After hearing about the illness that will sideline Jonathan Toews indefinitely, is there any possible way we can just dispense with the last three days of 2021 and go directly to 2021? This annus horribilis has done quite enough damage in 363 days, thank you very much. And of course it would have to be a leap year because we needed an extra day of suffering in 2020 like we needed a Shea Weber slapshot to the mid-section.
First Henrik Lundqvist and now Toews, two of the most respected players in the game today. In a couple of days, we won’t be ringing in 2021 as much as we’ll be ringing out 2020. And there is not a person in the game who doesn’t wish Toews a speedy recovery and a return to good health.
The Chicago Blackhawks, meanwhile, must be wondering exactly what they did to merit this much misfortune. You see, the Blackhawks were not a very good team before Toews was removed from the lineup. And not even a week ago, an innocuous collision at mid-ice in a World Junior Championship tune-up game cost them the services of Kirby Dach for the next four-to-five months with a wrist injury. Throw in Alex Nylander, who is out four-to-six months with a knee injury and a team that was already suffering from a dearth of NHL talent on its roster has been dealt a trio of body blows.
Suddenly, the Blackhawks are faced with a center ice corps that consists of Dylan Strome, David Kampf and Lucas Wallmark. Undrafted 24-year-old Pius Suter, a point-per-game player in Switzerland last season, now gets a chance to prove he can be another Artemi Panarin or Dominik Kubalik, players the Hawks plucked out of Europe who turned out to be terrific NHL players.
The Hawks, of course, will have all kinds of cap space if they have to go out and get a center, especially if they put Toews on the long-term injured list. Even with Toews, they’re already more than $4 million under the salary cap for this season. And at just $1.85 million committed to Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban, the Hawks are devoting less cap space in goaltending than all but a couple of teams have committed to their No. 1 goalie. Of course, their goalies are Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban, which is part of the reason why things look so grim for them this season.
This season, the Blackhawks will play in the revamped Central Division and they would have almost certainly finished last in that division, with or without Toews and Dach. But now there’s a very real possibility they’ll be seriously in the mix for the first pick overall and wouldn’t Owen Power be a fine addition to that defense corps? But let’s not stop there. If Toews’ career is in jeopardy, the Blackhawks stand an excellent chance as constituted to land the first pick overall in 2022, where Shane Wright is the top prize. Imagine that. The Blackhawks haven’t had two young franchise-altering prospects since the drafted Toews third overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane first overall the next year.
Over the summer, GM Stan Bowman tried to convince Blackhawk fans – and their star players – that they were not going all-in on a teardown and rebuild, that there would be pain, but a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of building had already been done. And that was met by a fair amount of skepticism in many parts, particularly among those who saw the Blackhawks as a very long way away from once again being a contender. And that was with Toews, Kane and Duncan Keith in the lineup. Remove Toews from that equation and you no longer have to worry about carrying on that façade.
So how do you replace Jonathan Toews? Well, if you’re the Blackhawks, you probably don’t. And if his career is in jeopardy, do you not get to the point where you look at a complete teardown, knowing full well that the last time you bottomed out it set you up to build a team that won three Stanley Cups in a six-year span? (And that would have almost certainly been four had they not lost in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference final to the Los Angeles Kings to cap a series that was one of the most entertaining in NHL history.)
Kane has a no-move clause in his contract that has this season and two more left on it at a team-friendly cap hit of $10.5 million. But don’t the Blackhawks owe it to themselves and Kane to at least explore whether he might like to try to win another Cup or two before the end of his career? If Kane continues to be a top-10 scorer in the NHL and one of its most dynamic talents, there would be a conga line of teams willing to give up multiple draft picks, prospects and young players to get him. And it wouldn’t sully Kane’s legacy one bit. If players in the history of that franchise deserve to get a statue in front of the United Center, it’s Toews and Kane.
The Blackhawks were not a good team and they were made much worse in the past week. So if you’re trying to build another quasi-dynasty, now is the time to make some very important, but difficult decisions.