise is not forgotten and shouldn’t be forgotten, but the Hawks’ on-ice product will have a big boulder to push up a hill, and that’s just to be respectable again. The matter of pushing the Avs, Wild et al and really do some post-season damage is another story entirely.

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