The Chicago Blackhawks’ front office and executive team has been talking all week long about how they believe they are still a playoff contender, but the reality is that the team is stuck in a nearly-impossible spot as they move into the future.
The Blackhawks, who have lost seven games in a row, fired former head coach Joel Quenneville on Tuesday, and they did so because they believe that they had to “improve” if they wanted to have a shot at the postseason.
“We have to improve if we want to have a chance,” G.M. Stan Bowman told the media this week. “We have to be better.”
Things haven't gone well after the firing, as the Blackhawks have dropped their first two games under new head coach Jeremy Colliton, but that is to be expected after dismissing a veteran coach that has been with the team for over a decade.
With that being said, the Blackhawks can continue to insist all they want that they are still thinking playoffs and that a rebuild is not on the table (team president John McDonough called their current course a “remodel”), but the reality is that they wouldn’t be able to easily execute a rebuild even if that’s what they chose to do.
Unlike the Chicago Bulls, White Sox, and Cubs, the Blackhawks can’t simply decide to sell off assets and go for broke with youngsters, and the reason is as simple as looking at their contract list.
Of the Blackhawks’ top nine contracts in terms of average annual value, only one, Brandon Saad’s $6 million per year deal, does not have at least some kind of no-movement or no trade clause. Five of the contracts, belonging to Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Cam Ward, have full no-movement clauses, meaning that if the player does not want to go anywhere, the Blackhawks’ collective hands are tied.
Even players like Marcus Kruger, who has two goals this season, has power over his future, as he can name seven teams he won't accept a trade to.
Even if those players decided that they wanted to get out of Dodge and play with another potentially contending team, the term and cost of their contracts are extremely prohibitive. Toews and Kane each have five years left on their current deals, and even if one of them were willing to waive their no-movement clauses, it's virtually impossible to imagine a scenario in which McDonough or team owner Rocky Wirtz would approve a trade involving the faces of their franchise.
Keith still has five years left on his deal as well, and the line to acquire a 35-year-old defenseman who has played more minutes than nearly any other blue liner in the league over the last decade is probably pretty short, even before you add in the $5.5 million per season that he is owed.
Then there’s the contract of Seabrook, who still has a staggering six years left on a deal that pays him nearly $7 million a season. Add in his age and the miles he’s logged, and there likely isn’t a sweetener in the world that can convince a team to take on the deal.
Throwing out all of those factors, there is still the simple question of whether a trade that would hurt the team so much in the short-term could help them enough in the long-term to be worthwhile.
Would trading a player like Kane, who is the team’s best offensive player and has a proven track record of being able to succeed with virtually any linemate, really make the Blackhawks better?
Would trading a player like Corey Crawford, who has one year left on his deal after this season, make a big enough difference to justify? Would the Blackhawks even be better without their star goaltender?
The reality of the situation is that the Blackhawks are in a position where hope is their best strategy, and the odds of success are low. It is at least possible that the team could get out from under their myriad of bad contracts without having to take on equally bad deals, but it’s far from a given that he can be successful.
It’s a brutal truth that Bowman is forced to grapple with, and for as adamant as he is that the Blackhawks’ goal this season is to make the postseason, he would probably be better off stocking up on rabbit’s feet and lucky pennies.