Whenever a team would win three cups in seven years, you would think that their franchise is set for a long while, right? Well, the future for players and coaches of the Chicago Blackhawks could be in jeopardy.
On April 20th, the Blackhawks were shockingly swept by 2nd Wild Card Nashville Predators for another first round exit. Last year, Chicago lost in seven games to their rival St. Louis Blues in the first round, who made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the San Jose Sharks. The Blues were an impressive team last year, dominating the physicality, speed, and playmaking of every game. Although the Hawks took the series to seven games, no one expected the then-defending Champs to be ousted in the first round. While last year’s elimination was disappointing, that doesn’t compare to this year’s embarrassment.
On March 19th, the Blackhawks clinched yet another playoff spot, and would later clinch the Western Conference. Looking back on it, we clinched it too early, in my opinion. With around a week left of the regular season, we decided to rest/limit their star players for the playoffs. While Kane, Toews, and Panarin were getting some playing time, stars like goaltender Corey Crawford and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson were absent from the ice. In the last four games of the regular season, the Blackhawks went 0-3-1, losing to three teams that were not in playoff contention. That worried me. Why? Because their eventual first-round opponent was still fighting for a playoff spot.
Yes, we clinched the Western Conference. But while we were taking it easy leading into the playoffs, the Nashville Predators were fighting with the Los Angeles Kings for the last playoff spot. They never took their foot off the gas pedal, while Chicago had been in cruise control for an entire week. Then the playoffs started, and their first round was against the Preds. The majority of NHL analysts were picking Chicago to move on to the next round, citing their previous playoff experiences. But everyone, including myself, underestimated Nashville’s grit and determination to get revenge on the Blackhawks, who eliminated them in the 2015 playoffs. Goaltender Pekka Rinne shut out Chicago in the first two games to take an early 2-0 series lead. With Chicago having home-ice advantage in the playoffs, one never would expect the Blackhawks to lose two games at the United Center, one of the loudest arenas in the league. Heading into Nashville, the fans were rowdy and the atmosphere is electric. Chicago has been down in series before against some of the toughest teams in the league. But there was something about this Nashville Predators team this year that the Hawks couldn’t solve.
The shot-blocking abilities from essentially every player on the roster frustrated players like Toews, Kane, Panarin, and Marian Hossa. Looking at the stats after every period, the shots on goal were extremely lopsided. Secondly, the defensive pressure of Nashville prevented Chicago from generating any scoring chances, especially in the middle zone. The Blackhawks would end up dumping and chasing the puck, only to, in the end, turn the puck over. Lastly, the Predators’ speed killed Chicago. The aging defensemen on the Hawks couldn’t keep up with the young defensive pairings that the Predators had to offer. The odd-man rushes became natural to them, and the Blackhawks were getting outplayed in every aspect. After such an amazing regular season, they flop in the playoffs and get swept, ending their season short yet again.
Not only were the fans upset and frustrated by another sudden exit, but so was general manager Stan Bowman. He called their postseason efforts a “complete failure” and was “frustrated and angry” after getting swept in the first round. Chicago was one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. A few days later, Bowman fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who was teammates with coach Joel Quenneville from 1979-1983 and was also an assistant under Quenneville with the Blues from 1998-2003. Next up was backup goaltender and 2015 first-round hero Scott Darling, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. As of May 20th, no other trades or cuts have been made. As far as extensions, winger Richard Panik has agreed to a two-year deal, having career-high numbers last season on the same line as Toews.
What will the future hold for the Chicago Blackhawks? Will any key stars be in danger of getting traded? How will this year’s expansion draft change the roster? How will Bowman approach the rest of the offseason? As the days, weeks, and months go on, we shall see.