Sports

Lazerus: For Blackhawks, the slog is over, but a harrowing offseason of life- and franchise-altering questions awaits

BUFFALO, NY — When it finally happens, and Alex DeBrincat is certain it will, when the Blackhawks emerge from the seemingly endless winter and step into spring, when the United Center has 22,000-plus in attendance — four- and five-deep in the standing-room sections way up top — drowning out Jim Cornelison during the national anthem, when the puck drops on a game of meaning with real stakes, it’ll be all the sweeter for having endured all this.

Just as the 2009 run to the Western Conference finals and the following season’s run to the Stanley Cup meant more to Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp because they were there during the dark ages — when the United Center was one-third full and games weren’t on local television and hope was nowhere to be found — the Blackhawks’ inevitable and eventual return to the Stanley Cup playoffs will mean more to DeBrincat, who has yet to experience a true playoff atmosphere five years into his NHL career.

Maybe it’ll happen surprisingly fast and he’ll be just 25 or 26. Maybe it’ll take as long as Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson is bracing fans for and DeBrincat will be closing in on 30. But it’ll happen.

And it’ll be so damn sweet.

“Everyone wants to make the playoffs and go win a Cup,” DeBrincat said Friday morning before the 82nd consecutive essentially meaningless Blackhawks game of the 2021-22 season, this one a 3-2 overtime loss to the ever-adrift sabers. “There’s going to be some ups and downs in everyone’s career. We’ve just got to work to get there. I heard (patrick kane and Jonathan Toews) say (this week) that the rebuild doesn’t have to be so long, that you can still win games while you’re rebuilding. And I think that’s very true. We just need to work hard and try to build as we’re learning, and hopefully we’ll get back to that spot sooner than later.”

It’s possible, sure. But it’s highly unlikely. Unless the Blackhawks win the May 10 draft lottery and give Columbus next year’s first-rounder instead of this year’s, Chicago will be — by design — bad next season. Davidson, as he said on the latest “Laz and Powers” ​​podcast, isn’t looking to fast-track anything. He doesn’t just want to get back to the playoffs; he wants to win the playoffs.

“This isn’t a race to the middle,” Davidson said. “We’re trying to get back to the top and stay there. That’s the end goal.”

Makes sense, right? If you’re not in it to win it, what are you even doing in the NHL? The Blackhawks aren’t a small-market team just hoping to wring out a few postseason home gates to break even financially. Rocky Wirtz’s pockets are deep enough to absorb a few lean years, and Blackhawks fans are hardy enough to keep coming to the United Center in decent numbers (they were fifth in attendance during this most miserable of seasons, which says something about the staying power of those supposed “bandwagon” fans from the early 2010s).

Davidson is in it for the long haul. Danny Wirtz and Jaime Faulkner are in it for the long haul. Even Blackhawks fans seem to have come to grips with the necessary evil of a long-term rebuild.

But have the Blackhawks themselves? Davidson had to cringe a bit when Toews, Kane and now DeBrincat — the three biggest stars on the team — talked about fast-tracking this whole process. Players always believe they’re a fortunate bounce away from a 10-game win streak; you don’t reach the NHL without having an unerring belief in your inherent greatness. But the Blackhawks front office doesn’t share that belief. Not right now. Not with this team.

“We can’t just keep everybody around just to say we kept them around,” Davidson said. “Because in the end, we finished where we finished with this team, and we have to make changes.”

That answer came in response to a question about the future of Toews and Kane, who are entering the final year of their contracts this summer. Davidson prefaced his comments about him with respect for everything the dynamic duo has accomplished in Chicago, but he also sounded like a guy who holds no sentimental value for either player and who would be perfectly content to move on from one or both if the right opportunity were to arise. Davidson repeatedly put the ball in Toews’ and Kane’s court, saying he’ll lay out his vision for the path back to contention and let them decide whether they see a role for themselves in it.

So the possibility, unlikely as it is, at least exists that Friday’s game in Buffalo was the last time Toews and Kane will be in a Blackhawks uniform. Toews has been non-committal over the past few weeks, and a source said the captain genuinely doesn’t know what he wants to do and is still trying to wrap his mind around the idea of ​​not actively trying to compete for the Stanley Cup. Kane, meanwhile, seems to be looking for a reason to stay, basically saying recently that playing with DeBrincat would be reason enough.

Davidson met that all with a shrug.

“In the end, we have to do what’s right for the Chicago Blackhawks long-term,” he said.

Does that mean re-signing Kane? Resigning Toews? Eating some salary and trying to deal Toews? Letting him walk when his contract expires? Trying to trade Kane at the draft? At the trade deadline next year? As desirable as Kane would be on the open market, it’s not easy to get max value out of an expensive player with a full no-movement clause. the philadelphia flyers learned that last month with claude-giroux.

And does that even mean dangling DeBrincat? Davidson wants to stockpile assets — draft picks and prospects — and DeBrincat, who is also entering the final year of his deal, would fetch more of those than Kane or Toews would at this stage of their careers.

Could DeBrincat’s dream of finally—triumphantly—playing in a Blackhawks playoff game be dashed long before it can come true? It might seem far-fetched. It might seem like folly. But it’s possible. Anything is at this point.

“Everything’s on the table,” Davidson said. “Everything’s under consideration.”

That’s a lot of drama, a lot of weight. And at the end of this slog of a season, you’d expect to see that weight on everybody’s shoulders as they play out the string.

But the funny thing about hockey: It’s actually pretty fun. Yes, the grind is real, especially when you have little to play for. But it beats working for a living. So though the narrative on Toews is he’s grumpy and miserable and he wants out of here, the reality is quite different. At Friday’s morning skate, on his 34th birthday, Toews was goofing around and celebrating goals during drills like he’d potted a game winner in triple-overtime. During warmups, he and DeBrincat did their customary flying hip-bump, coming down with big smiles. Kane is frustrated with the losses and occasionally stews on the bench during particularly bad ones, but he still loves scoring goals and setting up teammates for others, pumping his fist and pointing out teammates who made unheralded plays to make it all happen.

The rebuild doesn’t have to be entirely miserable. Hell, remember how much fun these guys were having last season when even empty arenas couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a young, temporarily rebuilding roster that was winning more than anyone expected?

It’s hockey, man. It’s not serious-digging.

“This is our job, so it can’t be too bad, right?” DeBrincat said, laughing. “We come to the rink for a couple hours and we get to go home and relax. Obviously, it’s tough on the body, but we’ve got time to recover. You can be a professional and still have fun out there with some of your best friends and just have a good time.”

That’s music to the ears of Derek King, whose biggest feat might be making hockey fun again for the Blackhawks.

“Sometimes it’s hard to show you’re enjoying it because people might be thinking, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t be having fun out there because they’re in last place or they’re not making the playoffs again or they’ve struggled. ,’” King said. “But you have to enjoy it. You can’t come to the miserable rink, tiptoeing around. You have to come and want to work and get on the ice and work. You’ve got to have some fun in there.”

At 24 years old, that’s enough for DeBrincat, who adamantly wants to stay. At 34, is it enough for Toews? For Kane at 33? They get to make that decision first. And then pretty soon, Davidson might make it for them.

These are difficult decisions, for the players and management. Kane and Toews want to be Blackhawks for life, but do they want it like this? The Blackhawks want Kane and Toews to be Blackhawks for life, but is that in the franchise’s best interests? Does the fun with friends outweigh the frustration of failure? Does the chance to chase another Cup outweigh the desire to finish your career with one franchise? Does having a superstar who’ll drive ticket sales outweigh the picks and prospects that superstar could fetch?

Now that the grind is complete, the mind is free to contemplate these life- and franchise-altering questions. And Toews, Kane and Davidson will need to find the answers soon. The draft is barely two months away.

The season is over, finally. But the drama has only begun.

(Photo by Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

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