Even with Connor Bedard, Blackhawks likely to be one of NHL’s worst teams again this season

Bedard’s arrival and a loaded prospect pool has shrouded the reality that the Hawks’ record probably won’t be much better in 2023-24 than it was in 2022-23. Preseason gambling lines forecast the Hawks to be the NHL’s third-worst team.

SHARE Even with Connor Bedard, Blackhawks likely to be one of NHL’s worst teams again this season
Connor Bedard will only be able to help the outgunned Blackhawks so much this season.

Connor Bedard will only be able to help the outgunned Blackhawks so much this season.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Optimism for the future shouldn’t be confused with contention in the present. The Blackhawks likely will learn that lesson this season.

The long-term outlook indeed looks bright, thanks to Connor Bedard and the rest of a prospect pool now considered one of the deepest and strongest in the NHL.

But the Hawks’ short-term outlook hasn’t changed much. They’re likely to be one of the league’s worst teams again in 2023-24. The hype around Bedard seems to have distracted many fans from that reality.

After all, the Hawks lost their top two scorers (Max Domi and Patrick Kane), second-best defenseman (Jake McCabe) and best goaltender (Alex Stalock) from last season’s team, which finished with 59 points, tying the mark for the franchise’s worst full-season point total since 1958.

Sure, Bedard is a good bet to produce 60 to 70 points as a rookie, which easily would exceed Domi’s and Kane’s production last year (neither reached 50 points before being traded). Sure, Taylor Hall will help the offense, too. And sure, an influx of young talent with Lukas Reichel, Alex Vlasic, Wyatt Kaiser, Arvid Soderblom and potentially Kevin Korchinski graduating into full-time NHL players will be exciting.

But it’ll take all of those players (sans Hall) time to adjust to this level and to each other, and the results might not be particularly pretty at first.

The Hawks would love for that group to grow into a core comparable to the Avalanche’s core, for example, but when those two Central Division rivals meet Oct. 19 to wrap up the Hawks’ season-opening road trip, they’ll be far from an even match.

Sportsbooks reflect the expectation that the Hawks will be better in 2023-24 than they were in 2022-23 — it would be quite difficult to be worse — but not too much better.

FanDuel set the over-under for the Hawks’ point total at 71.5 points, tied with the Canadiens for the third-lowest in the league. Only the Sharks’ (65.5) and Ducks’ (68.5) totals are lower. The rest of the bottom tier includes the Blue Jackets (73.5), Flyers (73.5) and Coyotes (76.5). Above them, there’s a huge gap.

The Sharks’ decision to trade Erik Karlsson from a team that totaled just 60 points last season (with Karlsson scoring or assisting on 43.2% of its goals) makes them the preseason favorite in the tank race. Beyond locked-in star Tomas Hertl, things look bleak in San Jose.

It’s telling, however, that the Hawks are projected to earn only six more points than the Sharks. General manager Kyle Davidson and his front office aren’t intentionally designing the team to lose anymore, but it still will lose plenty — even if Luke Richardson repeats his impressive rookie coaching performance and finds ways to keep the Hawks semi-competitive in most games.

Davidson, it’s worth noting, also won’t be upset about the team still losing plenty. Regardless of the strength of the prospect pool, the Hawks want (and need) to continue accumulating prospects. Another top-five pick in the 2024 draft — with a feasible shot in the lottery at projected No. 1 pick Macklin Celebrini, a Chicago Steel product — would help the rebuild.

Veteran Hawks defenseman Connor Murphy felt the weight of losing piling up late last season.

Veteran Hawks defenseman Connor Murphy felt the weight of losing piling up late last season.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

All of that raises a question: How will a third consecutive season of frequent-to-constant losing affect the Hawks’ psyches?

Last season, they handled it well. In fact, their relatively high morale represented perhaps Richardson’s biggest success. But that’s not guaranteed to be the case again this season, nor was it universally the case toward the end of last season.

Back in April in Seattle — before the fourth-to-last game of the season — the weight of losing had begun to burden veteran defenseman Connor Murphy, who was wrapping up the 10th season of his career and has yet to play in the playoffs.

In that moment, he opened up in a way no other Hawks player had all season, breaking down the emotional toll inflicted by such constant losing — a toll made exponentially worse by the fact he couldn’t allow himself to expect or accept it.

“People can say [we knew we would suck],” Murphy said that day. “They also said we were probably going to be sellers at the [trade] deadline, but when it happened, it still hurt a lot. As a player, you can’t really go into a season expecting to lose games or else you’ll be terrible.”

A beer-league player can cope with being on a bad team by setting his expectations low. An NHL player can’t. The intensity of the sport at the pro level prevents it; his multimillion-dollar salary makes it unethical. That means he must set himself up for stinging disappointment over and over again.

“You can’t go into any game expecting to lose,” Murphy said. “Whether it’ll hurt less or not, you’ll lose more [if you do that]. That’s what’s hard, and that’s what [makes it] a tough thing to vocalize that you’re going to be a losing team. You should never do that.

“As a player, no matter what roster you have or what game you’re going into, you have to expect to win. It has to hurt to lose. No matter what, it has to hurt.”

Does the residual effect of all that hurting reset each summer, or will its weight compound upon the Hawks this season? Might the wave of rookies surging onto the roster provide enough freshness and eagerness to override that weight?

And the questions continue. Will Richardson be able to prioritize development more while keeping the outmanned roster semi-competitive? Can Murphy, Seth Jones, Tyler Johnson, Nick Foligno and Corey Perry collectively provide enough leadership to compensate for Kane’s and Jonathan Toews’ departures and keep the rudder straight?

Will Bedard, already penciled in as a future captain, be able to grow into his own leadership role quickly as an 18-year-old thrust into such complex circumstances? Can Hawks fans’ optimism for the future survive their realization that the team won’t contend in the present?

Those will be some of the most interesting, relevant storylines to follow in 2023-24. The Hawks’ place in the standings, barring a huge surprise, probably won’t be.

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