In Blackhawks’ pursuit of last place in the NHL, how bad will be bad enough?

Finishing 32nd in the 2022-23 NHL standings would guarantee the rebuilding Hawks a top-three draft pick. But the Hawks aren’t the only team with that idea entering the season.

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Blackhawks defenseman Riley Stillman trying to score on Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka last season.

The Blackhawks will need to out-tank the Coyotes, among other teams, this season in order to guarantee a top-three draft pick next summer.

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Finishing last in the NHL in 2022-23 would guarantee the Blackhawks a top-three draft pick. Even if neither their 25.5% chance of winning the lottery for the first overall pick nor their 18.8% chance of gaining the second pick hit, they couldn’t fall further than third.

General manager Kyle Davidson likely won’t outright declare that his goal for the season, but the organization would be pleased if it happened. Regardless of one’s opinions about the ethics of tanking and whether the draft system encourages it, the Hawks clearly are committed to this route.

But how bad would the Hawks have to be to finish last? And how likely is it they can succeed in being that bad?

After all, the Hawks were rather dismal last season, too, yet still finished ahead of five other teams. Their 68 points exceeded that of the Devils (63), Flyers (61), Kraken (60), Coyotes (57) and Canadiens (55).

That 13-point margin between the Hawks and last-place Canadiens wasn’t much smaller than the 16-point gap between the Hawks and the Islanders, a projected playoff team entering last season that finished 20th overall. So for as bad as the Hawks were last season, they would need to be significantly worse this season.

The Hawks also aren’t the only team tanking. The Coyotes and Canadiens also would very much enjoy another top-three pick in 2023. Both of those teams — especially the Coyotes — might be actively built to lose just as much as the Hawks are, and they proved better than the Hawks at losing last season.

Davidson will count on the Hawks’ trade-deadline and offseason fire sale, which gutted the roster of most of its talent, making the difference. Evaluating players by point shares, an all-inclusive numerical evaluation of seasonlong impact created by Hockey Reference, the Hawks lost three of their top five and 10 of their top 17 contributors from last season.

All told, the Hawks’ returning players were cumulatively responsible for just 26.5 point shares last season, and the Hawks’ new additions were cumulatively responsible for 11.4 point shares on their former teams last season, adding up to a total of 37.9. The Coyotes return 42.4 point shares and added 6.7 for a total of 49.1. The Canadiens return 39.5 and added 12.0 for a total of 51.5.

That comparison is an inexact science because it doesn’t take into account how players’ abilities and roles change year-to-year. For instance, Taylor Raddysh, as a promising young forward primed for more playing time, likely will produce significantly more than the 1.7 point shares he produced last season. Canadiens star rookie Juraj Slafkovsky, for another example, isn’t even included in those calculations.

Nonetheless, the sizable difference in those numbers — with the Hawks landing more than 10 points below the other two teams — indicates Davidson’s aggressive trading might indeed be enough to put the Hawks over the top, so to speak.

Unlike the Hawks, the Coyotes and Canadiens certainly didn’t also jettison five of their seven highest-scoring forwards and both of their goaltenders.

New Canadiens GM Kent Hughes actually executed a bold offseason plan, bringing in Slafkovsky, Kirby Dach, Sean Monahan, Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Matheson. Carey Price’s continued absence and the Canadiens’ nonexistent defensive depth will hold them back, but they nonetheless look improved from last season.

The Coyotes laid low this summer yet retained their entire young core — if one can call it that — of Jakub Chychrun, Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Lawson Crouse and Barrett Hayton.

The Flyers and Sharks, meanwhile, could be wild cards in the race to the bottom.

The Flyers, while clearly more talented on paper, were one of the league’s most dysfunctional, inconsistent teams last year and doubled down on volatility by hiring John Tortorella as coach and trading for Tony DeAngelo. It wouldn’t be shocking if they blew up (in a bad way) this season.

The Sharks lost 33 of their final 45 games last season and bring back one of the NHL’s oldest rosters, headlined by 33-year-old Logan Couture, 32-year-old Erik Karlsson and 35-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic — any of which could hit an age wall at any time. But Couture, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier still form a dangerous top line unmatched by any of these other bottom-feeders.

Gambling lines reflect that perceived hierarchy in the NHL’s basement entering the first week of training camps. The Hawks and Coyotes are tied for the lowest 2022-23 point total over-under line at 65.5 points, per Vegas Insider. The Canadiens are third-lowest at 71.5 points, followed by the Sharks at 74.5, Flyers at 76.5 and Sabres at 77.5.

It’s also worth pointing out that the NHL’s worst teams were worse than usual last season. In fact, the 2021-22 Coyotes (with 57 points) were the second-worst team in the salary-cap era (since 2005) to not finish in last place. The 2014-15 Coyotes coincidentally hold that distinction; they finished with 56 points while the Sabres finished with 54.

Throughout the cap era, the league’s second-to-last-place team has averaged 67 points and a minus-65 goal differential, and its last-place team has averaged 59 points with a minus-85 goal differential. Compared to those standards, even last season’s Hawks (68 points with a minus-72 goal differential) weren’t far off the necessary degree of awfulness.

Thus, a regression to the mean this season when it comes to leaguewide parity could help the Hawks’ last-place desires.

On the other hand, it’s feasible the Hawks themselves could be part of that upward regression.

Acclaimed new coach Luke Richardson could accelerate prospects’ development and light fires under the veterans. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews could deliver vintage performances in their likely final seasons in Chicago. The Hawks could adopt a 2017-18 Golden Knights-type attitude and play every night with chips on their shoulders, driven to prove the doubters wrong.

All of that is unlikely but not impossible, and if it did happen, the Hawks could end up in the 20th-to-29th range of the league standings instead of 30th-to-32nd. That would be somewhat tragic from a long-term perspective, given that it would represent another year of misery and irrelevance not translating into a golden-ticket prospect, but Hawks players and coaches wouldn’t think of it that way. After all, they’re paid to try their best.

In this hypothetical scenario, it would be interesting to see what, if any, counter-moves Davidson would make. Would he try to trade Kane, Toews, Max Domi, Andreas Athanasiou and others sooner than planned — as in, a few months ahead of the trade deadline — to further handicap the roster? Or would he accept the team’s grittiness and resilience in overcoming their weaknesses as good signs for the future?

In any case, the Hawks’ 2022-23 season should provide an interesting — if outwardly bleak — case study of tanking and its behind-the-scenes dynamics.

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