CHICAGO, IL — On March 11, the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Sharks 6-2 in a game that – in theory – hurt their position in the draft lottery.
The next day, the NHL shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the lack of playoff appearances the last two years (and the assumption this season would end early, as well), Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz gave both John McDonough and Stan Bowman a public vote of confidence late in the regular-season.
However, given time away from the game to consider the state of the franchise, a significant and shocking change was made by Blackhawks ownership. McDonough was relieved of his duties as club President and CEO. Danny Wirtz has assumed interim control of the franchise. The expectation is that there will be more changes to the management and front office groups in Chicago.
It appeared this was quickly becoming a fascinating summer for change in Chicago.
And yet here we are, with the Hawks mentally preparing for a postseason play-in series against the Edmonton Oilers. In… August?
Nearly 11 weeks after the shutdown when the NHL announced the plan for a safe return to play, Chicago traded its nine seed in the lottery for the 12 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
The prospect of playing in a postseason is significant for a Chicago team that is still trying to get back to a championship level during the primes of the careers of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Duncan Keith is still playing heavy minutes and Corey Crawford rebounded from concussion issues to have a strong enough season that the Blackhawks parted ways with Robin Lehner during the season.
Chicago will lineup in the play-in stage against an Oilers team led by Art Ross Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. I submit there isn’t a sexier matchup for fans to salivate over than McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Toews and Kane.
The Blackhawks won two of the three games between the teams during the regular-season, including the final matchup one week before the shutdown. Chicago’s veteran experience will be a benefit. And they’ll have fresh legs, which could make the series against Edmonton intriguing.
On the ice, the core knows what it takes to win a title. But the odds of winning a championship are long for this Blackhawks team.
There are plenty of reasons they’re the 12 seed in the West.
This playoff run will be without Brent Seabrook, who was shut down for the year for multiple significant surgeries, and Calvin de Haan, who had another shoulder surgery. We don’t yet know about Andrew Shaw, who missed most of the season with concussion symptoms.
Which means the supporting cast will need to play a significant role. And the players around the core haven’t been good enough in recent seasons. And a look up and down the Blackhawks’ current roster shows a significant lack of playoff experience for a team that was considered a dynasty five years ago.
Drake Cagguila appeared in 13 playoff games for the Oilers as a rookie in 2017 and hasn’t been back. He has more playoff experience than most of the recent additions to the Blackhawks’ roster combined.
Connor Murphy has been in the league for six and a half years, split between Arizona and Chicago. This will be his first postseason appearance.
In his first two years in the NHL, Alex DeBrincat hasn’t had the opportunity to play under the increased pressure of the playoffs. Dylan Strome, who was acquired early last year, hasn’t made a postseason appearance yet in his career, either. And Alex Nylander will be seeing the playoffs for the first time, as well.
Chicago anticipated – expected – an impact from top prospects Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist this season, and were both becoming increasingly comfortable on the ice. The pleasant surprise up front was a 30-goal season from rookie Dominik Kubalik.
Whether or not this experience helps Jeremy Colliton down the road as the head coach of the Blackhawks is still up in the air.
They’ll all get a taste of the playoffs – albeit the most unique taste in the history of the league.
This playoff run – whether it lasts three games or 20 – will pay more significant dividends in seasons to come than in this immediate summer.
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