Perhaps the most surprising squad in the National Hockey League this season is the Chicago Blackhawks, (/talk radio pause) but are they really.
As of this writing, the Hawks are 6 points out of the playoffs, but that alone doesn’t capture the precariousness of their playoff hunt situation. On top of the 3 game deficit, Chicago is all the way down in 12th place (5 points out of 11th). It goes without saying that it is one thing to make up a significant deficit on one team, the Hawks need to make up ground on 4. By way of a summary, the Athletic’s Analytics/Witchcraft forecasting tool (which I am entirely addicted to, by the way) has their playoff chances at just 13%.
The reasoning for this being a surprise are obvious- this era’s Hawks have had the best run of any team in the league (with the possible exception of Crosby’s Penguins), making the playoffs every year for a decade and winning 3 cups. The roster also still has some talent that jumps off the page, most notably and obviously the trio of Duncan Kieth, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
There is a case to be made, however, that the Blackhawks regression isn’t entirely unpredictable. Few people would have had their odds dwindling towards single digits a little bit more than half way through the season, but the signs were certainly there that this wasn’t the top end contended that has made the UC home for the past decade, and to anyone who calls that hindsight bias, I will gladly show my pre-season ‘Chicago to miss the playoffs’ futures bet slip.
For one thing, the Blackhawks are coming off of back to back first round exits to division opponents. Hawks fans can be excused for remaining confident in this core,
The real problem, though, is that the margin of error, the difference between a top team and a team on the outside looking in, is razor thin in the cap/free agency/entry draft NHL. Everything is set up to even the playing field and while fans in Buffalo, Arizona or Florida may find it hard to believe, it is pretty effective. That means that even marginal downgrades can have drastic effects on a teams fortunes.
The Hawks, in the last year or so, have had their roster erode in some ways that may in fact go beyond marginal.
The only place to start is with Marian Hossa. It can’t be overstated what Hossa brought to Chicago (and Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta and Ottawa before that). He was an elite skill player who worked and was effective for 200 feet. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that he was one if, if not the most valuable wingers of the past 20 years, and perhaps the key cog in the Hawks cup machinery.
Beyond that the Hawks have frayed away on the edges. They lost Nik Hjalmarsson, have seen the deterioration of Brent Seabrook, and by any reasonable measure, got fleeced by Columbus (in the near term- it may have been necessary) flipping a bona fide top end star in Artemi Panarin for a second liner in Brandon Saad.
All that is to say that the Blackhawks demise may be steeper than you would expect for a team with 3 of the top 100 players of all time (lol), but not altogether unforeseeable. Nobody would be too shocked to see Q’s squad back in the playoffs, but things are looking bleak, and a positive goal differential aside, it may not be as much of a fluke as some would have you believe.