By Robert Zeglinski
What’s the best word to describe an annual NHL trade deadline marked by desperation, confidence, and perhaps even arrogance? Chaos.
How does one describe a resurgent Blackhawks squad’s urgency to add a major chess piece by Wednesday’s midnight hour? A shrug.
After making a big splash in two consecutive years with trades for Andrew Ladd and Antoine Vermette in both 2016 and 2015, the Hawks can make another move or comfortably stand pat. Such is the luxury of an experienced dynasty level team with development of quality youth on the fly.
Here are your New England Patriots, your San Antonio Spurs of the NHL. Always lurking in the background until they’re lifting another trophy while maintaining the best standard of excellence among their peers.
General manager Stan Bowman knows where his team stands as his team begins to evolve at a gradual and terrifying rate. It might just be time to kick up his feet on his desk and relax.
Yes, as the rest of the league rushes around in a frantic hurry to gear up for the grueling, upcoming spring gauntlet (see: Kevin Shattenkirk trade to the Washington Capitals) Chicago’s in a relatively solid place of peace. A Hawks team that went 9-1 in the month of February with two wins over the Western conference leading Minnesota Wild, could use extra depth, but doesn’t necessarily need it.
And by all respective measure, that’s okay.
The landscape of the league doesn’t demand Chicago load up, because the field is wide open. There is no league juggernaut that doesn’t have significant flaws that can’t be exploited by any means. And really, for the most part, based on their recent play, the Hawks possess more than enough to capture a fourth Stanley Cup in eight seasons – the seventh overall in franchise history.
As he told the Chicago Sun Times, Captain Jonathan Toews appreciates where his teammates and himself stand with the playoffs on the horizon.
“I love our group right now. Everyone’s getting better individually, everyone’s contributing more, and it’s a lot of fun to see the way we’re playing right now.”
Even while these comments mirror the always-positive Toews of old doing his classic leadership shtick before previous deadlines, it’s difficult to find fault with the 28-year-old’s beaming praise on this occasion. All you have to do is take a look at how the Hawks are currently setting ice rinks on fire every time they step in for a game. Who could doubt them at the present moment?
Since January’s All Star break, the Blackhawks have gone 9-2, and averaged over four goals a game as depth has showcased across all four lines. Toews, who leads by example, has 26 points in his last 13 games with a red-hot-groove. That same stretch also has seen two relative cruising victories over the division rival Minnesota Wild, who lead the Western conference and who the Hawks will likely have to go through en route to another title.
But with their experience and talent, every other team just looks like a speed bump at this juncture for Chicago. The key to any Cup run is depth and repeated waves. No one understands this better than the Blackhawks. And no doubt much to the chagrin of other contenders such as the Wild, or even Capitals in the Eastern Conference, it appears the Blackhawks possesses that framework yet again.
Last season, Chicago had just four players with 15 plus goals (Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov, Artemi Panarin, and Toews). This year, Chicago already has seven guys above that mark when depth grinders such as Richard Panik, Ryan Hartman, and a resurgent Marian Hossa have risen to the gravity of the moment. This scoring benchmark has been a key for previous championship Blackhawks teams in full 82-game seasons (2013’s lockout shortened season excluded) where the Hawks had at least six players above 15 goals in both 2015 and 2010. Skilled depth is key and it’s present at the United Center in spades once more.
Truth be told, Chicago theoretically could make another move to load up, though. With this organization it’s championship or bust every year. Hey, star Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche may be available, while at a heavy bargain.
Every year the faces of the franchise in Toews and Kane have more mileage on their tires means the clock is ticking. This is the best the Blackhawks have ever been and based on statistical probability of finding the right mix of generational talent, quality coaching, and more, likely the best they will ever be for some time. You want to maximize once-in-a-lifetime opportunities such as this.
But given the advent of Nick Schmaltz (10 points in February), and Hartman (six points in February), who is playing the part of Chicago’s new Andrew Shaw-pseudo-Swiss Army Knife of bottom-six dynamos, they don’t really have to. Giving up the farm would be unwise. Plays from young guns such as these two, along with the play of Hossa and Toews, have the Hawks sitting pretty and able to retain prospects for future Cup runs as they try to extend this core. Don’t forget Team MVP’s and goaltenders, Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, either.
Chicago has it all and they’re feeling “it.”
Retaining prospects isn’t a priority for a team that’s always in win-now mode but given the model the Blackhawks have perfected in meshing players into significant contributors mid-season, any guys who aren’t in the system yet such as the uber-talented Alex DeBrincat, are better off being kept and stashed away to flourish when ready.
It’s a fascinating case study. Not many teams can afford to go all-in with their roster as stands while also maintaining the future, but this year’s Hawks have accomplished that. Quality organizational structure, development, and the general incumbent star power has allowed for that fact.
With mid-April and the roller coaster of the playoffs incoming, a loose, earned attitude permeates within this roster. As for Toews’ quiet outspoken calm, well, he’ll always reflect the inner workings of this grizzled, championship level team.
“We know the ceiling is way higher and we can keep getting better too.”
Other notes: The Blackhawks signed Michal Rozsival and Jordin Tootoo to one-year extensions on Tuesdays. Both guys don’t really contribute anything on a nightly basis of late as healthy scratches, but this is about gaming the NHL system.
Signing Tootoo and Roszival to the roster for at least more year has the Hawks meet the minimum forward and defenseman quota for this June’s upcoming expansion draft. Exposing these two, however unlikely they are to be claimed, will by all probability allow Chicago to retain Hartman (one more forward needs to be exposed), who is a key incremental piece moving forward.
A great loophole found by Bowman and company.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.