This summer is a very significant one for the Chicago Blackhawks. When the league calendar flips to 2022-23, GM Kyle Davidson will be able to formally negotiate the next contracts for two of the most important players in the history of the franchise: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
It’s been a minute since the Hawks were good… or this bad
Toews and Kane have been the faces of the franchise for 15 years. When they joined the NHL club in 2007 as teenagers, the Hawks had made the playoffs just once in the previous nine seasons. Chicago missed the dance that first year, but the rest is history — literally.
On the ice, these two have been attached at the hip on the ice. Off the ice, they’ve shared an agent and played on matching contracts throughout their careers. Now, they have one year left on their “lifetime” contracts with the organization. And Davidson is already fielding questions about how his two superstars fit into his plan to openly rebuild.
“Yeah, I think there’s definitely a place for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane moving forward. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Davidson said in his end-of-year press availability on Tuesday. “What their roles are and how they fit into things, that’s part of the dialogue that we’re having, and being very honest with how we see their role and what we need out of them moving forward, they’re fully aware of what those are and I think there’s going to be questions and further conversations to really firm that up because it is something that isn’t … it’s not solved with one conversation or understood in one conversation.”
Those words are … almost purposefully(?) vague. But not being overwhelmingly pointed with his response here fits in line with some of the answers we’ve received from Toews and Kane in recent comments they have made to the media about their roles as players and leaders with the organization.
If we rewind to 2007, the two teenagers came in and their head coach was Denis Savard — once a teenage superstar in Chicago himself. They looked up to veterans on the team and were guided into their professional careers with some help. When it was time to win, Joel Quenneville was the experienced head coach and veterans like Marian Hossa were brought in to help take the young roster over the top.
Fast forward to 2022, and now Toews and Kane are the elder statesmen. The young players on the roster who are talented and started to succeed in their own right, like Alex DeBrincat, are trying to learn how to win from 19 and 88. And Toews’ health keeping him out of the lineup for a year didn’t help that maturation process (Neither did head coach like Jeremy Colliton … but that’s an entirely separate column…).
Here’s what Toews had to say before the final home game of the 2021-22 season:
You’ll notice the last third of the comments are very much about legacy. He talks about what he learned about “being a Blackhawk” from guys like Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Bobby Hull. You get the sense that he’s acknowledging that he’s now “that guy” for players like DeBrincat and Kirby Dach.
Let’s pair those comments with Kane’s answers on the off day between the final two home games:
He’s directly asked about helping the next generation, and he appears to be open to being a veteran leader.
So when we listen to those two responses, the following comment from Davidson on Tuesday seems to be in line with Toews and Kane’s thought processes:
“Having them around is something we’re never going to shy away from because they can show this next wave of players how it’s done and you never know, maybe they could be part of when we’re back having success. We don’t know the timeline of any of that yet but the amount of experience, the understanding of what it takes to be a good professional, what it takes to develop into a high quality professional and then win at the professional level, that experience and understanding is invaluable, so absolutely there’s a place for 19 and 88 with the Blackhawks in any form that they wish.”
Part of the solution?
We’ve also heard some comments from not only Toews and Kane, but also Tyler Johnson talk about how a rebuild doesn’t have to take forever. But we’ve also heard Davidson talk about this not being a quick fix, and possibly taking a few years to get right.
There’s no denying the lack of offensive talent/skill in the Hawks’ system right now. Lukas Reichel has limited run at the NHL level thus far and we could/should(?) be excited about what he produced at the AHL level; his 53 points this season are the most ever for a rookie with the IceHogs.
The NHL roster also has a lot of dead weight that needs to be sifted through and sorted out (we’ll get to that as the summer progresses). And internal free agents this summer — Dylan Strome, specifically (only?) — need new paper. How those known commodities to the front office and what’s left of this year’s coaching staff / the next coaching staff will impact both the short-term future and the recruiting of said new coaching staff.
Toews and Kane are undeniably etched in the history of the franchise. But Toews just turned 34 last week and Kane will join him at that number in mid-November. Both have played more than 1,000 games in the NHL now; there’s a lot of mileage on those bodies. And as we watch other players who were great during the 2010s like Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Brown hang up their skates, the conversation about the end is inevitable.
Toews and Kane are, however, in very different places in their professional careers. Kane is still a dynamic offensive player who’s among the top producers in the league. He’s still a top-line forward without question.
Toews, whose health was a question at the end of the season and will likely remain one as the club considers his next contract, struggled to get the offensive side of his game going this season. Unlike Kane, Toews is likely better suited as a middle-six center; his offense was much better after the calendar flipped to 2o22 and he’s still strong at the dot.
At times this year, both spoke openly about how frustrating this season was for them. So one has to wonder… do they want to be here?
They have said yes. But Kane also quickly added the caveat that “this is a business” to potentially save him from a Chelios-like fallout if there’s a trade he accepts, and (theoretically) gives the front office at least some grace if they move one of the team’s all-time greats.
Tuesday, Davidson spoke about a collaborative conversation with the two as they had their exit interviews.
“From my perspective, off the ice, anything we can look to improve we want their input on, and it was a really healthy dialogue where they think we can clean some things up on the ice, and so just getting their perspective on that was great. But looking ahead, we had the kind of open dialogue of what we’re thinking, reestablishing what our intentions are for rebuilding this the right way and that we’re leaving that open-door policy in place moving forward to continue any discussions that they might want to have into the offseason.”
At least publicly, Davidson has appeared to be taking a fully transparent approach to the rebuild with Toews and Kane — and the fans. This isn’t going to be quick or easy. And he’s done a good job of separating himself from the spending-like-a-drunk-sailor approach Bowman took last summer with his first cap flexibility in a decade. This isn’t going to be a smoke-em-if-you-got-em turnaround; Davidson is (hopefully) going to be methodical in how he spends and where he invests.
And he’s telling us he wants to hear from Toews and Kane what they think the organization needs to do to get back on track.
Sadly, players like Toews and Kane don’t come around very often. And having two of them drafted in back-to-back years enter the league together and enjoy as much success as they have only in Chicago is incredibly rare; maybe Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would also qualify as Penguins but where else in the league have two players been together with one franchise their entire careers and won this much?
(Note: Malkin is a free agent this summer, so his tenure in Pittsburgh may be coming to an end.)
The futures of Toews and Kane likely won’t fully be “up to the player” or “up to the front office.” Yes, the players have no-move clauses that give them the ability to control their next stop (if there is one). Yes, the front office can come to either/both players with the reality of the situation and an opportunity to move on. Yes, there is still a strong market for Kane; moving Toews’ contract even with a lot of money retained could be difficult with the cap going up a minimal amount next year.
Perhaps most importantly: Yes, DeBrincat’s contract expires at the same time as Toews and Kane and he’s the next $10 million player on this roster.
There are a lot of aspects of Davidson’s job we’ll be paying specific attention to this summer. How he handles the potential end(s) of two iconic careers will be front and center.