Ranking the Chicago Blackhawks' 5 Biggest Needs in the 2014 Offseason
The Chicago Blackhawks battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Final and had the lead in the third period of the seventh game. It looked like another trip to the Stanley Cup Final was at hand.
However, the Blackhawks were playing a relentless and talented opponent in the Los Angeles Kings.
Marian Gaborik sent the game into overtime with a goal late in the third period, and then Alec Martinez ended matters when his wrist shot deflected off the shoulder of Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy and floated into the back of the net.
Game over, season over and no repeat championship. The Blackhawks came oh so close to getting to the Stanley Cup Final as the series favorite, but the Kings refused to yield to their pressure.
General manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville don't have the opportunity to sit back and feel sorry for themselves. Instead they must plan for the future.
That begins by assessing the team needs for the future. Here's our look at the Blackhawks' biggest needs as they head into the offseason.
Chicago Needs a Competent No. 2 Center
The Blackhawks have had few significant weaknesses over the last two seasons. The personnel on the roster was good enough to win them the Stanley Cup in 2013 and get them to within one overtime goal of a second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 2014.
However, if you go back to the preseason assessment of the team, the Blackhawks had one significant weakness that they were unable to overcome all season: They have a hole at the No. 2 center position.
That issue may be magnified by the presence of Jonathan Toews at the No. 1 center position. Toews may be the best all-around player in the NHL, and the No. 2 center is going to fall significantly short in any comparison.
However, the best teams in the league all have strength up and down the middle of their lineup.
The Blackhawks need help at the No. 2 center position. Marcus Kruger (eight goals, 20 assists) is a decent player, but does not compare with David Krejci of the Boston Bruins or Jeff Carter of the Kings.
Quenneville was regularly searching for answers at the position during the year. Andrew Shaw (20 goals, 19 assists) is a hard-working hustler who almost always gets under the skin of his opponents. However, he does not have the playmaking skills of a legitimate No. 2 center.
This is a vital position for the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane regularly plays on the second line during the regular season, and Bowman needs to get him a better offensive center.
Kane, Toews Contracts Must Be Addressed
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are the two faces of the Chicago Blackhawks organization.
Toews, 26, is widely considered to be among the top two or three all-around players in the game, while Kane, 25, is one of the NHL's most explosive scorers. His remarkable ability to find the back of the net at the most important moments has put him on the path to becoming a Chicago all-time sports legend.
They are the two biggest stars on one of the most talented teams in the sport.
CapGeek.com indicates that both Toews and Kane are entering the final year of their contracts. Both players are scheduled to be paid $6.3 million in 2014-15, and then both players can become free agents.
That's unacceptable to the Blackhawks. They can't afford to let Kane and Toews go the free-agent route, and the only way to guarantee that they will remain with the team for the next five to seven years is to sign them to long-term contracts during the upcoming offseason.
If they go into the 2014-15 season without extensions, they will be unrestricted free agents at the end of next year.
The salary cap for the 2014-15 season will not be finalized until the end of June, but the $71.1 million figure reported by TSN.ca should provide a ballpark number for teams to work with. The Blackhawks have $66.4 million in salary committed toward next season's payroll.
Bowman must get his two superstars signed to long-term contracts before the start of training camp next September.
Overall Team Defense Needs to Improve
The Chicago Blackhawks did not play stellar defense this season.
The Blackhawks gave up 2.58 goals per game during the 2013-14 regular season, a figure that ranked 12th among all NHL teams.
While this figure is not bad, the Blackhawks are one of the league's best teams and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Their overall team defense was not what it should have been this year.
Faulty defense was often a factor against the Kings in their loss in the Western Conference Final. The Blackhawks gave up 28 goals in their seven-game series, and that's simply not good enough.
The last four Stanley Cup champions were all significantly better on defense than the Blackhawks were this season.
Chicago allowed 2.02 goals per game and ranked first in that category in 2013. The Kings gave up 2.07 goals per game (second in the NHL) when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011-12. The Boston Bruins allowed 2.30 goals per game (ranked second) when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010-11, while the Blackhawks gave up 2.48 goals per night (tied for fifth) in 2009-10 when they brought home the championship.
The Blackhawks are happy with their top four defensemen in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. However, they need improvement on the blue line once they get past that group.
The Bryan Bickell Dilemma
Bryan Bickell has been a big-time playoff performer in each of the last two seasons. He scored the tying goal in Game 6 of last year's Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, and he shocked Quenneville by scoring nine goals and eight assists in last year's postseason run.
He was fairly good in this year's postseason run, as he scored seven goals and three assists while using his 6'4" and 233-pound body to give the Blackhawks a physical presence that they lacked otherwise.
But here's the issue. While Bickell plays his best hockey at the most important time of year, he disappears for long stretches during the regular season.
Bickell had 11 goals and four assists during the 82-game schedule this year. That season came on the heels of a nine-goal, 14-assist performance in the 2013 regular season.
With his size and strength, Blackhawks decided to give Bickell a new contract last offseason. CapGeek indicates that they are committed to paying him an average of $4 million in each of the next three seasons.
This is a major dilemma. Based on what he has given them in the regular season, Bickell is vastly overpaid. However, when he is at his best in the playoffs, he gives the Blackhawks scoring and a physical presence.
He may be an overall liability in the current salary-cap era.
Penalty Kill Is Simply Not Good Enough
The Chicago Blackhawks played solid hockey throughout the regular season, and then picked up their all-around effort in the postseason.
While they would have been significant favorites over the New York Rangers had they survived overtime of the seventh game against the Kings, the Blackhawks' Achilles' heel that showed up throughout the season may have been fatal in the Western Conference Final.
The Blackhawks were passive when it came to killing penalties. The Blackhawks tied for 19th in penalty-killing during the regular season, as they gave up goals on 18.6 percent of their opponents' power-play opportunities.
Poor penalty-killing remained an issue in the postseason. The Blackhawks gave up goals on 15.4 percent of their short-handed situations.
Extra Skater reveals that they were even worse against the Kings, who scored six scored power-play goals during the series.
Chicago's penalty-killing was passive throughout the season and the decisive series against Los Angeles. It allowed too many easy entries into the offensive zone, which then allowed opponents to set up their formations and create good scoring opportunities.
The Blackhawks need to address their penalty-killing approach in the offseason to improve in this area.