Blackhawks and Kings Could Face a Tough Road Ahead
Not so long ago, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings were perennial Stanley Cup contenders. Entering 2017-18, however, their glory days are in the past as they face uncertain futures.
Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the Blackhawks and Kings won four Stanley Cups between them. The Kings were champions in 2012 and 2014, the Hawks in 2013 and 2015.
In 2013 and 2014, the two clubs faced each other in the Western Conference Finals. The Blackhawks took the Conference title in five games in 2013, but the Kings triumphed the following year in a hard-fought seven-game series.
Since then, the fortunes of both teams declined. After winning the Cup in 2014, the Kings missed the playoffs in two of the next three seasons. The Blackhawks followed their 2015 championship run with two first-round exits.
Looking at their rosters for this season, it’s difficult to make the case that they belong among this season’s legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Most of the core players vital to their previous success remain with their respective rosters. The Blackhawks still have forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and goaltender Corey Crawford. The Kings still boast netminder Jonathan Quick, blueliner Drew Doughty and forwards Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter.
However, some of these players (Toews, Seabrook, Crawford and Keith for the Hawks, Quick and Kopitar for the Kings) were either hampered last season with injury or struggled through a troubling decline in their play.
Many of them are 30 or older. Keith is 34 and Crawford and Seabrook are 32. Carter is also 32 while Quick is 31 and Kopitar 30. Considering how much hockey they’ve played in recent years, that mileage could be catching up with them.
Depth in secondary talent could alleviate some of the burden from those players, enabling the Blackhawks and Kings to remain among the Cup challengers. But in recent years, the rosters of both clubs were slowly depleted.
The salary cap played a significant role in weakening the Blackhawks and Kings. Both clubs invested significant portions of their payrolls into re-signing their core players, leaving little room to retain or add skilled secondary talent. The result was a steady departure of quality players via free agency or cost-cutting trades.
For the Kings, offense is the main concern. They were among the league’s lowest-scoring clubs last season. Kopitar had his worst offensive output in years, wingers Tyler Toffoli and Marian Gaborik were sidelined for lengthy stretches while former captain Dustin Brown’s best offensive seasons remain well in the past. Reliable scoring winger and 2014 playoff hero Justin Williams is long gone.
Kopitar and Toffoli should bounce back, but Gaborik is still rehabbing from offseason knee surgery and no one expects Brown to regain the 20-goal, 50-point output he regularly reached earlier in his career. Winger Mike Cammalleri was brought back via free agency but his injury history suggests he won’t be much help.
Goaltending and defense were the Kings’ strengths during their championship years. Those areas, however, are now questionable.
Quick missed most of last season to injury. It’s expected he’ll enjoy a bounce-back effort in 2017-18 but there will be lingering concerns over his health and performance. The blueline corps still has Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez but Slava Voynov, once a key part of their defense, now plays in Russia. The Kings will also rely on the limited experience of Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel and Christian Folin.
Defense is the Blackhawks’ biggest weakness. Their blueline this season has little experienced depth beyond Keith and Seabrook and both have seen better days. Offseason acquisition Connor Murphy has only three NHL campaigns under his belt. Gustav Forsling, Erik Gustafsson, Michal Kempny and Viktor Svedberg each have one.
Up front, a healthier Toews should benefit from the return of winger Brandon Saad, who was re-acquired in June from the Columbus Blue Jackets. That move, however, cost them Artemi Panarin, who skated with Kane the past two seasons. The absence of veteran winger Marian Hossa, forced to the sidelines this season by a persistent skin condition, could also become a factor.
Promising forwards such as Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and Alex DeBrincat could offset these problems. But if they don’t, scoring could become an issue for the Hawks.
It’s possible, of course, both clubs could surprise and return to Cup contention in 2017-18, following the example of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Entering 2015-16, many observers felt the Penguins’ championship window of opportunity had closed. But the ongoing excellence of core superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the unexpected blossoming of promising youngsters into reliable NHL talent and shrewd additions ofexperienced secondary talent via trades and free agency resulted in the Pens becoming the first consecutive Stanley Cup champion in nearly two decades.
Perhaps the Blackhawks and Kings could emulate the Penguins. Maybe their older core players can forestall their inevitable decline. Their respective managements could find a way to free up salary-cap space to stem the drain of talent. Their younger players could fulfill their promise and fill the glaring roster gaps.
But what worked for the Penguins might not work for the Blackhawks and Kings. It could become a challenge beyond their reach for this season and the foreseeable future.