For Blackhawks, this season has been even worse than last — but this spring doesn’t have to be

CHICAGO — The 2023-24 Chicago Blackhawks were always going to be bad. It was all part of the plan: Bring in some rookies and surround them with good-character veterans on short-term contracts, but still “contend” for another top-five pick. Simple, obvious stuff. The team started the season far closer to the salary floor than the salary cap, and general manager Kyle Davidson likely won’t start spending owner Danny Wirtz’s money to the limit for another year or two. That Sunday night’s game between the Sharks and Blackhawks was a battle of the 32nd- and 31st-place teams in the NHL by design. And for the most part, Chicago fans have been cool with it. They get it.

But it wasn’t supposed to be this bad — on pace for 52 points, seven fewer than last season’s more blatant tank job, even after beating the Sharks 4-2 for their third win in four games, and fourth in six. This likely will be Chicago’s worst season in 70 years, since the 31-point campaign (in a 70-game season) in 1953-54. There’s been a 22-game losing streak. There have been 10 shutouts. There have been 17 other games in which the Blackhawks have scored just once. It’s been a spectacularly, historically awful season, one only made bearable by the frequent brilliance of Connor Bedard and the consistent excellence of Alex Vlasic, two pillars upon which the next Blackhawks contender will be built.

But watching Andreas Athanasiou darting around the ice the last few games, and seeing Reichel more assertive than he’s been all year in his return to the lineup on Sunday, has been a reminder of how much different this season could have been. What if Athanasiou hadn’t missed 53 games with a lingering groin injury, giving the Blackhawks a desperately needed second-line scoring threat? What if Reichel had been the productive player he was as a rookie, instead of hitting the hardest and highest of walls as a sophomore, and rejoined forces with Athanasiou on the second line?

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Would this Blackhawks season look different if Andreas Athanasiou hadn’t missed 53 games with a lingering groin injury? (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

What if Taylor Hall hadn’t missed all but 10 games with injuries, including season-ending knee surgery in November, giving Bedard and Philipp Kurashev an elite playmaker and finisher on their left wing? What if Connor Murphy hadn’t missed the last 25 games (and likely the last 14) with a groin strain, necessitating heavy minutes for the likes of Jarred Tinordi, Isaak Phillips and Louis Crevier? What if Bedard hadn’t missed 14 games with a broken jaw, a stretch that saw the Blackhawks score just 20 goals?

What if Tyler Johnson didn’t get hurt, if Taylor Raddysh hadn’t lost his scoring touch, if Corey Perry hadn’t gotten himself kicked off the team, if Arvid Söderblom was the goalie the Blackhawks had envisioned?

Maybe they’re not the lowest-scoring team in the league. Maybe they win some of those games in which they controlled play, like a 3-1 loss to Dallas, a 2-1 loss to Edmonton, a 4-1 loss to Washington, a 4-3 loss to the Rangers, a 3-2 loss to Buffalo, a 3-2 loss to Winnipeg and on and on. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Blackhawks have had an expected-goals share above 50 percent in 17 games. They won four of them. And yes, some of that can be chalked up to score effects, a team chasing a lead and pushing on offense, but in plenty of those games, they played quite well. They just couldn’t get a goal. Or a save. Or a break.

Certainly nothing like the three goals in 83 seconds they had in the third period on Sunday. Ryan Donato tied the game at 2-2 after a Tinordi blast was redirected into his stomach. Korchinski scored the game-winner off a Sharks defender. Joey Anderson scored 11 seconds after that with a between-the-legs shot that found its way past Devin Cooley, making his NHL debut for his hometown Sharks.

“We can’t look at what-ifs, but if we do looking forward, I think some of the play that we had this year is acceptable for the NHL,” coach Luke Richardson said. “We can’t accept the result of losing, but I think we lose with some pride most nights, and we just didn’t have enough to put on the scoreboard. That’s where we have to add, which we are, with young skill coming in, and looking to surround them with the right people.”

None of this is to say that if Hall and Athanasiou and Murphy and everyone else were healthy this season, the Blackhawks would be competing for a playoff spot. That was never going to happen. The only difference is they’d be jockeying with Anaheim, Columbus, Ottawa and Arizona for top-five draft lottery odds instead of with San Jose for the best lottery odds. Heck, if Chicago ends up with consensus top pick Macklin Celebrini, then it all falls under the “blessings in disguise” category.

But the vibe sure would be different. And that’s what the Blackhawks can work on in this last month of this mostly miserable season. Their first hot streak — well, warm spell, at least — of the season has lightened the mood considerably. Building some positive momentum into next fall, when they’ll be healthier, and perhaps bolstered a bit by a couple more mid-range, short-term free agents.

“We’ve talked about that a lot, that culture, those habits,” Bedard said. “It’s been a tough year, but if we can, down the stretch, build habits and that culture, have some wins and feel good about that, then it’ll be huge going into next year.”

Bedard clarified that nobody on the roster is thinking about next year, that they’re still trying to win every game, that every two points still feel “huge.” And Richardson was quick to remind everyone how playing to win last season yielded some historically “good karma.” But the present feeds the future. And that’s what makes this season different from the true tank of 2022-23. The end of last season felt meaningless, a patchwork team of mostly stopgaps with no future in Chicago just playing out the string. With Bedard, Vlasic, Korchinski, Reichel, Landon Slaggert and perhaps Frank Nazar on the way, and with Jason Dickinson, Nick Foligno and Petr Mrázek signed for the next two seasons, there’s a real benefit to closing out the season on a strong note.

These games matter because these guys will be back. That wasn’t really the case last spring, which became more about the guys leaving — Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews — than the ones sticking around.

“We have a couple of key pieces that are locked in now for the next couple of years,” Richardson said. “They’re dialed right in, too, because they know how important that is. We need that veteran leadership to realize that, too, that how we finish can carry into next year. … The Folignos, Dickinsons, Seth (Jones) — those guys are giving us some good leadership right now and playing some of their best hockey of the year. So it’s easier for the young guys to kind of stay on track.”

So it matters that Athanasiou looks fast and aggressive, and strong on the puck. It matters that Reichel looked more like his 2022-23 self in his return to the NHL on Sunday, more confident and aggressive with the puck. It matters that Kurashev scored again, continuing to cement his chemical bond with Bedard (a goal and an assist).

It’s been a long and terrible season by almost any metric, and it’s almost over. The easy thing to do would be to run out the clock, play out the string, forget it ever happened. But that’s not how this works. And that’s certainly not how hockey players work.

“We have a lot to play for,” Korchinski said. “We’ve got a lot of pride, and we want to go out there every night and show our fans that we care, and (that) we want to win.”

Yes, it matters how the Blackhawks finish this season. Because it matters how they start the next one.

(Top photo of Alex Vlasic, Colin Blackwell and Seth Jones: Bill Smith / NHLI via Getty Images)

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