It Could Be An End Of An Era In Chicago
The trade deadline in the NBA has come and gone. The National Hockey League’s deadline is less than three weeks away – March 3rd to be exact. Contenders will be looking to boost their team’s rosters for a playoff run. That’s not the case in Chicago. The Hawks (16-31-5) own the second least points in the NHL with 37, only trailing the Columbus Blue Jackets. They will be sellers, not buyers. The next couple of weeks could mark the end of an era for the Blackhawks organization.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have been Blackhawks since 2007. They will be forever linked. Both men have signed identical long-term deals with the Hawks. Twice. They spearheaded a franchise renaissance, led the Hawks to three Stanley Cup wins in five seasons, and have become two of the greatest players in the history of the Chicago Blackhawks. The Original Six club is no longer a contender- and hasn’t been for some time now. As a result, both Kane and Toews again hear their name in trade rumors. With both players’ contracts expiring at the end of this season, it could finally be time that we see one or both in new sweaters come March 4th.
The Hawks were among the most successful franchises in the 2010s. What happened? How did they fall from grace so quickly? How did we get to today? There’s several reasons for the decline of the Chicago Blackhawks. I won’t get into all of them. I’ll start with the summer of 2021. Then-Head Hockey Ops man Stan Bowman made one last attempt to put together a playoff team.
The 2021-22 season didn’t go the way both the Hawks’ front office and its fan base had expected. The Blackhawks had an atrocious 1-9-2 start to the season which led to the firing of Head Coach Jeremy Colliton. This was despite Bowman aggressively acquiring goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, forward Jujhar Khaira, defenseman Jake McCabe, and the Jones brothers: Seth and Caleb. Bowman’s hope was that adding these veterans to a mostly younger hockey club could accelerate the Hawks’ rebuild and get them into the 2022 playoffs. Were they the right moves?
Umm, no. Not even close.
Bowman resigned in October 2021. Assistant GM Kyle Davidson took over as interim General Manager. After the 2021-21 season, the Hawks lifted the interim tag making Davidson their GM moving forward. He hired Luke Richardson as the team’s next Head Coach. He then started tearing down the roster. He had traded Fleury and promising young forward Brandon Hagel before the 2022 trade deadline. Before the 2022 NHL entry draft, Davidson traded 25-year-old 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat (a move I still don’t agree with) to the Ottawa Senators for draft picks. He then moved 22-year-old Kirby Dach, a former 3rd overall pick in 2019, to the Montreal Canadiens for draft picks. He let Dominik Kubalik, a former 30-goal scorer, walk. The same went for 25-year-old Dylan Strome, a former 20-goal scorer.
To say that Davidson is blatantly taking tanking this season is an understatement. Prospective star prospects Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov are in the Hawks’ sights. The problem is that the NHL Draft Lottery doesn’t guarantee the Hawks one of the two first picks in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. It’s playing with fire and isn’t the most fool-proof strategy to rebuild your team.
The Blackhawks are in a much different place today from the club that qualified for the playoffs in NINE consecutive seasons from 2009-2017 - including three Stanley Cup Final victories. In 2017 the Nashville Predators swept the #1 West-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in a first-round upset. The Hawks haven’t been the same ever since. Injuries and “Father Time” quickly caught up to most of the team’s long-time core players from those Stanley Cup Playoff runs.
- Future Hall-of-Fame winger Marian Hossa was forced to retire in 2017 after developing a skin disorder caused by a combination of sweat and his hockey equipment (Eczema).
- Fan-Favorite defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was traded to the Arizona Coyotes in 2017
- 4-time 30-goal scorer Patrick Sharp retired in 2018
- Joel Quenneville, the most successful coach in franchise history, was fired in 2019
- Goalie Corey Crawford (two-time Jennings winner) was forced to retire in 2020 due to injuries.
- Defenseman Brett Seabrook was also forced to retire due to injuries in 2020
- Future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Duncan Keith was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in 2021.
Throw in the Kyle Beach lawsuit fallout, Bowman’s inability to replace key pieces and the rest of the NHL getting exponentially better, all contributed to the Chicago Blackhawks’ rapid decline. Through all the ups and downs, there have been two constants for the Chicago Blackhawks since 2007.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have skated for the Chicago Blackhawks since 2007. Toews was the 3rd overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft. Kane was the 1st selection of the 2007 draft. They are credited with the renaissance of the Blackhawks. It was probably the most successful period in the history of the franchise! “Taser” and “Kaner” were vital parts of 3 Stanley Cup Championships during that time. Banners displaying the numbers 88 and 19 will surely be hanging in the United Center IMMEDIATELY after both retire.
Sadly, these could be the final days to see both in Hawks sweater. Contending NHL teams could try to trade for the long-time Blackhawks hoping that they could add a veteran presence and be the final piece in THEIR Stanley Cup Playoff runs. Kane and Toews have both publicly stated that they prefer to play for a contender. Then again, both men would rather not leave Chicago. I personally hope they aren’t traded, but the business of hockey could dictate otherwise. Kane is playing through a hip injury and is now linked to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toews is currently sidelined with an illness but is expected back soon, perhaps with a new club.
Let me remind you what the Chicago Blackhawks were like before Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews arrived.
The Chicago Blackhawks began to play in 1926 and are one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises. They have made the playoffs in two-thirds of their 95 seasons in existence and had won 3 Stanley Cups prior to 2010. Hall-of-Famers, including Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Glenn Hall, Tony Esposito, Pierre Pilote, and Denis Savard, donned the Indian Head sweater. Death, taxes, and the Chicago Blackhawks contending were guarantees back in the day. The Hawks had even appeared in the NHL playoffs in 38 out of 39 seasons from 1958-1997!
Then the organization (say it with a Canadian accent) then took a nosedive. “Dollar Bill” Wirtz, the late father of current Blackhawks’ chairman Rocky Wirtz, was notorious for not wanting to pay his best players. That includes Bobby Hull – the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer! Hell, the man refused to broadcast home games on TV because he believed it would prevent fans from coming to games. He figured if he didn’t broadcast home games, they would have to buy tickets and fill the United Center.
Jeremy Roenick was among the NHL’s best players in the early to mid-90s. Wirtz elected to trade fan-favorite Roenick, only 26 years old at the time, to the Phoenix Coyotes for Alexei Zhamnov in 1996. Most Hawks fans are STILL bitter to this day about that trade. I’m not over it, and I was only 12 at the time of the trade! Captain and hometown kid Chris Chelios was traded to the rival Detroit Red Wings shortly after. Other top players were moved, and the rebuild was underway. A team can only be bad for so long until a fan base loses its patience.
That is exactly what happened with the Chicago Blackhawks. They qualified for the NHL Playoffs ONCE in eight seasons from the 1997-98 season through 2006-07. Promising young forward Eric Daze was often injured and retired early. Young players like the A-B-C line of Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell, and Kyle Calder were productive but would be 3rd or 4th-line players on other teams. High draft picks Tuomo Ruttu, and Cam Barker didn’t pan out. The Hawks tried staying relevant by signing former All-Star players who were well past their prime such as Doug Gilmour, Theo Fleury, and Peter Bondra. They overpaid for veterans like Adrian Aucoin and Nikolai Khabibulin.
The Blackhawks became bottom feeders. They were regularly among ESPN’s worst ranked sports franchises for a while. Wirtz even fired beloved play-by-play announcer Pat Foley! Fans stopped renewing their season tickets and coming to games in general. The cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season due to the lockout didn’t help either. Supposedly, the announced attendance at the United Center for Hawks games then was between 12,000-16,000 fans per game. I can tell you from personal experience that actual attendance was nowhere near that post-lockout. I would buy student-discounted tickets for $8-$10 right before puck drop. There were so many open seats in the 300 level that I often had a row to myself!
The Hawks were lucky to have 5,000 people in the stands for home games back then. Said fans would be shocked if they witnessed the home club win. When the UC did fill up, it was with fans of opposing teams – like those of the archrival Detroit Red Wings. Trust me, Red Wings fans didn’t miss an opportunity to pile on the suffering Blackhawks faithful. It got so bad during that time that a few of those Red Wings fans admitted to feeling sorry for us. The franchise had gone from its most successful period to its worst. There was no end to the suffering in sight until Bill Wirtz passed away in September 2007, and his son Rocky took over.
The next week a pair of teenagers named Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews made their NHL debuts in Hawks sweaters. Kane had led the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) in scoring with the London Knights. Toews had led the University of North Dakota to two straight Frozen Four appearances. Hawks management expected the rookies to be pretty good, and it showed early. The Hawks took on the Detroit Red Wings in their 2007-08 home opener and won in a shootout!
Kane introduced himself to Chicago with a sweet shootout goal against eventual Hall-of-Famer Dominik Hasek.
Toews announced his arrival two weeks later with an amazing highlight goal against the Colorado Avalanche. To this day it is the coolest goal by a Hawks player that I’ve seen in person.
Kane and Toews joined a roster that had promising young defensemen in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson. They had solid young forwards like Dave Bolland and the speedy Patrick Sharp, who had become a 30-goal scorer for the first time. Veterans Robert Lang and Jason Williams joined, and suddenly the Hawks were a competitive team again! The young Blackhawks were exciting and good! Those Hawks missed qualifying for the 2008 NHL Playoffs by THREE POINTS. It would be the last time they missed the playoffs for ten years. Kane won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Toews was a runner-up for the award.
Hawks fans started to come back to the United Center. #88 Kane and #19 Toews sweaters were flying off the shelves. Both were cover athletes on EA Sports' NHL video game franchise. Rocky Wirtz decided to broadcast home games again and brought back Pat Foley as play-by-play announcer. Ed Olyczyk was hired as Foley’s broadcast partner. Former Chicago Cubs executive John McDonough was brought in as team president. Top Free Agents were actually INTERESTED in signing with the Hawks. The culture surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks was changing for the better. A ticket to the “Madhouse on Madison” became the hottest ticket in town. The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger” became the team’s anthem and was played after each Blackhawks goal.
The Blackhawks qualified for the 2009 playoffs under new Head Coach Joel Quenneville and newly appointed captain, the 20-year-old Toews. They even made it to the Conference Final! They lost to the Detroit Red Wings in five games, but even they knew what the rest of the NHL was finding out – the Hawks were coming! They got even better by signing star forward Marian Hossa. Kane and Toews get a lot of credit for rejuvenating the Chicago Blackhawks franchise – and rightfully so. Some forget it was Hossa that put the Hawks over the top. He was just as much a key to the team’s success as Kane and Toews.
Then again, Marian Hossa probably wouldn’t have signed with Chicago if it weren’t for the Blackhawks being an up-and-coming squad - led by Toews and Kane. The Hawks won it all in 2010 as the Stanley Cup returned to Chicago in 2010 for the first time since 1961. Toews won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player during the playoffs. Kane clinched the championship in Game 6 with a dramatic game-winning goal.
Winning the Stanley Cup put the Blackhawks back among the NHL’s elite teams. It also catapulted the popularity of their two young stars. Both were among the NHL’s best and became perennial All-Stars. Rocky Wirtz didn’t make the same mistake his father did with top talent. He signed both Kane and Toews to identical 5-year extensions worth $32.5 million. He then signed them to identical 8-year, $84 million extensions. Those contracts expire after this season. The front office managed to surround Kane, Toews, and the other core players with many different pieces between 2008-2017 despite some serious salary-cap gymnastics. Their efforts paid off as the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015. Championship parades and long playoff runs were coming to be expected in Chicago.
In addition to being 3-time Stanley Cup Champions, both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have had individual success while in Blackhawks sweaters. The list of the Top 100 NHL Players of all time were announced during the NHL’s All-Star Weekend in 2017. Both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were on that list. Here are some of their other accomplishments so far in their careers.
- 2008 Calder Memorial Trophy Winner (top rookie)
- 2010 Olympic Silver Medalist
- 9-time NHL All-Star
- 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy Winner (Playoff MVP)
- 2016 Art Ross Trophy (league scoring leader)
- 2016 Hart Memorial Trophy Winner (league MVP)
- 2016 Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player)
- Currently the 2nd highest scorer in Chicago Blackhawks history
- Currently 3rd in most goals in Chicago Blackhawks history
- 2008 Calder Memorial Trophy Finalist
- 3rd Youngest Captain in NHL History
- 2-time Olympic Gold Medalist (2010, 2014)
- 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy Winner (Playoff MVP)
- 6-time NHL All-Star
- 2013 Frank J. Selke Trophy Winner (top defensive forward)
- 2015 Mark Messier Leadership Award Winner
- Currently the 6th highest scorer in Chicago Blackhawks history
- Currently 6th in most goals in Chicago Blackhawks history
That takes us back to today. Fans still fill up the United Center, but it hasn’t been the same. Fans come to see a glimpse of “Showtime” and “Captain Serious.” Many fans walk through the United Center wearing #19 and #88 sweaters. There is new hockey operations management in the front office.
Numbers 19 and 88 will be free agents after this season. Both long-time Blackhawks have no-movement clauses, which means they can veto a trade unless they agree to lift said clause and agree to be traded. I’m sure the Hawks would even pay half of their remaining salaries if traded. It’s possible they could get a somewhat-decent return for both players. Patrick Kane is still a scoring threat on the ice and among the league’s top stick handlers. Jonathan Toews is past his prime but could still offer high-level play for a contender.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have given Blackhawks fans plenty of memories since 2007. They came to Chicago as teenagers and grew up before the city’s eyes. There may have been injuries, controversies, and disappointments, but the memories were mostly good ones. Kane and Toews practically saved the Chicago Blackhawks franchise. No two other players have made an impact on the organization than those two. They helped to give Chicago three Stanley Cup Championships, multiple haratak (you read that correctly) watches, gaining of bragging rights, turning the United Center into a true madhouse, the return of “the anthem,” and hundreds of highlights.
Personally, I went from a casual hockey fan who didn’t understand the offsides rule to someone who wouldn’t miss a game, especially in the playoffs. I hope this isn’t the end of the Kane/Toews era. If it is, and likely is, I hope that Hawks fans appreciate everything both men have done for the Blackhawks organization, its fans, and the city of Chicago.
Kaner and Tazer – thank you is not enough, but I’ll give it a shot. As a fan, I appreciate both of you and wish you the best – whether that’s in Chicago or someplace else.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos