Throughout the regular season, analysts correctly noted that the Chicago Blackhawks’ possession numbers and penalty-killing numbers were down — a sure sign that these were not the same Blackhawks that won three Stanley Cups in the last six seasons.
It’s a convenient fallback to explain how St. Louis has grabbed a 3-1 series lead over Chicago in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, but the Blackhawks have mostly found a way to compensate for those issues. They have outshot the St. Louis Blues in three of four games and in the first two games of this series, their penalty-killing unit was perfect.
The harder number to overcome was far less esoteric. Chicago lost 10 players off last season’s championship team — an ironic concession to the very salary cap that late owner William Wirtz pushed to install. The last time that happened was after the Blackhawks’ 2010 Cup, and they exited the playoffs in the first round for two consecutive seasons (against the Canucks and Coyotes).
Ten players. Think about that. That’s 43 percent of the roster. It was easy to tout the Blackhawks’ experience and superlative stars when handicapping this series with St. Louis. It was easy to note the Blues’ history of playoff failures. They have just one playoff series win in the last 12 years.
Hockey is still a team game, however, that increasingly relies on four solid lines and at least four solid defensemen.
When you lose 10 players off a roster, you’re going to be a couple pieces short — even if GM Stan Bowman tried valiantly to plug the leaks with a flurry of activity at the trade deadline that any GM in an open window of Cup opportunity should do.
Outside of a big goal or two to push games along, it is clear that Chicago’s greatest need right now is a fourth defenseman to help drive possession and offense. It’s hard to blame Bowman for not finding that piece. A half-dozen other clubs were searching for the same ingredient at the deadline. It just wasn’t available.
Brian Elliott has been brilliant in goal for the Blues, but the Blackhawks have been able to overcome great goaltending in the past. Their margin for error is just slimmer now, and when you look down the road, you wonder if Chicago is at a crossroads.
On the one hand, a long summer of rest may be just what the doctor ordered for a team that has played more playoff games over the last six seasons than any other NHL club. Chicago’s core of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin and Corey Crawford is still young enough for another run.
On the flip side, Marian Hossa may finally be showing his age, Chicago has no elite defensemen in its system to replenish its thin blue line corps after years of trading away prospects to compete for Cups. Add in the probability that the salary cap won’t rise much this summer and they will be saddled with Bryan Bickell’s albatross of a contract for one more season — the very contract that cost them wing Brandon Saad in the offseason — and the picture gets murkier.
Three Stanley Cups in six years is a heck of a run and we’re not ready to write off the Blackhawks just yet — not for the coming years and not for this postseason when they have worked such magic before — but there is a coming reckoning for Bowman that may require a significant retooling of this roster. That is never easy, but especially when you are so constrained by the cap.
It’s stunning how quickly fortunes change in professional sports. If the Blackhawks can’t rally against the Blues, the NHL’s marquee franchise will be littered with questions this summer; questions that won’t be easy to answer.
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