The urgent change the Blackhawks must make

Steve Rosenbloom reacts to the Predators' sweep of the Blackhawks in the playoffs.

Remember how the Blackhawks finally proved they were quicker, faster and better than the vexing Red Wings after all those years?

Well, guess what? The Predators just made the Blackhawks look like those Red Wings, the aging team that lost speed and skill and hasn't won a Stanley Cup since the Hawks blew past them in 2010.


The Hawks are working on two straight years of not just failing to win the Stanley Cup, but failing to get out of the first round, and this latest faceplant was a slaughter. The Predators ruined the Hawks. Exposed them as little more than a traveling Stanley Cup museum exhibit.

The Hawks scored three times in four games. They managed only one goal skating five-on-five. Imagine: A team with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Duncan Keith scored only one stinking goal at even-strength.


And that goal came from Dennis Rasmussen.

The Predators were faster, quicker and better. They had top-end talent up front and a mobile defense that scorched the Hawks the way the Hawks' top-end talent and mobile blue line used to char opponents.

The Predators moved the puck out of their zone quickly and gained the Hawks zone with control. They passed tape-to-tape. They played as five-man units. They did everything the Hawks used to do but can't anymore, apparently.

Most of all, the Predators battled all over the ice. They competed. The Hawks, meanwhile, played soft. They lost a ton of board battles and didn't seem to want to traffic between the dots. The Hawks didn't want to go to the hard areas. They had almost no net presence. The Hawks refused to persevere and fight to get to the blue paint.

The Hawks were exposed as some combination of old, slow and inadequate in many areas. They were exposed as a team that cannot play the puck-possession game the way champions must. Their ability to manage and control the puck was an issue all season, and this playoff ignominy demands that the Hawks raise their skill level, a change that starts on the back end.

The Hawks offense has always started with their defense, and their defense starts with Keith, but he never got started against the Predators. He looked ordinary. The Hawks cannot afford to have Keith look ordinary. The Hawks thrive when he's controlling the puck and controlling play. He did none of that against the Predators and did it less than usual in the regular season.

Keith always has been in phenomenal shape. He plays half the game. He plays every game. But it was inevitable that time would beat Keith someday, and it looks like time just took a big lead.

I don't know if Keith can regain his Norris Trophy level. I do know the Hawks don't have another Keith handy. I also know the Hawks must start developing young, mobile defensemen who can play in the postseason.

Of all the failures exposed by the Predators, an old, slow defense with inadequate talent was the most painful to see.

Predators forwards jumped the Hawks defense every chance they got, and the Hawks defense stayed jumped. Hawks defensemen didn't have time or space to find an outlet. If they tried to skate, the Predators forwards buzzed them. And this was without Michal Rozsival dressing, mind you.

That area has to change. I know Joel Quenneville loves his veteran defensemen, a bias driven home by Eric Gustafsson's horrible series-deciding giveaway in the third period of Game 7 against the Blues last year, but sorry, the blue line has to change.

The Gustafsson-centric bias prompted the Hawks to reacquire Johnny Oduya, who was broken-down, as feared. That bias also prompted the Hawks to bring back supposedly offensive defenseman Brian Campbell, who had better puck-possession numbers than only Oduya and Gustav Forsling in the regular season. That plan, like the Hawks, went nowhere this month.


The Hawks best defenseman at driving offense during the regular season, according to NaturalStatTrick, was Michael Kempny, and he was the best by a lot — a 56.66 percent Corsi For compared to Trevor van Riemsdyk's 50.51, Keith's 50.20 and Brent Seabrook's 50.14.

For Seabrook, that's an improvement from the last couple seasons. For Keith, that's a terrible drop. For Kempny, he and everyone else had a right to ask why he didn't get a playoff shift for a slow team struggling with offense until Game 4.

That can't happen next season. That can't happen next postseason. Oduya and Campbell don't need to come back next season. Kempny, a free agent who should be re-signed, and Forsling need ice time. They need ice time in the regular season and the postseason. They need ice time because the salary cap is hammering the Hawks like always.

Even if Kempny and Forsling pan out, that's still not enough youth and speed on the blue line. GM Stan Bowman will have to be an aggressive trader.

Ideally, the Hawks would trade Seabrook, but he has a no-movement clause, and even if he didn't, nobody's taking a 32-year-old defenseman with seven years left on a deal that swallows $6.875 million of salary-cap space annually.

Similarly, no one is taking a 38-year-old Hossa who has four years left on a deal with a cap hit of more than $5.2 million a season.

You're going to bring up Corey Crawford's name, aren't you? Well, stop. Just stop. Crawford also has a no-movement clause, but besides, he has won two Stanley Cups and he was pretty much the Hawks' only consistently good player in the Nashville series.

What I think the Hawks are looking at is moving a young forward that developed at the NHL level this season for a young defenseman who is ready to do the same.

I don't see them dealing Nick Schmaltz because his great vision and slick passing skills plug a hole at center, especially with the possibility of losing Marcus Kruger in the expansion draft.

Ryan Hartman, though, might be a different story. He's going to be 23 next season, he has NHL experience and he nearly scored 20 goals this season.

Or maybe Bowman makes a two-for-one or three-for-one deal, trading highly rated minor leaguers for a young defenseman who can win a spot next season.

Whatever Bowman does this offseason, making the blue line younger and faster can't wait. It's urgent. It's overdue. Toews and Kane will be 29 next season. Coincidentally, that's about the percentage of the Hawks' salary cap they chew up. Their greatness is running out — Toews, unfortunately, has a big head start on that — which means the Hawks' Cup chances are dwindling, too. It's the creaky defense that is aiding and abetting what looks like a slow fade from legitimate contention.

To think, the Hawks spent all those years molding themselves after the Red Wings, and now they must desperately avoid becoming that team.

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