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The Blackhawks Have Earned This Dive Into The Toilet

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 24: Erik Gustafsson #56 of the Chicago Blackhawks falls after getting his stick caught around Pius Suter #24 of the Detroit Red Wings at United Center on October 24, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Lauren is off today, but she would probably never speak to me again if I did not mention Lucas Raymond’s hat trick. So here it is. But as a general rule I find it more interesting to write about the bereft and flailing than I do the young and semipromising. The Red Wings, then, 6-3 winners on Sunday, serve here less as a hockey team with its own agency and future and more as a switch with which to flagellate the Blackhawks. Because, lord, the Blackhawks deserve it.

On Sunday, Chicago allowed a goal five minutes in and never looked forward. It was a microcosm, if a season this young can have a microcosm, for the Blackhawks have yet to lead. I do not mean lead at the final horn. (I definitely do not mean lead in the moral dimension, because as home to the NHL’s legal and ethical nadir, they are certainly not that.) I mean lead at all: Chicago has now played all 360:57 of this season without once holding a lead in a game. That’s a new league record, breaking the old mark set by the 2000–01 Capitals, and counting.

That doesn’t happen accidentally; their 0-5-1 record is fully earned. It’s the worst in the NHL, and just about all their underlying numbers rank them as worst in the NHL, non-Coyotes division, which is basically the same thing. This is a team that right now cannot score, whose blue line may as well be pairs of bright orange cones, whose 1A goalie is finally looking his age and whose 1B probably belongs in the AHL, and whose coach may not keep his job into November. It’s all going wrong, and when it all goes wrong you get figures like Chicago’s putrid -15 goal differential.

“I mean, it’s a horrible feeling,” team captain Jonathan Toews said. “I don’t think there are many guys who have been through anything like this before, especially to start a season. … We haven’t found a way to generate any offense and get on the scoresheet. When things go bad for us, it just seems to kind of snowball. We only have ourselves to blame for that.”

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln?

The scapegoats are easy to identify, though there’s plenty of blame to go around. However unfairly, Seth Jones comes to mind: The Blackhawks acquired the 27-year-old defenseman in a draft-day trade for a host of prospects/picks and signed him to a massive extension that will pay him $9.5 million a year through 2030. While it might’ve felt like a bit of an overpay at the time, not even the most pessimistic observers could have predicted Jones to start the season looking like one of the league’s worst players. With only a late Chicago goal yesterday keeping it from being a clean sweep, the Blackhawks have now been outscored 10-1 in 5-on-5 play with Jones on the ice, in over 100 minutes of action. Indeed, by one measure, Jones’s Sunday was the worst single game by any player this year. It is unrealistic to expect him to keep up this pace, I suppose, but it feels just as unimaginable that he can be the type of player the Blackhawks signed him to be.

If Jones is lucky in anything, it’s that behind the bench is an even taller lightning rod for fans’ frustrations. The Chicago crowd on Sunday (in between chants of “Let’s Go Red Wings”—brutal) was chanting “Fire Colliton” with particular gusto. Jeremy Colliton, with seemingly no standout identity beyond “young,” has been spinning wheels for three seasons now, not getting notably better or more coherent performances from his charges. Certainly there’s only so much a coach can do with a roster constructed with the care and structural integrity of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but the man looks increasingly lost out there, and not within shouting distance of any fixes.

This move—let the players draw up the power play—is the ultimate double-edged sword. If by some miracle it works, maybe everyone gains some confidence. If it doesn’t work, the coach looks especially hapless and weakened. It will perhaps not surprise you, given the tenor of this blog, that after Colliton ceded the whiteboard to his players during the stoppage, they did not score and it took them a full minute on the man-advantage to even earn a shot on goal. That’s the Blackhawks’ season so far in a nutshell: no ideas, poorly executed.

It would be one thing if this were a lost season by design, if Chicago were undergoing the rebuild it desperately needs after not making the playoffs since 2017 or winning a round since 2015. But GM Stan Bowman refuses to stop chasing the ghosts of dynasty past, acquiring expensive veterans at all positions, led by Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury, and giving up draft picks in the process. It was downright baffling for last year’s 21st-place team to operate in win-now mode, and it will not be any less baffling when next summer rolls around and this wreck of a roster doesn’t have its first-round pick. Bowman’s seat is only slightly cooler than Colliton’s, and justifiably so: This is the worst of all worlds, unable to rearm on the fly like their heyday contemporaries the Penguins or Bruins, unwilling to start from scratch. In between is a no man’s land of insignificance.

It’s hard to muster anything resembling pity here. As an institution the Blackhawks have yet to suffer any consequences for the monstrous sexual assault allegations against its former video coach, with the top brass’s alleged refusal to pursue them amounting to a cover-up. They stubbornly stand by their racist branding, despite pleas from Native American groups and even backhanded acknowledgment by the team that the associated imagery is offensive. There are few franchises more deserving of some time spent in the wilderness of irrelevance.

And so it is with hardly contained pleasure that we observe the team’s 13-year sellout streak came to an end Sunday, as fans realize that this team is going nowhere slowly. But even that can be spun by an organization that’s shown as little respect for its fans as it has for anyone else. “We’ve set a number of goals to welcome new and more diverse audiences into Blackhawks hockey,” said team president Danny Wirtz, using the language of accessibility to portray competitive and financial decay as all part of the plan. “This is a great opportunity to reassure fans both new and old that there is absolutely a seat here for them.” Were this any other franchise, I’d be taken aback by the cynicism. Here, it just feels like part and parcel.