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The 2021-22 NHL season for the Chicago Blackhawks ends on Friday. We’ve all been counting down the days to the final game of the regular season against the Buffalo Sabres. You’d have to imagine even the coaches and players have been doing the same. This season has been a grind, both on and off the ice. One of the best things that can and should come out of this season for the Blackhawks on the ice is a clear direction for the future.
General Manager Kyle Davidson took over the Blackhawks early in March and started his tenure by expressing that the team would be going through a rebuild. A long-overdue process for the Blackhawks to get the team down to the bare bones, find out which young players can be built around, and hopefully return to the top of the league and return to planning Stanley Cup Championship parades.
As the season closes, the top names renaming in Chicago have had numerous opportunities to address the media and answer questions about their futures with the Blackhawks and how the rebuilding plan affects them. Notably this week, we’ve heard from Patrick Kane, Seth Jones, and Jonathan Toews. More notably, but definitely unsurprisingly, all three believe the rebuild and return to prominence for Chicago can happen quicker than most expect it to.
“You can win and still be in a rebuild,” Patrick Kane said in his pseudo-exit interview on Tuesday. “I think there are teams that have accelerated that, too, right? You look at L.A., they had some young guys that probably came in and maybe exceeded some of their front-office expectations and all of a sudden they’re in a spot where they can sign guys like [Phillip] Danault and trade for [Viktor] Arvidsson and they’re a better team.”
Kane, who will see his 90+ point season wasted with no postseason play, went on to also use the New York Rangers (another team headed to the playoffs this season) as an example.
“Same thing with the Rangers. They put out that memo a couple of years ago that they’re rebuilding, and all of a sudden they’re one of the best teams in the league a couple of years later. You bring a guy in like [Artemi] Panarin, that helps, or a guy like [Igor] Shesterkin. He comes to the forefront. You need those young guys obviously to take next steps but I think it could be done quicker than maybe some people think. So, as a player, you’re not worried about how long it takes or what’s going on as far as when we’re going to win again. You’re always trying to help that process move along as quickly as possible.”
Prior to the regular-season home finale on Wednesday night, both Jonathan Toews and Seth Jones agreed with Kane’s message that Chicago could try to emulate other teams that have committed to rebuilds and make the process quicker than expected.
On Wednesday, Jones also alluded to the work done by the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. “If you have a good foundation and a good system for guys to come in and learn together, it can happened quicker than you expect. I think you saw a couple of teams like L.A. went pretty quick. Anaheim was pretty good this year as well. I don’t think they realized how good they could be. So I think we are kind of in the same situation.”
Jones is essentially anchored into the Blackhawks and their rebuild with his eight-year, $9.5M AAV contract extension with the club kicking-in next season. The hope is that Jones is a key figure, in a positive way, to the rebuild and will see the end of the rebuilding plans with postseason hockey in his tenure with Chicago.
But for a player like Jonathan Toews, who has already been a part of the rebirth of the Blackhawks early in his career and has been to the top of the NHL mountain three times in his career, his future with the club is as cloudy as it has ever been. While he is tight-lipped on his future with the team beyond the 2022-23 season, he also believes there is a way for a rebuild in Chicago to not drag-on for close to a decade, or worse.
“As we’ve seen with other teams, things can turn around pretty quickly,” the soon-to-be 34-year-old captain said on Wednesday. “I think if a lot of different guys are given the right environment and right opportunity and keep taking steps forward, I think things can turn around pretty fast.”
While it sounds all well and good for the top players in the organization to believe that the losing and the rebuilding process won’t take long in Chicago, what else are they expected to say? Professional athletes don’t get to where they are in their careers, at the highest levels of the game, without an unbridled internal drive to win and be the best. They don’t have a natural losing bone in their bodies and if they do, they don’t last long in the top levels of professional sports. So through that lens, it’s easy to get why guys like Toews, Kane, and Jones might misunderstand that the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and New York Rangers’ rebuilds have not been all that fast.
Since winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, the Kings have not won a postseason series and have failed to make the playoffs in five of their last seven seasons. They had winning percentages of .433, .457, and .438 in the three previous seasons before this year. The Kings have drafted in the lottery four of the last five seasons and have the fifth-best prospect pipeline in the NHL according to The Athletic’s Corey Pronman.
The Anaheim Ducks have not won a playoff series since their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2017. They have missed the postseason for the past three seasons prior to 2021-22 and will again miss the playoffs this year to make it four years in-a-row. They have winning percentages of .488, .472, .384, and .469 (currently) over that stretch of time and will have four-straight drafts in the lottery. Corey Pronman ranked Anaheim’s prospect pipeline tenth in the league, and much of that can be attributed to how good of player Trevor Zegras is and how good of a player Troy Terry has developed into.
The New York Rangers were bounced from the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2017 and have not returned since. They have winning percentages of .470, .476, .564, and .536 in the last five seasons where they have missed the playoffs. Even with winning records in the past two seasons before 2021-22, the Rangers had not finished higher than fifth in the Metropolitan Division. They had no first-round draft picks in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, but then have drafted in the lottery for the past five drafts, including drafting Alexis Lafrenèire first-overall in 2020 and Kaapo Kakko second-overall in 2019. Corey Pronman ranks New York’s prospect pipeline fourth in the NHL and the Rangers are headed back to the postseason this year.
Chicago? They haven’t won a playoff series since winning the 2015 Stanley Cup. They haven’t played in a true postseason since being swept by the Nashville Predators in 2017. They have winning percentages of .463, .512, .514, .491, and .406 this season. They have not and will not finish better than sixth in their division since winning the Central in the 2016-17 season. They have drafted just twice in the lottery since 2017, with one of those picks (Adam Boqvist) no longer in the organization. From 2011-2019, Chicago has had nine first-round draft picks and only two remain in the organization. Chicago’s draft classes from 2014-2018 produced 13 players to play in NHL games, with nine of those 13 playing the majority of their NHL games for other teams. Corey Pronman ranked the Blackhawks’ prospect pipeline 23rd in the NHL.
So while Chicago holds results in the standings similar to the Rangers, Kings, and Ducks over the past half-decade or so, they are essentially starting from square one in their rebuilding process now, rather than four or five years ago. They also have not drafted well in their recent history, and when they have, most of those players have been traded away for one reason or another. The development of the prospect system hasn’t been ideal and the cupboards need replenishing.
Kyle Davidson is playing major cleanup duty in the beginning of his tenure as Blackhawks GM. The rebuild will come with challenges, losses, and pain. But it will end, hopefully, with tears of joy in the next five years or so. The rebuild could happen faster than we expect if things go perfectly. But with respect to Jones, Toews, and Kane, I wouldn’t advise them to hold their collective breath.
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