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What Went Wrong with the Blackhawks This Year?

Age, injuries, and bad luck led to a season that was even more disappointing than last year. But a talented young group of forwards could give their aging stars more support next year and extend the golden age a bit longer.

The dynasty is bruised, but not yet beaten.   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Three Stanley Cups, nine straight postseason appearances, a handful of future Hall-of-Famers with trophy cases swelling with prestigious awards and Olympic medals—does that not count for something? Are you not entertained?

Yes, the Blackhawks’ decade of dominance came to an end, and it’s possible the golden age has seen the sun set as well, but how bout a stick tap for it all? In that span, the Hawks rose from the ashes of the dark ages and hoisted more Stanley Cups and made more deep playoff runs than any other team. We expect so much from the Blackhawks because they set the bar so insurmountably high—the gold standard of the NHL.

So what went wrong?

After an unsettling sweep in the first round of the playoffs last year at the hands of the Nashville Predators, it was natural to expect some motivation and some resilience.

The 2017-2018 season was preceded by trading invaluable shot-blocking defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and placing unrivaled two-way forward Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve for a rare skin condition. Two of the Blackhawks’ most valuable core members were gone and those remaining would need to pick up the slack.

Brent Seabrook (32) and Duncan Keith (34) may not spend their free time bickering on a park bench like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but this season they didn’t age gracefully. Before they feed the birds by the pond, the legendary Hawks defensemen will have to regain the steps they lost and prove they can still be elite players in today’s speedy and skilled NHL next season. Keith has only managed one goal out of 180 shots this season, and Seabrook, who played his 1,000th game yesterday, has also seen a decrease in point production and is giving up too many chances defensively.

The defense as a whole was the Hawks’ biggest sore spot this year. While Keith and Seabrook struggled to find their form, newcomers on D like Jordan Oesterle, Erik Gustafsson, and Jan Rutta had difficulty adjusting to the big league.

Big hole in net

The Hawks’ last line of defense was nearly as big an issue as the defense itself. Corey Crawford was able to put a tarp on the defensive gaps with his usual spectacular play in net, but once he was placed on injured reserve on December 27 with an upper-body injury, the wheels soon came off. Backup goalie Anton Forsberg and Rockford IceHogs call-ups Jeff Glass and Jean-Francois Berube all had some nice wins, but failed to consistently play well.

Powerless

The Blackhawks’ power play was atrocious all season, especially when you consider the talent they throw out there for it. They currently have the fourth-worst power play in the league with a 15.8 percent conversion rate. The Hawks were able to get away with a weak power play in the past, but that’s when the rest of the team’s game was ironclad.

Top line top O’ letdown

The least-pressing concern among the 2017-2018 team’s woes is their offense. Kane didn’t see much of a decline in production, going from 89 points last season to 74 with four games remaining. Considering the team traded away Kane’s partner-in-crime Artemi Panarin to bring Brandon Saad back, that’s not too shabby.

Despite a very disappointing season from Saad, which in large part has been due to bad puck luck, the move was still the right one on paper. Saad had a career year in Columbus the prior season and at 25 has good hockey left in him. The biggest issue with Saad underperforming was that he was supposed to rekindle his prior chemistry with team captain Jonathan Toews, who desperately needed a bounce-back season after two fairly unproductive ones.

Richard Panik was also supposed to be a force to be reckoned with on Chicago’s top line, but after failing to produce, he was traded to Arizona in January. Toews’ game picked up a little as the season went on, but it’s paramount for the team’s success next year that he have a better start.

Opponents should receive some credit for the Hawks’ decline. It took nearly a decade, but the league has adjusted to, and many teams now implement, Chicago’s fast-paced, puck-possessing game.

Young man’s game

On the bright side, twenty-year-old rookie forward Alex DeBrincat displayed the type of generational talent fans were hoping for. Near the end of the season, only two NHL rookies have more goals than DeBrincat’s 27. The winger was also the first in Blackhawks history to record three hat tricks in his first season and is only the second U.S.-born player to do so. The Hawks’ young group of seven forwards 23 years old or younger seems to have a high ceiling overall.

Why do we fall, Master Bruce?

The team is getting younger and in knowing they’ll miss the playoffs, the organization was able to plug in a lot of prospects to see what they can bring to the table. In coming years, the youngsters will be better adjusted.

Toews, Keith and Seabrook will look to prove they can still play at a top level and lead the team on a deep run. If Crawford comes back healthy and if the core can find their game again, even possibly with reduced roles, maybe, just maybe they can keep that Stanley Cup window open a bit longer.

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