Column: Chicago Blackhawks will try to stave off irrelevance until their rebuild turns a corner

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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As they begin the 2021 season playing in empty arenas with a young and unproven team, the Chicago Blackhawks will be trying to stave off irrelevance until the rebuild turns a corner.

When that will be is anyone’s guess, but coach Jeremy Colliton on Tuesday was awarded an extension through the 2022-23 season, so if they’re not there by then, we’ll know the plan’s probably not working.

The decision by Hawks President Stan Bowman was the right call and an easy one to make. A coach of a rebuild deserves to make decisions without worrying about his future, especially one as young as Colliton, who turns 36 on opening night Wednesday in Tampa, Fla.

Colliton is 62-58-17 in his first two seasons on the job, and the Blackhawks news release noted he “helped guide the team to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.” Of course, the Hawks finished last in the Central Division and were only awarded a postseason spot thanks to a revamped format following the COVID-19 shutdown. But no one will remember the gift of a bonus postseason appearance if Colliton evolves into the coach the organization expects him to be.

“Jeremy’s strength as a coach is his communication and relationship with younger players, and that’s something we’ll need as we go forward,” Bowman said Tuesday. “We’ll need those young players to take a step in their career. Jeremy embraces that, and that’s a talent he has.”

It’s going to take a lot more than communication skills to get this team back to the status it enjoyed for the nine-year stretch when coach Joel Quenneville made them the NHL’s most envied franchise.

Putting the right players on the ice together and developing an identity will take some time, especially without center Jonathan Toews, the longest-serving captain in franchise history at 13 seasons and counting. A team without its leader is like a ship without its rudder, so unless Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith can pick up the slack until Toews’ return, we could be in for a long stretch of instability.

Last summer’s playoff series win over the Edmonton Oilers may have given the kids the brash idea they can do it again, which is a good way to think as you begin a new season three months later than usual.

But the lack of a proven goalie, the absence of centers Toews and Kirby Dach, and the lack of a consistent power play (28th in the league last year) figure to be too much to overcome. “Progress” will be the buzzword Bowman repeats over and over until the winning returns.

If only the Hawks could’ve received an honorary designation as a Canadian team because of their popularity in the Great White North, they might have had a legitimate shot at a postseason appearance. Because of COVID-19 concerns, the NHL realignment plan grouped all seven teams from Canada into the same division, making it by far the weakest link in the NHL.

The Oilers finished with the most points (83) among North teams last year, before getting bounced by the Hawks in the play-in round.

Alas, the Hawks remain in the revamped Central, which gains the defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning but loses the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, three top teams the Hawks no longer have to worry about.

And with the Detroit Red Wings joining the Central, the Hawks at least will avoid finishing last again in the division. All the marketing department has to do now is work on piping in a “Dee-Troit Sucks” chant in the empty United Center during matchups against the Red Wings. At least it’s good to see a classic rivalry reignited, even if the NHL should’ve kept the Blues in the Central and sent the Stars to the West.

Either way, most of the TV teams still reside out the East, where the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and New York Islanders figure to get a lot of airtime Sunday afternoons on NBC. The Hawks once were favorites of national TV programmers, and if the rebuild takes longer than anticipated, it won’t be good for the NHL as a whole.

Like every other sport, this is going to be a difficult season for the NHL, with only three teams opening its doors to a limited number of fans to start. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will lose billions, adding it would lose less money if it opted not to play in 2021.

“When you ask about the economics, let me make something really clear — we’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to,” Bettman said Monday during a teleconference. “And it may give those who are in isolation or where there are curfews a sense of normalcy and something to do. It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play.

“We’re going to run through more money, or to say it differently lose more money, at the club level and league level by playing than by not playing. Our owners unanimously are OK with that.”

This isn’t a novel statement by any means.

A Cubs official told me last year they’d be better off not playing, financially-speaking, than playing in an empty Wrigley Field. Certainly a lot of pro teams can say the same.

The long-term effects of not playing, however, could be catastrophic to hockey which is well behind the NFL, NBA and MLB in terms of popularity and marketability. I’ve always blamed greed on the NHL’s decision to over-expand with franchises in places such as Raleigh, N.C., and Glendale, Ariz., though Vegas proved to be an immediate success and they’ll be adding another franchise next year with an expansion team in Seattle.

It’s hard for owners to turn down the money they share in expansion fees — a cool $21.6 million apiece for 30 teams (with the exception of Vegas) for the $650 million paid by the owners of the Seattle Kraken.

So don’t cry for the Wirtzes or anyone else facing empty arenas in 2021. If it really was that bad, they could always put the team up for sale.

Like everyone else, they should just be glad hockey is back — better late than never.