Happy Boxing Day if you live in Canada! Obviously, given that we’re at the tail-end of the NHL’s Christmas break, not much has happened the last few days that’s worth writing about. The one major exception to that was an injury update from the Chicago Blackhawks that revealed the status of Calvin de Haan and Brent Seabrook. Both defensemen need surgery on their right shoulder and will miss the remainder of the campaign as a result.
Obviously anytime you lose two defensemen for more than half the season, it’s a devastating blow, but Seabrook isn’t nearly as important to the Blackhawks’ plans as he used to be. He’s been on the decline for years now and the 2019-20 campaign has unfortunately featured new lows. He had three goals and four points in 32 games while averaging a career-worst 18:09 minutes per game before being shut down.
His decline has actually been a major problem for Chicago and a contributing factor in their decline. He signed an eight-year, $55 million contract that only began in 2016, which basically corresponds with when his troubles started. The fact that he still has four more seasons on top of this one left on the deal is a huge headache for the Blackhawks as they try to navigate their way back to relevance despite their cap constraints.
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As it is, Chicago went into the break with a 15-17-6 record and thus appears to be en route to missing the playoffs for a third straight campaign. The Blackhawks aren’t attempting a full rebuild and aren’t really positioned well to do that anyways. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are both 31-years-old, so obviously they’d like to set themselves up for some more major runs while that duo is still in its prime. However, with Seabrook and Duncan Keith, who has also declined harshly, still tethered to major long-term contracts, it’s hard to navigate the cap waters as a contender. Rebuilding seems like the more logical course even if it would remain conceding the rest of Kane and Toews’ best seasons. It’s not a great situation to be in, but Chicago won the Cup three times with their elite duo, so they’re hardly in a position to complain.
One additional consideration from those injuries is that the Blackhawks now have over $11 million in cap space on the long-term injured reserve list. In other words, they could make a big addition at the trade deadline without having to maneuver to get under the ceiling. That’s a nice luxury to have, though again, they haven’t played well enough thus far to justify such an aggressive move. Maybe they’ll heat up enough between now and the deadline to make it a valid consideration, but right now it just doesn’t seem worth it for Chicago to trade any kind of prospects or picks for a rental player.
That said, the cap space would allow them to accept a contending team’s bad, short-term contract, which would in turn allow that club to acquire a great player while staying under the cap. If the Blackhawks are chosen as a partner in such a three-team maneuver, they would end up with some sort of compensation for their troubles. It seems like the natural thing for Chicago to attempt to do now that they suddenly have some short-term cap space to spare.
The Christmas break also comes near the halfway point of the season, so it’s a natural time for teams to take stock of where they are. One team in particular that’s left plenty to be desired thus far is the San Jose Sharks. They fired head coach Peter DeBoer after a 15-16-2 start, but they’re just 1-4-0 under new bench boss Bob Boughner. Obviously it’s too early to properly judge Boughner, but you’d like to see coaching changes spark a struggling team and that didn’t happen.
If it’s any consolation, they have been hanging into games until the end though. The Sharks have lost their last three games, but each of those contests was tied in the third period at one point. Obviously it’s not great that the Sharks have failed to step up in the clutch time-and-time again, especially given how much they need wins at this point, but at least they’re not getting blown out of games. It’s not unfair to say that the Sharks are running out of time though.
The Calgary Flames currently control the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and are on pace for a 90-point campaign. It seems reasonable to believe that the Sharks need to get at least 90 points in order to make the playoffs, which means getting 56 points in their final 44 games. That translates to a 28-16-0 record the rest of the way or some other variation involving overtime losses. That’s not impossible, but it is a tall task and the longer the Sharks continue to struggle, the less like a comeback becomes.
At the end of the day, if the Sharks end up missing the playoffs this season, it would be disappointing, but not necessarily cause for San Jose to panic over the summer. They would certainly have some major questions that needed to be asked, but their core is still locked up and mostly still in its prime. It’s possible that if they write this season off as an anomaly, they’d be able to bounce back in 2020-21 without making any sweeping changes.
It would be a shame though if the Sharks fade away this season with a whimper. This could very well be the final hurrah of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Two star talents who have come close to a championship, but were never able to secure one. This ultimately might not be a make-or-break season for San Jose, but it very well could be the final chance that duo has.