After Thursday night’s loss to the Seattle Kraken at the United Center, Blackhawks’ interim head coach Derek King talked about a team that – right now – is comprised mainly of guys lacking a competitive edge. He’s not wrong. This team looks lifeless as they ride a six-game losing streak into Sunday’s game with the Stars. The two most recent losses can be found in the dictionary next to the word clunker; back-to-back losses to the two worst teams in the NHL on their home ice.
King said players have to wake up and find some urgency, or they won’t be playing with the Blackhawks or in this league very long. King wasn’t specifically speaking about the younger Blackhawks, but let’s be realistic; those are the guys who should be fighting for their livelihoods every night, with Kyle Davidson and the Blackhawks looking to overhaul the roster as they work through the infancy of the rebuild.
“That’s how guys play a long time in the League because they compete almost every night,” King said. “It’s not always going to be perfect. You cannot play 1,000 games like Jonathan Toews, and every game is perfect. You cannot do it. Nobody’s done that. But if you want to stay in this league, you better be consistent with your compete level. right now, we have a bunch of guys who are not consistent with their compete level.”
There are plenty of rebuild years to go, but identifying who will be a part of the next Blackhawks core is something Davidson is already working on and will want to come into focus this summer or shortly after that. We can pencil in Patrick Kane for as long as he wants to be here. Which is something they should have clarity on this summer as well. A similar sentiment can be shared for Jonathan Toews, Alex Debrincat, and Seth Jones. But, beyond those guys, everything is subject to audition and evaluation.
While Derek King acknowledged that he’s not sure what his future looks like beyond the next 11 games, he confirmed that these conversations have already begun upstairs at the United Center.
“We’ve had little conversations. Nothing like writing down stuff and putting it on paper, but we have conversations, and they’re good. It’s nothing where it’s like we already have a plan for next year. They know they want to see some guys, and hopefully, at the end of the year, we’ll talk about these players, and hopefully, my input will help him make some calls.”
Guys like Caleb Jones, who will be an RFA at the end of the season, need to seize the opportunity. The younger of the Jones brothers in Chicago said himself on Saturday after practice that he’s not entirely comfortable with his performance right now.
“I wouldn’t say I’m very comfortable right now; I think you always want to show that you can be a good player, and you want to be a part of future plans. I would say coming off that first injury, my first 15-20 games were really inconsistent and not where I wanted to be. I would say my last 20, or so games have been a lot better and more consistent, and I’ve been producing a bit more and being a good player, so I’m just trying to show every day I can be a good player and play for a long time.”
Jones has 13 points in 46 games this season (four goals, nine assists), and despite being scoreless in three games in April and a healthy scratch tonight, Jones’ splits support his feel for his season at large. Jones logged six points in March and has nine points in his last 21 games compared to just four points in his first 22 games. Jones isn’t alone, though; the fact that the urgency level among the younger ranks in the Blackhawks dressing room needs to rise down the stretch is a sentiment made by everyone around the team in recent days.
Like Caleb Jones, Dominik Kubalík is an RFA at the end of the season, and after a 30-goal season just two years ago, Kubalík’s value and role have cratered this season. The 26-year-old forward is a healthy scratch tonight, and he’s sitting on just 12 goals this season, the lowest output in his three seasons in Chicago.
It was widely believed that Kubalík was a prime change-of-scenery candidate at the trade deadline last month, but Kyle Davidson either didn’t see it that way (or didn’t see enough value in a potential return for Kubalík). Maybe the organization hasn’t yet given up on the hope that he can return to his 2019-20 form. Perhaps they’ll let him walk for nothing this summer. Who knows, but Kubalík is running out of time to make a case for himself before that decision has to be made.
Philipp Kurashev is another impending RFA for the Blackhawks. Kurashev has a golden opportunity to kickstart a solid finish to the season tonight when he skates on Chicago’s top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. We’ve seen Patrick Kane propel fellow linemates to great heights with his passing and playmaking abilities. Dylan Strome is Exhibit A this season.
Kevin Lankinen and Colin Delia are both UFA’s at the end of the season, with neither having done a lot in his time in Chicago to solidify a future here. Presumably, one will be back next season with the Blackhawks considering Arvid Soderblöm is the only Blackhawks goaltender signed into the 2022-23 season with NHL experience and Lankinen seems like the preferred choice right now, but you never know. Kyle Davidson has shown in a small sample size this season that he’s not afraid to make a move, and he’s resolute in his evaluations of the talent on his roster and, more specifically, what their value is to the Blackhawks.
Derek King said it on Thursday: “We’re getting looked at from above.” So, play like it. Or don’t. But as King said, you probably won’t be in this league or Chicago for very long.