CHICAGO – For a second-straight year, the Blackhawks are once again stuck in the middle when looking ahead to the trade deadline at midseason.
They’re not in the playoffs at the moment, sitting six points out of the last Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with three teams ahead of them. Yet they’re close enough that a fast run to start the new calendar year could put them in the hunt, which is similar to the situation they were in a year ago.
Hence at his mid-season news conference, Stan Bowman wasn’t thinking too much yet about whether the team will be buying or selling at the Monday, February 24th deadline.
“It’s a little bit premature to say what our moves are going to be down the road, those are hard to handicap,” said the Blackhawks’ general manager. “I think the focus right now is to stay in the present. Look where we are, build on these next few games and keep going.”
That’s the intention of Bowman as he looks ahead to the next six weeks that will likely make up his mind on which direction to go with the team in the 2019-2020 season. At the moment, he’s pretty pleased with what the group has done over the past three weeks in which the team made up for a so-so first two months of the season.
Going into Tuesday’s game against the Flames before which Bowman spoke, the Blackhawks had won six of their last eight games, pushing their record back over the .500 mark at 19-18-6. A 2-1 loss to Calgary knocked the team back to even, but Bowman called the current run the best of the season for the team.
Still, is this group one that is playoff-caliber?
“We’re right there,” said Bowman in response to that question. “We’re a little bit behind the pack a couple points, but it’s a pretty tight pack of teams that are fighting to get into that. It’s been basically half a season, we’ve got a lot of hockey left. So at this point, I think the biggest excitement is that even though we’ve had five veterans out of the lineup, we’ve had some young players step up.”
During the news conference, Bowman specifically mentioned rookie forwards Kirby Dach and defenseman Adam Boqvist as two prospects who’ve made an impact on the NHL level. The third-overall pick in this past year’s draft, Dach has six goals and five assists in 38 games for the club and has been on the roster for the majority of the season.
Boqvist made his NHL debut in November as he played in six games before returning to Rockford in the middle of the month. With injuries hurting the team’s blue line depth, he’s returned to the parent club and could very well stay permanently as his play has slowly improved as 2020 begins.
“In Kirby’s case, he missed a lot of training camp with the concussion and we worked him in slowly the first, probably, 10-15 games, but now I think you’re seeing what just scratching the surface of what he can become,” said Bowman. “He certainly looks more comfortable out there, I think we’re giving him a bigger role, his minutes have gone up over the past month, and deservedly so, he’s played well. So I expect that to continue.
“But it is hard for those young players to be given the task of leading a team, I think they can grow into that role over the next year, year-and-a-half where they can take bigger parts of the responsibility, but right now we’re trying to get them acclimated to the league.
“In Adam’s case, he’s a little bit older than Kirby but he’s still pretty young for a defenseman to be in the NHL. He just turned 19 at the end of the summer. He’s got that ability to create offense. We’ve seen him score a couple of goals and I expect him to be the kind of defenseman that can put the puck in the net. It’s a valuable asset in today’s game, and he’s held his own defensively.”
The question now is if the Blackhawks can do the same in the playoff race, which is one that doesn’t have an answer at the moment.