Seven reasons to keep watching the Blackhawks as another lost season grinds on

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Seven reasons to keep watching the Blackhawks as another lost season grinds on

CHICAGO — Not too long ago, this would have been the perfect Chicago Blackhawks schedule.

The Blackhawks owned the spring months in Chicago for years during the heydays of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, with people roaming the streets of the city in heavy long-sleeved sweaters in the heat of mid-June. But there also was a small window when a city turned its lonely eyes to the United Center, in that lull between the end of football season and the start of baseball season. Even local sports talk radio would deign to talk about hockey this time of year. So the thought of a February in which nine of the Blackhawks’ 10 games are at home would have been cause for joy among Chicago fans (and the Blackhawks’ ticket-sales department).

It’s a very different story this year.

The Blackhawks are bad; they’re dead last in the league. They can’t win; Friday night’s kick-in-the-teeth 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Rangers was their sixth straight defeat and 21st in 26 games. They can’t even score; even after two late goals to send Friday’s game to overtime, they have just 14 goals in their last 12 games. And Connor Bedard, who has injected such life and hope into this fan base, might not even play a game this month as he (impatiently) waits for his broken jaw to heal. There couldn’t be a worse time to have so many home games.

But it’s winter in Chicago. These last few days of false spring aside, what other entertainment options do you even have? With that in mind — and in the hopes of keeping you reading our Blackhawks coverage — here are seven reasons to keep watching, keep reading and keep caring over the final 30 games of the season.

Bedard’s return

If Bedard had his druthers, he’d tape a layer of bubble wrap to his jaw and be out there Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks. Hell, he would have been out there Friday against the Rangers. Or Wednesday against the Minnesota Wild. Or last week in Toronto at the All-Star Game. Or later in that Jan. 5 New Jersey game in which he broke his jaw.

“I told the trainers to hide his gear,” Seth Jones joked just before the break. “But they didn’t do that so he’s skating already.”

Bedard’s frustrated. You’re frustrated. The Blackhawks are frustrated. NBC Sports Chicago, ESPN and TNT are frustrated. It was a cruel twist to take away the one player who was sure to be worth watching every night. But Bedard has been skating for weeks. He’s started taking slap shots again. He’s doing TV interviews and plugging the Winter Classic. He’s going to be back. And he’s going to be fine. It’s a weird thing to say about a gruesome injury, but it could be a lot worse. It’s not a soft-tissue injury. It’s not a back injury. It’s not a concussion. It’s not something that will linger, that will affect his career. Bones heal. He’ll be back. Maybe in two weeks. Maybe in a month. But he’ll be back this season. He’ll score goals again this season. And the only jaws that matter will be the ones he drops. The Calder Trophy is still his to lose, and the future is still limitless.

Given how recent the Blackhawks’ glory years were, it’s impossible not to make knee-jerk comparisons between generations. We don’t know yet if Bedard is a Toews or a Kane, but he’s definitely one of them, if not some sort of hockey Voltron combining the two, mindset and skill. Kevin Korchinski has to become the Duncan Keith for this rebuild to take off (remember, Keith spent two years in the AHL before reaching the NHL, so extend the kid some grace as he develops on the big stage out of necessity).

Is Vlasic this generation’s Niklas Hjalmarsson? Chicago should be so lucky. Hjalmarsson was one of the best defensive defensemen of the modern era. The leap Vlasic has taken this season has been as remarkable as it’s been shocking. Given Vlasic’s combination of defensive reliability and sneaky-good puck skills (he went bar-down for the opening goal Friday night), maybe Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is a better comp. Again, Chicago should be so lucky. Vlasic is legit and should be patrolling the Blackhawks blue line for years to come. If the Blackhawks can lock him up for eight years at a cap hit in the $5 million range, they’ll be awfully glad they did. He might not be as flashy as Bedard, but he’s almost as important. And he’s worth watching.

Frank Nazar watch

Frank Nazar, the No. 13 pick in the 2022 draft (essentially the man for whom the Blackhawks traded Kirby Dach), is likely to sign with the Blackhawks whenever his season at Michigan ends. The Wolverines are a modest 14-10-3 but ranked 11th in the country. If Michigan goes on a run, it could be playing in the Frozen Four as late as April 13, which would give Nazar a maximum of three Blackhawks games, likely fewer. But if the Wolverines fall in the regional or earlier at the end of March, Nazar could join the Blackhawks for up to three weeks and eight games.

Nazar has 13 goals and 20 assists in just 26 games as a sophomore and could become either Bedard’s wingman or form a heck of a one-two punch at center. Like any other rookie, he’ll need time and patience. But as the top prospect in the Blackhawks system, his arrival — whenever that is — will be a big step in the rebuild.

Fights on the fringe

You might look at the rest of the Blackhawks schedule and think it’s meaningless. But it carries all the meaning in the world to the guys on the edge of the roster, fighting for their futures. For pending free agents such as MacKenzie Entwistle, Reese Johnson, Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, Jarred Tinordi, Jaycob Megna, Rem Pitlick and Zach Sanford, their careers are on the line. (The guess here is Joey Anderson is a lock to return and Tyler Johnson and Colin Blackwell could be dealt ahead of the March 8 trade deadline.)

Katchouk, Raddysh, Tinordi, Megna, Pitlick and Sanford are long shots to return, but they still have time to show they’re worth keeping around. For Entwistle and Johnson, both of whom have been admirably toiling away in the bottom-six trenches since Chicago’s first attempt at a rebuild in 2021, it would be crushing to be cast off just as things were getting interesting. A random Tuesday in Tempe will mean everything to them, and their play should reflect that. Because if it doesn’t, they’re gone, and there’s no guarantee another team will give them another chance. The human drama is real.

Deadline intrigue

No, there’s no Kane or Toews or Marc-André Fleury or Robin Lehner on the market this time around. Blackwell and Tyler Johnson might fetch a fifth-rounder each, at best. But the Blackhawks do have one thing that every contender covets — cap space. And Kyle Davidson has used his cap space well, identifying underperforming players with unwieldy cap hits, taking them on and letting them flourish in Chicago, all while being paid with a high draft pick for his trouble. He got Jason Dickinson and a second-rounder from Vancouver, he got Petr Mrázek and moved up into the first round in a deal with Toronto, and he got Nikita Zaitsev, who was having a perfectly adequate season before hurting his knee last month, and a second-rounder from Ottawa.

Davidson won’t be selling much at this deadline, but whether he takes on another contract or acts as a third party in a big-money trade, he will be adding.

Leading the way

Nick Foligno’s singular combination of earnestness and dad jokes might cause a few eye rolls among the more cynical parts of the fan base, but it can’t be overstated how important he, Dickinson and Mrázek have been in a dressing room in transition. The void left by Toews and Kane was massive, and those three savvy and affable veterans have stepped right in and brought some positivity and perspective to a room that desperately needed it.

Given the injuries and the losses and the lack of goals, it would have been easy for this season to go off the rails and take the young and impressionable players with it. But that trio, along with an increasingly upbeat and comfortable Seth Jones (and the steady presence of Connor Murphy before his injury), have kept the room focused and feeling hopeful. Maybe they’re not long-term pieces, but they’re forming an important bridge to the inevitable Bedard captaincy in a couple of years, and their contributions won’t be forgotten if and when the Blackhawks ever return to contention.

Watching those three go from trade throw-ins to linchpins has been a major bright spot in an otherwise dismaying season. Now that all three are locked up for two more years, we’ll get to see how much they really assert themselves as the team’s leadership core.

Hockey is fun

Even in a lost season, you never know when something special might happen. Like Dickinson deflecting a Jones shot for Chicago’s first six-on-five goal of the season to send Friday’s game to overtime and a sellout crowd into a somewhat shocked tizzy. Like Dickinson spiking a hat trick against the Maple Leafs in November. Like wins over Colorado and Winnipeg — two teams with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations — a week apart around Christmas. Like a nine-round shootout against San Jose. Like Bedard completely taking over consecutive road games against Florida and Tampa.

As countless players have said over the years, a bad day in the NHL is better than a good day almost anywhere else. Besides, if you’re still here at this point of the season, at this point of the rebuild, who are you kidding — you’re not going anywhere, anyway.

(Photo of MacKenzie Entwistle watching as Alex Vlasic’s shot gets by Igor Shesterkin: Erin Hooley / Associated Press)