NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Year in and year out, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman carefully assembles a Stanley Cup-ready roster by tiptoeing ever-so-close to the salary cap line with a “win now" mentality.
He’s finally biting the bullet for it.
The Nashville Predators drove a semi truck over the Western Conference favorites, handing the Blackhawks a 4-1 loss Thursday night to complete a four-game sweep of Chicago in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal. It’s the second straight year Chicago’s been bounced in the first round and the fourth time in the last seven years.
The Blackhawks were severely outplayed by a younger, faster, more balanced and hungry Predators team. We haven’t seen the Blackhawks look that outmatched since a first-round loss to Vancouver in 2011.
The Blackhawks scored just one goal at even strength in four games. If it wasn’t for a late goal by Jonathan Toews in Game 4, the Hawks could have been shutout in three of four games — that’s unreal for a Blackhawks team that’s been billed a modern-day dynasty.
For a team that finished the regular-season with a Western Conference-best 109 points, it’s not too surprising the Blackhawks bowed out in the first-round. The warning signs were there.
Back when Chicago won its first Patrick Kane- and Toews-led Stanley Cup in 2009-10, it led the league with a 56.55 Corsi. When the Hawks won a second Cup in 2012-13, it had a 54.14. They finished with a 53.59 when they won again in 2014-15.
Sure, Corsi isn’t the be-all end-all, but it shows just how much this team has aged. Instead of dancing around on offense, the Hawks spent the year chasing in its own end. Chicago’s decimal 77.7 penalty killing percentage, which ranked 24th in the NHL, tells the same story.
At times against the Predators power-play unit, it looked like the Blackhawks were playing two men down.
But with such a talented team, where did Bowman go wrong?
He’s done a brilliant job navigating a team with a salary cap that’s top-heavy and has found numerous diamonds in the rough to keep the ship afloat, but at some point, Bowman’s luck had to run out.
The Blackhawks are a team that’s been committed to paying their stars at all costs, that’s resulted in its supporting cast taking a big hit. With three Cups in eight years, Chicago has been forced to dump so many good players to get under the cap.
Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Trevor Daley, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, and Troy Brouwer have all been cap casualties. Add in the losses of young, up-and-coming players like Stephen Johns, Teuvo Teravainen, Marko Dano and Phillip Danault, that’s really tough to swallow.
Heck, that group would be a solid start for any expansion team.
Chicago’s depleted depth was obvious against the Predators.
Nashville skated up and down the ice, creating odd-man rush after odd-man rush. If it wasn’t for the superb play by Chicago goalie Corey Crawford in the first period, the outcome could have been out of hand.
Eight different Predators scored goals in the four-game sweep. Just three Blackhawks scored.
That’s how it was in the regular season, too. Nashville had 13 players with 10 or more goals, which was tied for the most the league. The Blackhawks had just seven, tied for the worst.
Chicago desperately tried to find an offensive spark by pairing Kane, Toews and Artemi Panarin on the same line at times Thursday. Kane even double-shifted early. Chicago dressed seven defensemen to aid its aging blue line. All of that came up empty.
For once, Chicago needs to make some sweeping changes to its roster. Not a full-blown rebuild, but something more than just trimming the edges.
It should start on the blue line.
The Blackhawks have four defensemen age 32 and over. Brian Campbell is 37. Johnny Oduya is 35. Duncan Keith is 33. Brent Seabrook is 32. Finding young, puck-moving defenseman is a must for a team that lacks team speed and energy. It may be a tough decision, but moving Keith and Seabrook could really help this team get younger and relieve some serious cap stress.
At forward, Chicago can’t be tempted to sell high on young kids like Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero and Nick Schmaltz. All three should be in the Hawks’ future plans.
If there’s any league interest in 38-year-old Marian Hossa, unload him. His cap hit of more than $5.2 million, however, will make it awfully hard to find a suitor.
The bottom line is it’d be crazy to think a team led by superstars Kane and Toews is done, but it’s time Chicago starts making more decisions for tomorrow and not just today.