There’s a new era of hockey coming to the Chicago Blackhawks. Once a modern dynasty in the first half of the 2010s, the Blackhawks haven’t won a real playoff series since the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and were last seen in a real postseason series getting swept by the Nashville Predators in 2017.
So began the slow death of the “One Goal” era of Blackhawks hockey.
The Blackhawks announced on Tuesday that Kyle Davidson would be the 10th general manager in the history of the franchise, having the interim tag lifted from his title.
With Davidson now given the full power of the general manager role, he is tasked with bringing the Blackhawks into a brand new era of hockey in Chicago.
He has a long road ahead.
The team has a long road ahead.
The fanbase has a long road ahead.
But exactly how long is that road?
Davidson expressed that the Blackhawks will be rebuilding. Whether that will be a three-year or five-year plan, they will have to rebuild the team on and off the ice from the ground up, and do it “the right way.” Whether those were veiled shots at Stan Bowman or not, Davidson and Blackhawks CEO Danny Wirtz said definitively at Davidson’s introductory press conference that the organization would not deviate from the plan and that they would have patience with their chosen path.
What is that path forward? It started as soon as Davidson stepped off the stage on Tuesday at the United Center. The NHL Trade Deadline is less than three weeks away and the Blackhawks have too many players on the team that they have no need to hold onto.
The most marquee of those players is Marc-André Fleury. He came to the Blackhawks expecting to compete in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs. Needless to say, that’s not going to happen. At least in Chicago it won’t be. Now reports indicate that Fleury, the biggest trade piece on the roster, may end up staying in Chicago and playing the entire season with the Blackhawks.
Fleury has a 10-team no-trade clause on his deal, but the Blackhawks will likely “do right” by Fleury and not move him anywhere he doesn’t want to go, even outside of that 10-team list. What is best for Fleury as a person is probably to stay in Chicago and not have him or his family move, again, this year.
But what’s best for the Blackhawks is to get as many future assets as possible for the 37-year-old goaltender. Davidson will be tasked with treating Fleury right, while also convincing him to accept a trade to a contender.
Outside of Fleury, Davidson will have to figure out what to do with a player like Dylan Strome. He’s still young, still inconsistent, and likely affordable if you can convince him to sign in the offseason without offering him his $3.6M qualifying offer. For a rebuilding team that is thin at the center position, Strome could be a perfect candidate to be a cheaper, placeholder option. Strome has been reportedly offered on the trade market for over a year and so far no legitimate takers have presented themselves. He likes Chicago, and he likes playing with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane. If Strome wouldn’t be offended and the free-agent market didn’t present better options, the Blackhawks could go without offering Strome his RFA qualifying offer and sign him to another short-term deal with a smaller cap hit.
This isn’t even mentioning yet that both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are eligible for contract extensions on July 13. Both are signed through the 2022-23 season at $10.5M and both hold full no-movement clauses on their deals. Every day that goes by after July 13, Toews, Kane, and Davidson will be asked what the plan is for those two players.
The waters that Davidson will have to navigate with the futures of the two remaining pillars of the “modern dynasty Blackhawks” are deep and murky. Both players likely want to play their entire careers with the Blackhawks, but both players also want to win. They know they are in the back-ends of their playing careers, but do either of them want their last years being played on bad teams without a chance to contend for one more Stanley Cup?
If they are willing to stick around, would Davidson be able to give Kane a bigger contract than Toews without creating a rift between the long-time Blackhawks buddies? The two have had identical contracts for their entire careers, but at this point in time, they are no longer playing on the same level of each other. Especially for a guy like Toews, who is very clearly not the same player he once was and has had injuries and illnesses to overcome in recent seasons, one has to wonder how many years he has left in the tank as a top-tier NHL player. Some might say he’s already no longer at that level.
The rebuild in Chicago will test the organization and their commitment to sticking to “the plan.” If the fans are not on board, they will see it in the stands and in the comment sections. Even though the sellout streak ended this season, the Blackhawks have remained in the top-third of the NHL in attendance based on the percentage of the United Center being filled (92.4) and fifth in the league based on average number of fans in the building per night (18,211). That’s still affected by COVID, but also the state of the franchise following the Kyle Beach sexual assault investigation and the declining product on the ice. Without a clear path forward that fans can get on board with, those still impressive attendance numbers might get worse.
Is the fanbase ready or willing to accept being in the bottom of the league for the next handful of years as the organization replenishes the prospect pool and looks to contend again in 2025, 2026, or 2027 and beyond?
Chicago is not a city where long-term mediocrity or less is tolerated. It’s a city that likes winners. The Blackhawks saw this first-hand 15 years ago when the team began to turn around. It’s now up to Davidson and his yet-to-be assembled hockey operations department to sell the players and the fans on what’s to come in the next era of Blackhawks hockey.