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Impending trade deadline, fading playoff hopes cracking Blackhawks’ morale

Despite Friday’s win, this week saw the first signs of negativity and defeatism permeate through the Blackhawks’ locker-room mood.

Ryan Carpenter admitted Thursday that “no one’s happy in” the Blackhawks locker room, although Friday’s win over Nashville may have temporarily lifted those spirits.
AP Photos

Ryan Carpenter finally said Thursday what it seemed should’ve been true weeks ago.

“Right now this just sucks, the feeling in the locker room, and losing,” Carpenter said. “No one’s happy in here, including myself.”

The quote itself doesn’t read that surprising or inflammatory on its own. Plenty of discouraged players on losing teams across all sports have previously muttered similar refrains.

Somehow, though, no one on this mediocre Hawks squad — too bad to contend for the playoffs, too good to contend for the first overall pick and thus banished to hockey’s no man’s land — had said it previously.

The fact the Blackhawks’ positivity lasted into this week is an impressive reflection of the team’s resilience. And after Friday’s overtime win against the rival Predators, that positivity returned temporarily.

But as Monday’s trade deadline draws near and the Hawks emerge as clear sellers, a combination of factors collectively throwing uncertainty and anxiety into the futures of many players, that morale is showing cracks.

“We’ve got to create our own optimism by how we play,” coach Jeremy Colliton said pregame Friday. “The feeling in the group is not as a good because the performance wasn’t good [Wednesday]. Obviously, you look at the standings and no one feels good about it.”

For Erik Gustafsson, who was held out of Friday’s game to preserve his health for trade purposes, the speculation had reached such heights recently that he’d conversed with his family about the possibilities laying ahead.

“Back in the day, when you were single, it was just me,” the defenseman said Thursday. “Now I’ve got to think about my family, too. I’ve got two kids. But if it happens, we talked about it too, me and my wife. She’s ready if it’s happening. But we’re not trying to think about it too much.”

Gustafsson’s agent, Peter Wallen, said Friday night that he was told his client was held out because “calls are being made.”

Goaltender Robin Lehner has also been clearly affected by his ongoing contract negotiations and trade possibilities.

He’d been uncharacteristically quiet and subdued in recent media appearances, admitting Wednesday the distractions were indeed weighing on him, and then outright declined interview requests after Friday’s morning skate.

“[Lehner] just wants to be the guy that makes a difference for the team,” Colliton said. “When he hasn’t been able to do that, it’s frustrating for him.”

Even for those not at risk of a trade, the worries of their teammates — as well as the omnipresent aura of ‘the end before the end’ that the trade deadline creates — has apparently rubbed off.

Making this depressed mood odd, however, is the fact the disastrous road trip of the past two weeks — as the Hawks slogged through 10-degree weather from one Western Canada city to the next, losing four of five — somehow didn’t derail the Hawks’ morale the way the past week has.

Players speaking after each game remained pleasantly upbeat. Connor Murphy actually spoke to that positivity after the loss in Vancouver on Feb. 12.

“You can’t drag your head,” Murphy said. “This is the NHL, you play every odd day, and you’ve got to be able to regroup and understand the process of what it takes over the course of a number of games. It’s not a one-and-done, and you’ve just got to look at it like that.”

But apparently, returning to Chicago forced reality to set in. The United Center and Fifth-Third Arena locker rooms were devoid of spirit all week, and every interview felt more like an exit interview.