The Blackhawks’ rebuild probably isn’t going to happen as quickly as the Rangers’ rebuild did, despite Jonathan Toews’ optimism.
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The Blackhawks’ poor luck in the draft lottery Tuesday — officially sending their 2022 first-round pick to the Blue Jackets but guaranteeing they’ll keep their 2023 first-round pick — foreshadows a 2022-23 season filled with many more losses.
General manager Kyle Davidson now has good reason to design next season’s team to be as bad as possible, maximizing the Hawks’ draft position so they can land an elite prospect to help propel their rebuild.
It remains to be seen exactly how aggressive Davidson will be this offseason with dismantling the roster, and the decisions that stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane make regarding their no-trade clauses will affect what he has to work with. But it seems nearly certain the Hawks will be one of the NHL’s worst teams next season.
In fact, it shouldn’t be surprising, considering how open Davidson was during his introductory news conference, that this rebuild could take three to five years or longer.
But the Hawks’ core players seemingly — and forgivably — don’t seem to be listening to that. One by one during their late-season interviews, they argued similar rhetoric about the rebuild potentially taking much less time than anticipated.
“We might lose more games than we win, but that’s obviously never the goal,” winger Alex DeBrincat said. “If we come out hot or doing well, there’s no point to rebuild after that, right?”
Said Kane: “There are parts of our team [strong enough] that we can come back next year and can surprise some people and win a lot of hockey games. I really, truly believe that.”
Added Toews: “That’s an opinion that Kaner and myself definitely share and we deserve to express. Like we’ve seen with other teams, things can turn around pretty quickly. If a lot of different guys are given the right environment and right opportunity and keep taking steps forward, things can turn around pretty fast. It’s a fine line these days in the league.”
Only center Tyler Johnson — who may well stick around for a while, given the two overpriced years remaining on his contract — seemed hesitant in his response.
“I’ve seen teams rebuild, [and] I’ve seen it go both ways,” Johnson said. “Either it’s quick and they get back on track pretty quick, or there’s teams that can’t quite find it. Kyle’s a very smart guy, so I think he understands what he needs to do, and we have a lot of good pieces here. It’s going to be interesting, the route that everyone goes.”
It’s impossible to fault any of these players for wanting to see the Hawks succeed, wanting to aid that process or wanting a reason to stay motivated. Players never play to lose, nor would management want them to. Even the Coyotes this past season, for example, tried their best most every night (and indeed won 25 games) despite being a team designed to tank.
Kane, Toews and defenseman Seth Jones nonetheless pulled out the examples of the Kings, Rangers and Ducks to try to justify their belief in accelerated rebuilds.
“You look at L.A., they had some young guys that came in and maybe exceeded some of maybe their front-office expectations,” Kane said. “All of a sudden, they’re in a spot where they can sign guys like [Phillip] Danault and trade for [Viktor] Arvidsson and they’re a better team. [It’s the] same thing with the Rangers, right? . . . You need those young guys to take next steps, but it could be done quicker than maybe some people think.”
Noted Jones: “Anaheim was pretty good this year, as well. I don’t think they realized how good they could be.”
The Rangers example is the most persuasive, given they publicly declared a rebuild in February 2018, only to finish above .500 in 2019-20 and second in their division with 110 points this season. But their near-immediate resurgence was fueled by a confluence of factors — their signing of Artemi Panarin, draft-lottery luck to win the No. 2 pick in 2019, Igor Shesterkin and Adam Fox becoming rookie sensations and Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider evolving into stars — that probably won’t be replicated in Chicago.
The Kings’ rebuild, which started after the 2017-18 season, still entailed three painfully poor seasons before this season’s improvement, and even now they’re just a bubble team. The Ducks’ rebuild does look promising, but they’re four years in and it’s hardly over; they fell apart in the second half this season.
And for every Rangers or Kings, there’s an example like the Sabres (11 straight playoff misses) or the Devils (nine in 10 years). Both seem perpetually stuck rebuilding.
Davidson, in his exit meetings with Hawks players, pushed back against their desire to rush things with the necessary doses of realism and patience-preaching.
“It’s not that we don’t want to win as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s just sometimes that, when you look at the bigger picture, you realize it might
take a little longer than they may hope, perhaps.
“We’re looking at it [as about] building sustained success rather than getting somewhere as quickly as possible and then topping out before we really reach that level we want to get to. . . . [So] if it takes a bit longer than the players wish, not everything can align perfectly with their perspectives and ours. But we’re going to do this right.”
The exit-interview meetings were “likely the first of many conversations” Davidson will have with Kane and Toews. He hopes to gather their feedback on the current situation, get them on the same page about the rebuilding plan and determine if there’s a fit for them in that plan.
“Having them around is something we’re never going to shy away from,” he said, making sure to clarify, “because they can show this next wave of players how it’s done, and you never know — maybe they could be part of when we’re back having success.”
Despite their optimism, that moment when they’re back having success is almost assuredly not going to be soon.