The Chicago Blackhawks just aren't the Chicago Blackhawks anymore. It's downright jarring to see.
Now, Patrick Kane is still Patrick Kane, one of the great players in the NHL. At least for the last eight games, Jonathan Toews looks like Captain Serious again in rolling up 11 points. But Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp are shells of their former selves and Corey Crawford hasn't played since Dec. 23 due to what's believed to be a concussion. He likely won't guard the net again this season.
As for the rest of the roster, Who are these guys?
For the first time since 2008 – Kane's rookie season – the Hawks aren't going to the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's been quite a run, featuring three Stanley Cups and two losses in the Western Conference final.
But it's over. They're back in the pack, trying to climb to respectability again.
The Hawks are buried in last place in the Central Division, 11 points behind St. Louis after Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Sabres in KeyBank Center. They're ahead of only Edmonton, Vancouver and Arizona in the Western Conference.
They're optimistic about some of their young players, notably 22-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat and 20-goal man Nick Schmaltz. But their depth is gone, their defense is flimsy, their speed now evident only in spurts. Without Crawford, the three-headed goalie of Jeff Glass, J-F Berube and Anton Forsberg has been full of holes.
"It's very humbling," Kane said after the latest defeat dropped the Hawks to 6-15-1 in their last 22 games. "Hopefully we can look back on this and somehow say it's a good thing. A lot of us have to look in here and find a way to re-establish that winning culture. We have a different group than we've had in the past. We can't lean back on the experiences this team has had in the past. The veteran guys can, but it's really a totally new group."
The Hawks got swept by Nashville in the first round last spring and decided they needed to be a tougher team to play against. So General Manager Stan Bowman reacquired '15 Cup champ Brandon Saad and shipped Artemi Panarin to Columbus.
Bad move. Panarin has 21 goals and 63 points for the Blue Jackets while Saad is at just 16-14-30 for Hawks. And the loss of Panarin has been a huge downer for Kane, who had found some of the best chemistry of his career with the Russian.
Two years ago, Kane had 46 goals and 106 points. Last year's figures were 34 and 89. This year, Kane's pace is just 28 and 78.
Games like Saturday used to be money in the bank for the Hawks. They had beaten the Sabres 12 times in a row – handing out several heartbreakers in the process. When Toews scored his 20th goal 20 seconds into the third period to snap a 2-2 tie, you thought the Hawks would just go. It never happened. Less than two minutes later, the first of Nick Baptiste's two goals tied the game.
The Sabres outshot the Hawks, 14-9, in the third period and came up with three goals to win. With many of their fans rooting for a draft pick – again – the Sabres are 9-7-2 in their last 18 games. Toews seemed baffled by it all.
"I don't think we're letting up on each other," Toews said. "We're still working. We just need to keep working to find ways to put complete games together. We seem to be in a good position and we give up momentum right away. Collectively as a team we've got to realize those type of situations we keep our foot down on the gas pedal and we keep the pressure on."
Coach Joel Quenneville, who is second to Scotty Bowman on the all-time wins list, seems to have the same sort of stunned resignation to it all. Standing outside the locker room, talking in a quiet voice with his hands in his pockets, Quenneville admitted to dealing with the different mindset of playing out the string.
"You've just got to persevere to the end, try to do things right, try to do things at the high pace you're accustomed to," Quenneville said. "Definitely a different way of thinking. You were going into each and every game, knowing that every game was so valuable to where we were going to finish, what the matchup was going to be and getting prepared for the playoffs. Now we're trying to find a way to get points and do things right."
When we talked at the All-Star Game in Tampa, Kane was hopeful for the second half. The Hawks had battled injuries and inconsistency but were still on the edge of the playoff race and were coming off a dominant win over Detroit. The first game after the break was another very good sign, a win over defending Western Conference finalist Nashville.
But it's been a disaster ever since. The Hawks are 1-10-1 in their last 12 road games. They've given up 24 goals in the last four. Seven times in the last 17 games overall, they've given up five goals or more. They're 30-34-8 (30-42 to you and me). Were it not for Crawford's .929 save percentage over the first two months of the season, they'd be battling with the Coyotes and Sabres to stay out of the NHL basement.
After five straight 100-point seasons, the Hawks are on pace for just 77. It's a shocking fall.
"We just didn't get the job done. It's been a common theme here for a while," Kane said. "We've got 10 games left here. Try to finish strong and see what happens. Have a good summer. I know lot of us will come back hungry. It's been a humbling season."