Since it became apparent to everyone that Chicago was likely to miss the playoffs, everyone has been waiting for the axe to fall.
Someone had to get fired, right? Someone had to face the music for the team going from 100-plus points to being one of the worst teams in the league in a single season, right? Especially after the two ugly first-round bow-outs the previous two seasons, right?
Turns out, that thinking was wrong. The team announced on Thursday that both Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville will be back in their jobs next season, with team president John McDonough citing both their prior track record and the fact that the club is “not tethered to the past.” Which is an odd way of looking at things, if you think about it, because Chicago is in its current position specifically because Bowman tended to view past performance with rose-colored glasses.
However, this at least feels like the right call for now. After all, these guys probably have earned a mulligan given the three Cups the organization won in the past several years, and frankly the year went a lot worse than it probably should have because of Corey Crawford’s health issues. That is to say, Chicago would probably still be in a position to miss the playoffs even if Crawford were 100 percent healthy and played 65 games at his current level, but they’d be a lot closer and few would view this season as the utter and complete disaster it has been.
Add to the mix that the Brandon Saad trade didn’t work out — in large part because Saad couldn’t buy a goal all year — and Duncan Keith almost had the unluckiest season in NHL history, and everyone over the age of 28 noticeably slowed down, and you say, “Well, that’s maybe predictable but also a little bit of bad luck.”
The message from McDonough, though, is troubling: “I believe both Stan and Joel are the guys that are going to bring this back.”
It’s tough to say anyone is going to “bring this back” with the current group. The team has $70 million committed to the cap for next season, when literally all of this team’s core players will be over 30 (unless you’re counting Saad). The cap will probably hit $80 million next year, and maybe more if the players use their full escalator, but they need to re-sign Anthony Duclair and Vinnie Hinostroza among other RFAs, and replace Patrick Sharp in the team’s depth.
Basically they have probably about $8 million to fill two roster spots, which isn’t a bad position to be in, but where are they going to find guys who significantly shore up the team’s problems for that kind of money? Especially because the team really can’t add any more defensemen, even as the blue line has been a major problem for them this year.
None of this is new or revelatory information: Chicago is in a tight spot cap-wise because Bowman was kinda forced to put them there. Should he have given out the Seabrook, Toews, or Kane contracts? Ehh, probably not, but he also couldn’t let any of those players go without getting himself fired. Like the deals or not — and you shouldn’t, because of what they meant for the rest of the team — they were basically deals that any GM would have signed, especially because those guys were all Big Name Contributors to three Cups.
The contracts are also therefore untradeable. Which is what really puts Chicago in the tough spot. While it would be great to fire Seabrook in particular into the sun — he’ll be 33 in August, he’s signed for SIX more years, and he’s already awful — there’s no way to do that without buying him out, as he also has a no-move clause through the end of 2022. Toews and Kane both have five years left after this one, and both likewise have no-moves. These contracts are not going anywhere and they’re by far the biggest anchors Bowman hung around his own neck.
What, then, does “bringing this back” actually mean for this club? Insofar as they probably can’t be worse than they have been, this team will likely be better, but to the extent that McDonough says he wants to return to the team’s past glory — “a retool, or a rebuild. I’d like to re-win” — and that seems like it’s setting everyone up for failure. I think I said around December that it would be at least two more lost seasons before everyone well and truly gave up on this team’s ability to be competitive, and that may be the case here. They’re not going to blow it up, in part because they can’t, but also because they think there’s still fight left in this roster.
Quenneville, too, said he wants to get back to being “a contending team,” which seems like a wacky proposition because you have to ask, “Contending for what?” Playoffs, sure, it’s a possibility. But they’re now not even in the top three in their division in terms of outlook for next season and beyond; don’t you have to put Nashville, Winnipeg, and Minnesota ahead of them at the very least? And if you can’t be top-three in your division, what are you even really playing for? Especially if you’re this team, and so much positive influence has been ascribed to you over the past several years.
This team is basically forced to be in Going For It mode because of its long-term salary structure. This isn’t like the NBA where the Cavs can trade two-thirds of their roster at the deadline. There’s likely to be little or no turnover here, and what turnover there is probably won’t be of much or any consequence.
Right now it should be about bringing the kids along, and Chicago has plenty of them, almost entirely out of necessity. For the team to be what its decision-makers say they want it to be, they basically have to hope that Hinostroza is the next Andrew Ladd, Alex DeBrincat is the next Kane, Dylan Sikura is the next Artemi Panarin, and so on down the line. If they’re not suddenly getting elite performances from guys on value contracts, which they used to do more than most other teams, these struggles are going to continue, regardless of whether a 34-year-old Crawford can make a full and complete recovery.
Quenneville is a great coach of kids and vets alike, and Bowman seems to be a strong evaluator of young talent, but there are probably only so many scratch-off tickets you can win on in a row before you start losing more.
And because this team basically has to hope every possible ship comes in on the development front, and otherwise won’t be able to make many changes, it’s tough to see the future these guys seem to envision.
How can any team meet impossible goals, and why would you set them in the first place?