CHICAGO – It’s been three years since the Blackhawks won a playoff game and four years since they won a series. Despite peak-of-career performances from Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews – the core centerpieces of the Hawks’ new hockey renaissance – there won’t be any relevant April hockey.
On Sunday, with one of the more simultaneously strange and frustrating seasons in franchise history behind them, it sounded like the Blackhawks understood their plan to assume their top mantel again.
Though, how they get there remains to be seen.
“The feeling is much different than it was a year ago,” said general manager Stan Bowman at a United Center season-ending press conference on Sunday. “We have a clear path forward. We’re going to be better next year.”
The question is whether Bowman’s positive feeling is any different in comparison to a flatlined 2017 campaign. A clear path implies fundamental problems have been addressed. The main issue plaguing the Blackhawks – their defense, wasn’t fixed then and it certainly hasn’t been fixed now. If anything, their defensive issues became progressively worse, allowing the second-most goals ( 292) in the NHL in 2019. The defense was so porous, it overshadowed three 35-goal scorers: Kane, Toews, and sophomore sensation Alex DeBrincat – who became the 15th Blackhawk ever to score 40 goals. The defense was such a liability, it was more of a story than a revitalizing year on the part of Toews, who turned back the clock on a precipitous career decline.
Yet, curiously, Bowman insisted the Blackhawks were in a better place.
“When you look at the last 50 games, we were playing at about a 100-point pace,” Bowman mused. “That’s not a small sample size, that’s a good chunk of the schedule. I think for the last 50 games we playing like a team that could contend for the division title, but we had a lot of ground to make up.”
There’s the rub. No matter what positivity Bowman takes away from the last few months of his team’s season, contenders don’t have three separate losing streaks of at least five games in the first four months. Contenders don’t seemingly lose every important game in the heat of a contentious playoff race the way the Blackhawks did when they needed points to climb back into the Wild Card picture. Contenders play with solid consistency and don’t take moral victories from a stance where you have to play catch up the entire year.
Championship players know there’s more to the game than individual accomplishments. A great deal of the Blackhawks’ leadership core understands their struggle.
“You look at the big picture, you’d probably be pretty happy with your own season,” said Kane, who surpassed a previous career high in points with 110. “But it’s kind of frustrating that it doesn’t really mean much. I don’t want to say that it’s like a year wasted, but we all play to be in the playoffs and be at our best going into the playoffs.”
While his star has faded considerably in the past few seasons, Brent Seabrook carries significant weight in the Blackhawks’ locker room. He echoed the same sentiments as Kane.
“You win that first Stanley Cup, and you want to win more,” Seabrook expressed. “It’s a lost season. We want to be competing for Stanley Cups every year, and it’s something we’ve done a lot in our career. I know it’s not going to happen every year, but why can’t it? We want to get back there.”
It’s Toews, the Blackhawks’ captain on the heels of his best professional season with 81 points, who had the most pointed but honest words. Given his previous decline before 2018, it’s Toews standing out as the Blackhawks’ collective team model for becoming a contender again.
“You want to have an optimistic outlook as to where things are going,” Toews sighed. “But you gotta be realistic, too, as far as where you have to go, where you have to grow, and where you have to get better.”
“At the end of the day, we were in the hunt,” continued Toews. “We had a chance to get points, to make the playoffs … but at the end of the day we’re not satisfied one way or another. You have to learn what you can from your situation and let it be a motivating factor that makes you better for next year.”
At their peak, these Blackhawks could win games any style. They could outscore you. They could grind you out. You could have them hemmed in and their mental resolve would take over in a resounding but never shocking comeback.
The Blackhawks of late are a one-trick pony. They either pot four, five, six, or even an unsustainable seven goals behind your net-minder, or they’re at an unthinkable risk of defeat. In 2019, the Blackhawks allowed just one goal in 11 games. There was a stretch from late December to early March where they allowed at least two goals in every game they played. Their grind-it-out shutdown defense looks forever gone, an afterthought.
If the tone around them is going to be less somber come next April, the Blackhawks’ defensive issues can’t be neglected any longer. Whether that means the rapid development of top prospects like Adam Boqvist, or the pursuit of potential free agents such as mega-star Erik Karlsson, the Blackhawks’ need answers for their blue line and they need them fast.
In Bowman’s case, at least he understands it’s time to be more aggressive. He has no other options.
“I would expect us to be more active in the summer free agent market than we have in years past,” Bowman said. “First of all, we have the cap flexibility to do that. We haven’t been in this position before. This is probably the first time ever we’ve had this much money to spend.”
Sitting at a current $21 million in cap space without any other moves, anything less than a full scale summer defensive overhaul on the part of Bowman will be viewed as a failure. As rumors swirl of Joel Quenneville’s reentry into the NHL with a head coaching gig, the focus is going to come back on Bowman as the architect of the spiral the Blackhawks find themselves in. In the event of another potential missed postseason and wasted year from franchise players, it’s Bowman that’s now under the microscope. It’s heat and pressure he can’t afford, and would do well to avoid.
The Blackhawks’ last days of a hopeful contending window depend on not only Bowman’s optimism, but his initiative.
“We showed progress from a year ago until today,” said Bowman. “We look at it on a couple-year horizon. Last year was a ‘low point,’ we’re where we are now, and next year we expect to be even higher. We’re on the right path.”