By the end of it, they looked slow and old and, more than anything, tired.
The Blackhawks were swept aside, this from a team that had never gone away without a fight. This isn't the first time the Blackhawks have lost in the playoffs, in this run as a modern dynasty. But the first time they looked outmatched, and outworked. They lost in 7 games to a, frankly, better team in 2011, but there they came back from 0-3 down to force a game 7 against the President's Trophy winners, and even forced OT in that Game 7 before Vancouver finally beat them. That was the height of the Blackhawks fight, forcing a Game 7 with probably the worst team in this run.
The next year they lost in 6 to the then Phoenix Coyotes, but four of the games went to OT. In 2014, they fought back from 1-3 down to force Game 7 against the LA Kings, and while they somewhat blew Game 7 (they were up 2-0 and 3-2 in the game), they lost to the team that won the Cup. And then last year again down 3-1, again forcing a Game 7 against St. Louis. The Blackhawks have been very good for a long time. They were a dynasty, becoming something the league tried to marshal away during the 2005-06 lockout. They did it anyway, and now it is over.
For the first time, the Blackhawks did not have any answers. Their lack of depth has been a problem for a while, but in the past their stars could make up for it, and they would summon 3-4 imports and random rookies and have them contribute more than anyone could expect. The vets struggled, the rookies even moreso. In the end, the Blackhawks bag of tricks was empty and crinkled as the Predators feasted on the older, tired, shallow Hawks in four quick games.
When the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup they were something of a superteam. They brought in a bunch of veterans to supplement a ridiculously good young core (the same core that would headline the team ever since). That was a great risk but a brilliantly calculated one. The Hawks knew how good, and how cheap, their core was at that moment so they brought in free agent after free agent (Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell, John Madden, Thomas Kopecky, Brent Sopel, and on and on) to provide ridiculous depth. That team cruised, and then they had to face the music for the first time with a summer cap crunch immediately following that forced all of those names along with other homegrown talents (Dustin Byfuglein, Troy Brouwer) out the door. The Hawks had to rebuild.
Of course, rebuilding is easier when you have the core they did, and while it took them a couple years to shore up the depth, when they did the Hawks had the most dominant season we've seen. It was a lockout season so the dominance was hidden, but the 2012-13 Blackhawks got 71 points in 48 games - a pace for 131 which would be the most in the post-lockout NHL. They had their core at a perfect age, a new wave of younger, cheaper but sitll great depth (Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Nick Leddy, etc.) and that wave crested that year and the next where they came so close to making back-to-back Cup Finals (and in all probability back-to-back Cups). The team that won in 2014-15 was mostly the same, but now with a more glaring depth problem (especially on the blueline) washed over by a still in-their-prime core group. That third Cup was the one that was most 'won' by the stars. And that lies their biggest problem: those stars aren't good enough any more to mask holes.
There were seven players on all three Blackhaws cup teams. The names float easily off the tongue for most hockey fans: Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson. Six of the seven are still here - with Patrick Sharp sacrificed after the 2015 Cup Win to Dallas. Those six are all great players. They include four guys that are essentially locks for the Hall of Fame (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith), and another that may make it with a pro-Blackhawks bias (Seabrook) and another quality player (Hjalmy). However, the biggest issue with the Blackhawks come down to these three lists of numbers:
Jonathan Toews: 28, 10.5 MM, through 2022-23
Patrick Kane: 28, 10.5 MM, through 2022-23
Marian Hossa: 38, 5.3 MM, through 2020-21
Duncan Keith: 33, 5.5 MM, through 2022-23
Brent Seabrook, 31, 6.9 MM, through 2022-23
Niklas Hjalmarsson: 29, 4.1 MM, through 2018-19
Those six players, the six guys that were (Hossa aside) youngsters for Cup #1, square in their primes for Cup #2, and about to leave their primes for Cup #3, are now at a point where their salaries will start outmatching their production, and the length of the deals along with the hefty price tag will make it really hard for the Blackhaws to reload like they have in the past. This was a calculated risk to keep this core together, and in some cases overpay for long-term contracts partly to reward the key guys that made this renaissance possible. It is always hard to fault that approach from a moral point of view, but when a team has no money to get additional players in it puts a huge onus on player development, one area the Blackhawks have struggled mightily in.
Player development as much as the key seven won the Blackhawks the 2012-13 Stanley Cup, and for Saad and Terevainen, the 2014-15 Stanley Cup. But now, with those guys shipped out as cap casualities (with very little in return), the Hawks had to try to do it again and it didn't work. This was especially stark on the blue-line, with Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson looking tired at best or old at worst. In truth, the Blackhaws defense core was 3-deep in 2014-15 as well, but two years is a big difference - the difference between Keith in his prime to starting his decline.
The Blackhawks are not going to be a bad team next year. They will almost assuredly make the playoffs, and while they may not be the playoff favorite again, there is enough good players on the team to catch some luck and win Cup #4. It's not like they are markedly worse than some of the teams still alive in the playoffs, it is just they caught the wrong team fast enough and deep enough to expose them.
The Predators should be lauded for finally being the team we all expected them to be in the playoffs. When they brought in Subban adding him to an already great back-line (Josi, Ekholm, Ellis are all great defenseman) the Predators on paper appeared to be one of the best teams - goalies excluded. In many ways, the current Predators are a close match for the old Blackhaws, with great depth on the blue-line and deep, young talent on offense. Mostly through trade, the Predators have collected a great, deep roster that is young, fast, skilled, and while Pekka Rinne can easily turn back into regular-season Rinne next round, this team should be the favorite in any series until the Cup Final.
The Blackhawks were able to resurrect hockey in Chicago, show the league a dynasty is still possible in the post-lockout NHL, and set a stellar leading example of how to play calm, collected playoff hockey. My favorite stat for all time will be that from 2010-2015, 8 times the Blackhaws found themselves tied 2-2 in a series. Their record in the remaining games: 16-1. The Blackhawks did some unbelievable things, and participated in some of the best series I've seen in the last half-decade or so - the 2010 2nd Round against Vancouver, the 2013 2nd round against Detroit, the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals win against Boston, the 2014 Conference Final against LA, the 2015 Conference Final against Anaheim, the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against Tampa, last year's 1st round loss to St. Louis. All great series, all great moments provided by those guys in Chicago.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe their next set of development players turns out to be as good as the Saad/Shaw/Teravainen group. Maybe Stan Bowman pulls off some magic in the trade market, or gets someone to take one of the contracts. Maybe another year without two-and-a-half months of playoffs will help an aging, but still extremely talented core, rest up. But if not, if that was the end, it was a great ride.