Unflappable no more, Blackhawks facing a crisis of confidence during free fall
LAS VEGAS — Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook has been through this before — the relentless losing, the dwindling hope, the playoffs getting more unrealistic by the day. But it’s quite different being a 20-year-old rookie with his entire career ahead of him and a 32-year-old veteran watching another precious season slip away.
Coming out of the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, then-Hawks general manager Dale Tallon had built an old-school team in a new-school league, choosing grit over grace and learning a hard lesson in the process. The Hawks went 26-43-13 and endured a 10-game losing streak, the longest of Seabrook’s career. It was worse than this. But it didn’t feel nearly as awful.
‘‘I was just happy to be in the NHL back then,’’ Seabrook said before the Hawks’ 5-2 loss Tuesday to the Golden Knights, their seventh consecutive defeat. ‘‘But once you taste that success, it’s all you want. It’s tough.’’
‘‘Tough’’ has been a frequently used word in the Hawks’ dressing room lately. There are futile attempts at positivity, at clinging to the 1.5 percent chance (according to Hockey-Reference.com’s model) that they still can make the playoffs. But the Hawks are down. They’re feeling the weight of the disappointment and the failure.
For the better part of a decade, the Hawks’ hallmark was that they never got too high or too low. But this team isn’t those teams. Only a handful of players remain from those glory days, and none is playing all that well. Even Patrick Kane has only one goal in the last 11 games. It’s a young team facing a crisis of confidence.
The Hawks haven’t quit, but the fact that they genuinely were trying in a 6-1 loss Monday to the dead-last Coyotes shows how far they’ve fallen.
‘‘We’ve got a great group of guys in here, and we want to be good,’’ Seabrook said. ‘‘We’re trying. But at the end of the day, we’re just making careless mistakes. We’re making too many of them, and then we compound them.’’
Rather than finding a way to pull out victories, the Hawks are finding ways to give them away. Their goaltending has run dry without Corey Crawford. Their shooting percentage has dropped from 9.6 last season to 8.2. All the puck luck they had in what coach Joel Quenneville called a ‘‘flattering’’ 50-victory season last year has turned against them.
Much of that can be chalked up to youth. While young players such as Alex DeBrincat basically are carrying the team at this point, they don’t have the Hawks’ famed mental toughness. Not yet, at least.
‘‘We’ve just got to have the confidence,’’ Kane said. ‘‘If we get behind, sometimes it’s just deflating on the bench and deflating for everyone.’’
Tuesday night’s come-from-ahead loss to the Golden Knights was the latest example. After 40 solid minutes and a 2-1 lead, the Hawks unraveled after giving up a power-play goal early in the third. Vegas went on to score three goals on three shots, in a span of just 3:40.
As the losses have piled up, morale has dropped. As defenseman Connor Murphy said after the loss to the Coyotes: ‘‘There nothing to feel good about. No one is leaving with a smile on their face. I’ve been in situations like that being [with the Coyotes] where it can just snowball into way worse things. It’s got to be a character thing for each guy to step up and turn it around.’’
It’s hard to imagine ‘‘way worse things’’ at this point. When asked if this was the worst stretch in his career, Quenneville said it was and added: ‘‘It’s not fun.’’
Quenneville said he’s not thinking about being fired. General manager Stan Bowman said the same thing. Seabrook said he’s not thinking about the remaining core being blown up. All three of those things are still unlikely, but they become slightly more plausible with each passing putrid performance.
It’s a transition year for the Hawks; it always was going to be one. But for a coach, GM, team and fan base that have been spoiled by bountiful success, it has been harder than anyone imagined.
‘‘We can’t accept that this is the way it is,’’ Quenneville said.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.