Chicago won against an underwhelming Rangers team on Wednesday night. In doing so it perhaps staved off some of the concern that has been lingering around the team for the past week and, indeed, most of the season.
The headlines haven’t been great. “Despite some big losses…” one began. Another ended “… search for answers.” Another: “… must start performing better.” Joel Quenneville isn’t “sweating short-term job security” but the team is “still searching for consistency.”
And these are problems you hear about a lot, and have for more than just this season. When teams people think were going to be elite — and one struggles to understand why anyone thought this team would be elite — muddle through most of the first half of the season, the talk about them gets buzzword-y in a hurry.
With that said, Chicago still has a lot going for it, in theory. There’s high-end (albeit aging) talent at every position. There’s a guy who’s probably the best coach in the world. There’s a great process undergirding their performance, as the team is second in corsi-for (though only 16th in expected goals-for).
As far as players are concerned, they’ve been banged up this season, and thinned out over the last few summers, and it’s now gotten to an extent where maybe you say the stars, pushing or clearing 30 as they pretty much all have, just aren’t good enough to paint over the problems that come with so much success and a few deeply inadvisable contracts.
You hear a lot these days about how Chicago’s problems are about the “details.” Which is to say that the CF% and xGF% numbers probably tell plenty of the story here: They’re crushing in the former (53.1 percent) and struggling in the latter (50.8 percent) because they’re controlling a lot of shots but can’t keep opponents away from their net.
While the Blackhawks’ ability to generate high-quality chances is still quite strong — they’re sixth in the league in high-danger chances per 60 — the roster problems surrounding that D corps seem to finally be catching up with them, because only three teams in the league give up more high-danger chances per hour than they do. Almost every regular on the team struggles here, and people by and large don’t want to accept that this is perhaps the biggest indicator that Stan Bowman’s team faces a talent problem.
How many guys on ELCs can this team reasonably plug-and-play into the roster and expect to get 95-points-or-better hockey? Because right now they have eight, and that seems to me to be too many. I don’t care how good those young guys are (and many of them are indeed pretty good). You need useful, middle-value vets in this league. We know why Chicago can’t have them, obviously, but the problems that present as a result of these issues are, to many, not particularly explicable.
The “details” issues coaches and even fastidious observers complain about, like “puck management,” may often show up when things are going wrong. But how much is any given issue in any given game here a “puck management” problem, and how much is it a “thinning talent” problem? Because if it seems like Chicago is suddenly making mistakes up and down the lineup that it wasn’t making before, can we not draw a fairly straight line between the increase in “details” problems and the decrease in above-average NHL talent?
These are, ahem, crimes for which Quenneville will seemingly inevitably have to pay with his job. People, fans mostly, have been saying Quenneville “lost the room” at some point, and that’s led to the on-ice results this season. But what was Quenneville to do here? What amount of entreating words, or tweaked systems, would make Alex DeBrincat suddenly play like Artemi Panarin, or turn Vinny Hinostroza into a young, cap-friendly Marian Hossa? Wishing doesn’t make it so, and neither does trading Niklas Hjalmarsson for Connor Murphy.
The sins here, such as they are, spring from well-intentioned but doomed efforts to steer this franchise through perilous waters filled with overvaluation of extant players and incremental increases of the cap ceiling not commensurate with those in earlier years that allowed Bowman to shed some players but remain competitive.
Jonathan Toews, too, says he’s feeling the pressure that comes with his personal underperformance, and the resulting struggles felt by the entire team. Like Quenneville, this isn’t really his fault entirely but when you’re routinely put on Best Captains Ever lists because of team performance (for which you can claim varying degrees of credit depending upon your intellectual honesty) and getting $10.5 million against the cap, the pressure will be visited upon you. Fair or unfair, this is what you signed up for.
Another thing that probably isn’t Toews’s fault but is still going to be a problem is the fact that he’s pushing 30, well out of his prime by now, and likely to only get worse. Time comes for us all but there are still plenty of years left on his deal and Kane’s and Seabrook’s and Keith’s and Anisimov’s and Saad’s and even Murphy’s. Most of those guys are out of their prime production years already and rapidly approaching the point at which they are not only no longer productive, but actively counterproductive. And yet they linger. And they’ll do so regardless of just about any trade the team can make. Regardless of who gets fired or hired behind the bench. Regardless of larger shakeups.
The thing is, despite all these concerns, Chicago is still very much in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. They finished that Rangers game two points out of the last wild-card slot with as many games in hand, but that is likely to be their only window for playoff entry. Finishing top-three in the division, seven points away and with two other division rivals separating them, is likely lost unless this team goes on some kind of run.
The Blackhawks are currently on a 92- or 93-point pace, which puts them right on that playoff borderline. It looks like you’ll probably need 93 or 94 to make the playoffs in the West this season, so they need to pick it up a little, but not too much.
Can they? Sure. Can they without adding someone to help them push for the playoffs, and give up futures in the process? Less likely, but also “sure.”
Of course, making the playoffs is and should be viewed as a hollow goal for this team, because it’s hard to see the point. Lose in the first round again, maybe get really lucky with the draw and squeak into the second. That, you figure, would be enough to get some people fired, but there’s no big change to the roster coming. There cannot be.
So one imagines the team will be working on “details” and “consistency” for some time to come. One further imagines they will not find it.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.