Day 1 of UFA season is in the books. Stan Bowman has made some moves. The moves ranged from “shoring up the blue line” and “adding a top-six forward” to “depth signings” and “signing Robin Lehner.” The general attitude is that the Hawks are now better than they were last year. That’s probably true, but that’s a bar that’s so low you’d likely throw your back out stepping into the divot it makes. The ambitious attitude, such as the one taken by good writer Mark Lazerus, is that “Bowman quietly has retooled the Blackhawks into a playoff-caliber team since the Quenneville firing with his most impressive run as a GM.”
I would like to whole-heartedly disagree with the latter attitude.
Here’s what the Hawks lineup looks like currently, taking some guesses as to where guys will slot.
This is not a playoff team, finishing last season on a 100-point pace be damned.
Shitty Thing 1: The Blue Line Is Still Horrible
Credit StanBo for doing something to address the blue line if you must. But if you’re sitting around thinking that the Hawks’s blue line is even remotely close to acceptable, you might be Peter Chiarelli.
This defensive corps is simply terrible, and it’s going to prevent the Hawks from making the playoffs once again. There isn’t a single first pairing defenseman among them, let alone a #1 guy. And before you try to tell me that Duncan Keith can still be that guy, let me disabuse you of that notion. Let’s start with the nerd stats.
According to Manny Perry’s WAR model on Corsica, Duncan Keith has the absolute worst WAR (wins above replacement) among all qualified D-men over the past three years. He’s been worse than guys like Rasmus Ristolainen, Kevin Bieksa, Brooks Orpik, and Cody Ceci. Now, this does come with a caveat, as a huge chunk of that number comes from the utterly abysmal 2017–18 year, in which Keith had the 10,000-day goal-scoring drought and finished -29. But over each of the past three years, Keith has performed worse than a replacement-level player. Even looking at just Blackhawks from last year, only Gustav Forsling had a worse WAR rating, and he categorically sucks.
That graph on the left shows shots-against distributions when Keith is on the ice. The one on the right shows without Keith on the ice. Both have huge red blobs right in the high-danger area regardless. One positive to take from this is that when Keith is on the ice, opponents tend to attack his partner (i.e., Seabrook and Gustafsson), as Keith typically lines up on the left, but not so much as to justify Keith’s performance.
The bigger issue is what it looks like with Keith on the PK.
The one on the left is with Keith; on the right, without. You can see what an unmitigated disaster it was with Keith–Seabrook out there.
And even if nerd stats aren’t your thing, when you watch Keith, the twitch speed just isn’t there anymore, and that’s when Keith can be bothered to give a shit out there. You may remember this turnover, and though one turnover does not a year make, this is the kind of shit we’re talking about when we wonder whether Keith is fully engaged.
Keith will get his statue, his number retired, and all the accolades he deserves. But he is simply not that guy anymore. The sooner everyone admits that, the better.
If Keith isn’t even a top-pairing guy, who is? Gus scored 60 points, but he’s a complete train wreck in his own zone. Murphy isn’t that guy despite being the steadiest of all Hawks D-men, especially as a 6’5” centerfielder with a back surgery under his belt. I’m done talking about Seabrook.
Maatta and de Haan are not top guys, either. Maatta is slow and consistently hurt, having only finished an entire 82-game season once. If you want to buy into the idea that he’s a shot blocker, he’s really not. He blocked 116 shots last year, which would have had him tied at 67th overall with Zach Bogosian, Adam Pelech, and Nick Seeler.
If you’re looking at de Haan as an answer, you better hope his shoulder holds up, because he might not even be available for the first month. Plus, de Haan likely tops out as a second-pairing guy. The de Haan move isn’t bad at all, but if de Haan is your best D-man (and he might be), your blue line fucking sucks.
And this doesn’t even touch the Harju fiasco, which is its own problem altogether.
Shitty Thing 2: The Forwards Aren’t Much Better Than Last Year
I get wanting to keep the powder dry for DeBrincat. You can’t let him get away. But after hardly doing the bare minimum on the blue line, what the Hawks did with their forward corps looks like a lot of standing still. You can live with that if you’re adding a Bowen Byram or Jacob Trouba or P.K. Subban on the blue line. But when the answer to a historically bad blue line is Maatta and an injured de Haan, you’ll pardon me for not being over the moon about Andrew Shaw.
Shaw might be fine, but he’s a glorified third liner. And that’s if he can stay on the ice. Both his health and discipline have been problems since he first left Chicago. If he’s taking the kinds of dumb penalties we’re accustomed to, then you better hope de Haan and Maatta are up to the PK task, and that’s not a bet I’m willing to make. I also don’t buy that Shaw’s 47 points in 63 games is the new norm for him. And it’s going to be a real gut punch if Kahun builds on last year even a little bit, because it’ll likely make the Shaw acquisition an unnecessarily expensive lateral move.
If the idea is to outscore defensive problems, what’s new on this team that makes anyone think they can do it? You’re going to need three 100+-point scorers to outscore the defensive woes, and the Hawks have maybe two in Kane and DeBrincat in their best years. Nothing’s indicated that Dach is going to be ready, and even if he is, it’s farcical to think he can contribute at an outscore-the-defensive-woes level this year. Although we liked what we saw, we aren’t sure what we have in Strome. Toews tops out at 80 points, and that’s if he neglects the defensive side. Brandon Saad will put up a respectable 50 points and good possession numbers, but he won’t ever be the game breaker the Hawks need.
Are you relying on Kubalik to make that scoring up? Or Sikura to find it? Or are you hoping that Carpenter and Kampf churn out Selke-contending seasons? The forwards are mostly fine, but I don’t see much of anything that makes me think it’ll be better (or even as good) as last year. And though the free agent pool wasn’t deep, you wonder what someone like Joonas Donskoi might have done here.
If the Hawks came out and said, “This is a transition year, be patient,” this offseason thus far would make sense. They’ve made a bunch of fringe moves to make the team a bit more watchable. But unless Stan’s got a monumental trade up his sleeve—one that doesn’t involve GRIND and DA FIRE AND DA PASHUN as Jeremy Colliton has reportedly said he wants more of (extreme jerking off motion)—it’s hard to determine what they’re doing here.
But that would imply a plan, dear reader. And we know StanBo has absolutely no fucking plan whatsoever.